Supremacy or Privilege?


From the cover of Black Panther No. 1, to be published this year, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Drawn by Brian Stelfreeze.

From Dublin Review of Books:

The ubiquity of smartphones and dashboard cameras has meant that digital capture of police transgression is more available than ever, and the viral spread of incriminating video and photography is matched by the speed-of-light sharing of anger and reaction. Black Lives Matter, a grassroots, chapter-based organisation founded in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, has skilfully used social media to spread the word about racial injustice and to orchestrate action. Over the last eighteen months it has evolved into a high-energy, high-profile catalyst of much of the national protest.

The appearance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me at this important moment in the evolution of African-American civil resistance is not an accident. Over the last decade, Coates has played a major role in the shaping of twenty-first-century radical consciousness and become a principal advocate for a new activism based on an uncompromising reading of American history and culture. In a highly influential blog and several powerful magazine articles in The Atlantic, he has argued for a thorough reassessment of racism in the US. His 2008 article “This Is How We Lost to the White Man” challenged the black conservative tradition (especially as espoused by a pre-disgrace Bill Cosby) that favours hard work and moral reform over protest and government intervention. “Fear of a Black President”, his 2012 cover story for The Atlantic, accused Barack Obama of being a “conservative revolutionary” who “effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square”.

Coates’s most powerful Atlantic piece to date, the fifteen-thousand-word “A Case for Reparations”, was published just weeks before Garner and Brown’s deaths. Leveraging two years of intense research into the pervasive, long-standing institutional racism of housing discrimination, he argued that African-Americans remain, by far, the most segregated ethnic group in the country, and with this condition comes a “concentration of disadvantage” that has assured the persistence of inequity and stands as evidence that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it”. Reparations, which Coates suggests would be “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”, is the price he says Americans must pay to “see ourselves squarely”.

“A Case for Reparations” is rigorously reasoned and carefully expressed. Coates makes a point of using language that does not allow his audience to retreat into the soft folds of euphemism. “I felt like many of the people that I was reading in the ’90s,” he has said, were “burdened by the need to explain to white people. And that has an effect on your language.” So Coates uses the term “white supremacy” instead of “white privilege”. The US criminal justice system he calls “penal warehousing”. American history is best defined – at least from his perspective – by words like “plunder”, “menace”. “disembodiment”, and the most loaded epithet in the American lexicon: “nigger”.

Here is Coates, writing in The New York Times, on this last word:

A few summers ago one of my best friends invited me up to what he affectionately called his ‘white-trash cabin’ in the Adirondacks. This was not how I described the outing to my family. Two of my Jewish acquaintances once joked that I’d ‘make a good Jew.’ My retort was not, ‘Yeah, I certainly am good with money.’ Gay men sometimes laughingly refer to one another as ‘faggots’…

A separate and unequal standard for black people is always wrong. And the desire to ban the word ‘nigger’ is not anti-racism, it is finishing school … If you could choose one word to represent the centuries of bondage, the decades of terrorism, the long days of mass rape, the totality of white violence that birthed the black race in America, it would be ‘nigger’ … That such a seemingly hateful word should return as a marker of nationhood and community confounds our very notions of power. ‘Nigger’ is different because it is attached to one of the most vibrant cultures in the Western world. “And yet the culture is inextricably linked to the violence that birthed us. ‘Nigger’ is the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go.

All their guns and all their gold. The phrase has literary and historical resonance. It is elegant and concise, the touch of a writer who knows the potential of language and the emotional impact of the poetic. Words, like peoples, have complex histories and subtle present-day shades. Coates knows that the narrative of American racism is centuries old and will extend for a long time to come. And that any serious discussion of it must use language that does not deny the subject’s inconvenient truths.

So it feels natural that his next major statement is a literary one.

“Body and Soul”, Kevin Stevens, Dublin Review of Books