Like pretty much everyone else, I love Ta-Nehisi Coates, but in recent years his writing has taken a turn for the pessimistic. During a recent argument with Jonathan Chait, he wrote:
Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past whose historical vestiges still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies--though not race-specific policies--which address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust. (emphasis mine)This kind of "nothing ever changes" viewpoint is seductive, especially to people who spend a lot of time reading history (as Coates does). Read war history, and you'll think that war will plague humanity forever; but if you look at the data, you see a very different picture.
Similarly, it is by no means certain that white supremacy will always define American society. Sure, white supremacy is still around, and is still powerful (see here, here, etc....there's no shortage of evidence). Sure, there will always be white supremacists out there - a chunk of white people who view the white "race" as their own "team", and who want that team to "win". But it seems quite possible that white supremacy will recede and recede until someday it's just one more toothless endemic disease lounging around in the gut bacteria of our national culture.
In fact, history and current events seem to favor that outcome. To say that white supremacy is as powerful today as in America's past is to deny rationality. The clearest piece of evidence of this is the election of Barack Obama. As Coates writes:
Barack Obama isn't the coach of "Team Negro," he is the commissioner of the league..."I’m not the president of black America," Barack Obama has said. "I’m the president of the United States of America."The election of a black president obviously doesn't mean that white supremacy is gone from America. But would it have been possible in 1868? In 1968? Even in 1998? I don't think so. Obama's two elections don't show victory, but how can you deny that they show progress? They mean that a majority of Americans (who are increasingly less white) has twice been willing to make a black person their chief executive, their representative to the world, and the commander-in-chief of their armed forces. When enemies attack the United States, it is to a black man that Americans must turn - have chosen to turn - to defend them.
Of course, presidential elections are mainly symbolic choices. But if you look at the history of American policy, you see a steady march of very big, very real policy shifts that have coincided with (and perhaps caused) dramatic improvements in the lives of African Americans.
The first of these, obviously, was the Civil War, in which the people of the Union fought (and took 646,000 casualties!) not just to assert Northern power over the South, but to smash the idea of America as a slave empire. The forcible end of de jure segregation was another blow to white supremacy.
Even after the end of official segregation, black people remained mostly poor. But in the 1960s, the black poverty rate plunged from almost 56 percent to around 33 percent. Some of that probably reflects America's rapid economic growth. But some of it probably reflects the War on Poverty, which included a welfare system, government efforts to end private racial discrimination in hiring, and various Affirmative Action initiatives.
In other words, in the 60s, while white supremacy was still strong in America, it was not strong enough to prevent massive collective attempts to improve the welfare of African Americans - efforts that, in retrospect, look mostly successful.
In the 1970s and 1980s, black Americans' lives improved in another important way: education. Over those decades, the so-called "achievement gap" between black and white test scores shrank by about a third. Again, there are a lot of factors that might have caused this, but it's undeniable that during this period, the American government was actively trying to improve black people's economic situation through Affirmative Action, welfare, and busing programs. White supremacy was not strong enough to prevent these initiatives, even though it tried.
In the 1990s and 2000s, there was another massive improvement in black Americans' lives: security. Between 1990 and 2008, the black homicide victimization rate fell by half. This was accompanied by a similar or even greater decrease in all forms of violent crime. The upshot of this is that black people, though still not safe enough, are a lot safer in America today than they were back in the 1980s.
Was this increase in safety caused by a weakening of white supremacy? Maybe. Many attribute the fall in crime to America's policy of increased incarceration, which has disproportionately fallen on blacks. But an improved relationship between black communities and the police may also be responsible. Research shows that black police are less likely to disproportionately arrest black people, and that mixed black-white police forces tend to have better relationships with mostly-black communities. And the percentage of police who are black has exploded since the 1970s.
The increase in the number of black police itself represents a weakening of white supremacy. Police are the people who are entrusted with a democratic society's official monopoly on the use of force - hence, when the police are black, it means that black people are the guarantors of all Americans' safety. It means that white people too are depending on black people to defend them. As for the reason why the percent of black police has increased, whether it was due to government policy or to decreased racism in hiring, it represents a failure of white supremacy to prevent more and more official, legitimate power from being placed in the hands of black people.
So over America's history, we see a steady march of improvement in African Americans' lives. At the same time, we see a steady series of collective attempts by American society - by black Americans, and also by other Americans who simply don't want our society to be a racist one - to improve life for black America. Whether the latter caused the former is almost beside the point. The point is that white supremacy has been desperately fighting battle after political battle - and losing many more battles than it wins. Again and again, America has been faced with a choice of more white supremacy or less, and most of the time, it has chosen less.
White supremacy will never die. But no movement ever dies. There are probably still people out there who think that Europe should be ruled by a Holy Roman Empire. There are probably still people out there who think Stalin's economic policies were the best. But to deny that progress has been made against these movements is to deny rationality.
So don't be discouraged by the pessimism of Ta-Nehisi Coates' post. White supremacy is not dead, and it is not yet dying. But it continues to lose more battles than it wins. America is not an inherently white supremacist nation; white supremacy is not in our national DNA. To me the evidence says that the willingness to combat white supremacy is in our national DNA.
Acknowledging the progress that has been made against white supremacism does not weaken the case for further action against it. In fact, it strengthens the case.