By the age of 50, you have lived long enough to remember being a mature adult in what is now a distant era. I recently recalled a conversation I had as a graduate student in 1991 that demonstrates a key change in America’s “conversation” on race over the past 30 years.
A white humanities graduate student was a member of a campus organization that had brought black activist and filmmaker Marlon Riggs to campus to give a talk. The student recounted that in his critique of racism, Riggs had leveled some potshots at the students themselves. This surprised and hurt her, as she had supposed that Riggs would consider her and her friends on his side in having invited him to speak.
Today, that same graduate student would be much less likely to take remarks like Riggs’s that way. Rather, today’s “woke,” educated white people would quite often lap up being apprised of the racism inside of them by a black speaker they paid, lodged, and fed. That speaker as often as not today is Ta-Nehisi Coates, who charismatically limns America as a cesspool of bigotry in his writing and in talks nationwide, and is joyously celebrated for it by the very people he is insulting.
Coates is a symptom of a larger mood. Over the past several years, for instance, whites across the country have been taught that it isn’t enough to understand that racism exists. Rather, the good white person views themselves as the bearer of an unearned “privilege” because of their color. Not long ago, I attended an event where a black man spoke of him and his black colleagues dressing in suits at work even on Casual Fridays, out of a sense that whites would look down on black men dressed down. The mostly white audience laughed and applauded warmly—at a story accusing people precisely like them of being racists.
This brand of self-flagellation has become the new form of enlightenment on race issues. It qualifies as a kind of worship; the parallels with Christianity are almost uncannily rich. White privilege is the secular white person’s Original Sin, present at birth and ultimately ineradicable. One does one’s penance by endlessly attesting to this privilege in hope of some kind of forgiveness. After the black man I mentioned above spoke, the next speaker was a middle-aged white man who spoke of having a coach come to his office each week to talk to him about his white privilege. The audience, of course, applauded warmly at this man’s description of having what an anthropologist observer would recognize not as a “coach” but as a pastor.
I have seen whites owning up to their white privilege using the hand-in-the-air-palm-out gesture typically associated with testifying in church. After the event I have been describing, all concerned deemed it “wonderful” even though nothing new had been learned. The purpose of the event was to remind the parishioners of the prevalence of the racist sin and its reflection in themselves, and to offer a kind of forgiveness, this latter being essentially the function of the black people on the panel and in the audience. Amen.
Some might see all of this as a healthy sign of moral advance. And I suppose if I had to choose between this performativity and the utter contempt most whites had for any discussion of discrimination 50 years ago and before, I’d choose our current moment. But goodness, it piles high and deep, this—well, I’ll call it fakeness. The degree of fantasy and exaggeration that smart people currently let pass in the name of higher-order thought on race parallels, again, Biblical tales.
Coates, for example, argues in one article after another that America’s progress on race has been minimal, despite pretty window dressing here and there, and that there is no reason to hope things will get any better. Yet one can be quite aware of the prevalence and nature of racism in America while also understanding that the recreational pessimism of views like Coates’s is melodramatic and even unempirical. To insist that Starbucks or even Dylan Roof define America’s progress on race is as flimsy as treating certain young black men’s misbehavior as embodying the black essence. Perfection is ever a dream; we are, as always, in transition. Everybody knows that.
The very fact that the modern equivalent of the graduate student I knew reveres Coates’s writing is a sterling indication that America has grown up quite a bit on race even in the past quarter of a century. The fact that this brand of enlightenment has not made it to every barstool and kitchen table in the country hardly disqualifies it as influential. Anyone who really thinks that on race America has merely rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic isn’t old enough to realize that most smart white people as late as 1978 would have found The Wire about as interesting as Chinese opera.
Also, views like Coates’s qualify more as performance art than thought in their disconnection from activism and pragmatism. If the government is not doing enough to help black people, precisely what would a Coates offer as counsel? Coates argues for reparations, ignoring decades of careful argumentation that has shown the impracticality of the idea. Who would the money go to? And for exactly what? And whence the sense many have that to ask such questions is to miss some larger point? Is the larger point to provide fodder for personal atonement? It would seem that for some, bemoaning that reparations aren’t happening is as active, vital, and self-affirming as making them happen, or, better, moving on and considering realistic strategies for forging change.
The self-affirming part is the rub. This new cult of atonement is less about black people than white people. Fifty years ago, a white person learning about the race problem came away asking “How can I help?” Today the same person too often comes away asking, “How can I show that I’m a moral person?” That isn’t what the Civil Rights revolution was about; it is the product of decades of mission creep aided by the emergence of social media.
What gets lost is that all of this awareness was supposed to be about helping black people, especially poor ones. We are too often distracted from this by a race awareness that has come to be largely about white people seeking grace. For example, one reads often of studies showing that black boys are punished and suspended in school more often than other kids. But then one reads equally often that poverty makes boys, in particular, more likely to be aggressive and have a harder time concentrating. We are taught to assume that the punishments and suspensions are due to racism, and to somehow ignore the data showing that the conditions too many black boys grow up in unfortunately makes them indeed more likely to act up in school. Might the poverty be the key problem to address? But, try this purely logical reasoning in polite company only at the risk of being treated as a moral reprobate. Our conversation is to be solely about racism, not solutions—other than looking to a vaguely defined future time when racism somehow disappears, America having “come to terms” with it: i.e. Judgment Day. As to what exactly this coming to terms would consist of, I suppose only our Pastor of White Privilege knows.
Another problem is that I am not sure that today’s educated whites quite understand how unattainable the absolution they are seeking is. There is an idleness in this cult of atonement, in that it cannot get whites what they want. I wonder if today’s atoners quite understand that “getting it” will not, for example, make Ta-Nehisi Coates like them any more than Marlon Riggs liked the graduate student and her friends despite their leftist politics. There is an Old Testament quality to the Coates preachings, for example. He is unmoved by the deaths of white firefighters during 9/11, uncomfortable seeing his son as a tot playing comfortably with white kids, and sees young white parents with their big strollers as white people taking up too much space as always. The degree of self-hatred—if sincere—is staggering in whites proclaiming how much they “love” this kind of scripture.
And all of this, ultimately, is often as condescending as nakedly dismissive views of blacks were in the bad old days. I doubt most whites truly think racism is so acridly pervasive and persistent in this country that a middle-class black man ought to fear his children playing with theirs, or look upon firefighters barbecued on 9/11 as mere racists getting their just desserts. Pretending to believe this sort of thing is insincere and insulting. It’s a pat on the head.
Mendacious, even. I recently attended a read-through of a play written by a black man about himself travelling back in time and viewing plantation slavery. The leader of the discussion afterwards was a white woman of a certain age who attested to how taken unawares she had been to learn that slave families were often separated and that slaves were sometimes whipped to death. However, this woman’s age, occupation, and demographic were such that the chances are infinitesimal that she did not see Roots and 12 Years a Slave, has not read Beloved, and has not read the New York Times daily and The New Yorker weekly for at least 30 years. In other words, she was, in all of her good intentions, lying.
It is not 1960, and a person like her is quite aware of the horrors of slavery. This was testifying again—she felt it her job to declare herself hip to the horrors of racism. The problem was that the point of the play concerned the protagonist’s psychology. Having taken in her time’s directive to internalize and parrot the proper “woke” message, she missed the essence of the play and reduced it to a school auditorium civics lesson. This isn’t woke, it’s weak.
We have gone from most whites being unaware that racism was a problem for black people at all to whites being chilled to their bones at the possibility of harboring racism in their souls, terrified at the prospect of being singled out as a heretic, and forgetting that the indulgences they purchase and the praying they do for their souls has more to do with them than with anyone black and their problems. This is a white America in which the message has become garbled. Among too many, the activist impulse has stuttered, faded, and jelled into a therapeutic one somewhere between “I Have a Dream” and Between the World and Me.
Whites today are in a hard place on this, I know. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You’re taught that on race issues you are morally obliged to suspend your usual standards of logic. Faced with a choice between some benign mendacity and being mauled, few human beings choose the latter.
But it all makes me miss 1991 in some ways. I think that graduate student had it about right in being insulted by Riggs that night. She needed to understand that the hurt of racism can make its victims act out at times, but not to pretend to think she actually deserved the potshots. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if she today has learned to enjoy being told what a moral reprobate she is on race no matter what she does or thinks, and considers herself the wiser for it.
Let us pray?