Saturday, March 22, 2014

White supremacy does not reign supreme

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.


  1. Interestingly, Ta-Nehisi Coates clearly sees blacks as his "team," as he uses the term "my people," to refer to them.

    1. That seems like a rhetorical device as much as anything else -- he is riffing off a metaphor that Chait used.

    2. Anonymous6:02 PM

      Now, I don't see race. People tell me I'm white, and I believe them, because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffet albums. I assume that people tell TNC that he is black because grew up in Baltimore and went to school at Howard. But since people have told him that, is it so strange that he would see himself as a black person?

  2. Anonymous2:40 AM

    Michael, if I was looking for someone to make interesting observations I'd prefer to listen to someone who has more than a caricature of perspective.

  3. Certainly a much more level-headed and empirical approach to race in modern America. Though I take issue with the second to last paragraph insisting racism isn't in our national DNA -- the history is too clear on that -- but indeed white supremecy certainly isn't today "one of the central organizing forces in American life". One can't ignore the progress that has been made since WWII.

  4. As a writer advocating for massive structural change, though, how exactly is he supposed to be voicing his frustration? Yes, I think there has been tremendous progress in the last century and a half. But I think the Zimmerman verdict was a watershed moment in the US, and Coates and many others are expressing an agonized outcry for the rest of the way. I don't think he needs a history lesson on how much better things have gotten and I don't read him for clinical detachment. And to be quite honest, I don't think it's our place to tell him to lighten up, any more than if would be for straight people to tell LGBT folks that they should be more patient for marriage equality. Anger and emotion is the catalyst for change, and revolutions aren't usually upbeat. Read him as a challenge; if he's going too far, producing tangible change that proves him wrong should be quicker than another 150 years. Because what I think he's arguing against is the idea that we've done enough, and the natural evolution of society will take care of the rest. That is something I think he is right to be deeply skeptical of.

    1. Guys like Coates thrive off of unfounded pessimism. This notion that educated white guys are forbidden from having an input on the progress of race in America is just silly -- almost as silly as those who said Obama can't talk about race in America because he has no connection to the African-American slaves in the US.

      You may interpret what was written as being "against the idea that we've done enough", but his words say otherwise, namely that he thinks white supremecy is a CENTRAL ORGANIZING FORCE in modern America, with strong implications that it is just as bad as ever and will continue on into perpetuity. These are falsifiable claims.

      So it is important for the peddlers of social justice doom to be checked by reality and data; and everybody is entitled to an opinion and to express it regardless of their background.

    2. Because what I think he's arguing against is the idea that we've done enough, and the natural evolution of society will take care of the rest. That is something I think he is right to be deeply skeptical of.

      Well, I agree. But when you talk as if no real progress has been made, I think that's not going to fire people up to fight more. It's going to make people despair of fighting more. If white supremacy is an immovable object, then the fight against white supremacy is a lost cause. Who'd want to fight for a lost cause?

    3. Every southerner ever. Have you been to a civil war re-enactment? The south lives for lost causes.

      On a serious note I agree with your main point. Saying we've made progress but not enough is much more motivating to me than saying we're beating our heads against the wall for a just cause.

  5. His writing conveys ingrained negativity and hostility towards bystanders that have nothing to do with the predicament of black people today. Black people need to look towards each other for blame, not white people or republicans. Black on black or black on white violence claims far more lives than white on black violence.

    1. I think assigning blame is silly, especially assigning blame to whole racial groups. That's not constructive at all. The important question to ask is what can be done to improve things, and who can do it.

    2. MaxUtility12:37 PM

      I think one of the key points of Coates' recent articles was specifically exploring this attitude that "Black people need to look towards each other for blame" and that the only major remaining impediment to african-american advancement is flaws in their culture. His dispute with Chait was about the fact that the "left" tends to do this as well if perhaps using softer language or more nuanced arguments to defend it.

      The notion that blacks have some distinctly and verifiable worse culture than anyone else and that somehow all current problems run directly from their own decisions and actions and with no connection to the past or current policies is easily refuted if you look at it anything like a serious way.

    3. Anonymous1:56 PM

      "assigning blame is silly, especially assigning blame to whole racial groups"
      wha wha wha???? White supremacy and supremacists, and BLAMING them, is what the whole discussion is about.

      The real reason Ta is getting pessimistic is that the biggest cause for increasing problems in the black community is out-of-wedlock child rearing. Having children without being married is, for both blacks and whites, a marker for much higher probabilities of low achievement of the children.

      You mention progress -- but the number and percentage of children not living with married parents is going up, getting more negative.

      Ta wants the problem to be racists. But the real problem is promiscuity. And neither he, nor you Noah, nor any Dems I'm reading, are being honest enough to state that problem. Racism is becoming a more obviously less influential reason for black poverty relative to black cultural choices.

  6. Noah,

    The basic problem is the way we legally define blackness. A single drop of blood (genetic heritage) of a distant black father or mother makes you black. (Jews have similar belief: if you are born by a Jewish woman, you are a Jew.)

    There in lies the fundamental ignorance of human existence. I have nothing more to say as it will only add in the ignorance of intelligent masses.

    1. Anonymous10:12 PM

      Yep, the human existence is full of ignorant people.

  7. Oh the irony. Black man writes of his life and the world he sees as he moves through it. White man disagrees and explains to the Black man that his life is not as bad as he thinks it is and then talks about diminished white supremacy. Good Lord

    1. I'm not explaining to the black man. I'm explaining to the people reading his article.

    2. C'mon you can do better than that. Surely you assumed that some Black folks would read your post right?

      Coates is writing about the America that he lives in right now, at this very moment. You on the other hand are writing about the America that you IMAGINE he is experiencing at this very moment. You've decided that the results of your Google searches and your innate understanding of the African American perspective tell you that considerable progress has been made. To some that smacks of white supremacy- "Hold on there, let me tell you what you really think". "Let me define the parameters of your grievances first and then we'll discuss how best to deal with what I decide the problem actually is."

      That's what I read.

      White supremacy is not in our national DNA?! Noah, white supremacy (specifically white male supremacy) IS our DNA- always has been. That's why you think you can explain to Mr. Coates what does and what doesn't pass for progress in his community.

      You're probably familiar with this quote so I won't bother with attribution-

      "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress ... No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I am concerned, as long as it is not shown to everyone of our people in this country, it doesn't exist for me.”

    3. Surely you assumed that some Black folks would read your post right?

      Of course! I meant that my post is not aimed at Coates, who I'm sure already knows all of this and has thought of everything I've said. It's aimed at his readers and potential readers, and of course many of those will be black.

      your innate understanding of the African American perspective


      To some that smacks of white supremacy- "Hold on there, let me tell you what you really think".


      That's so dumb. Of course I'm not telling anyone what they "really think". I'm telling them what I really think.

      Noah, white supremacy (specifically white male supremacy) IS our DNA- always has been.

      I don't think so.

      "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress ... No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I am concerned, as long as it is not shown to everyone of our people in this country, it doesn't exist for me.”

      He's always going to be disappointed, because no human of any race always gets respect.

  8. The problem is that writers like Coates understand racial equality to be a moving target. If we make progress towards today's notion of racial equality, tomorrow's notion becomes correspondingly more demanding. Obviously Coates knows that, relative to today's notion of racial equality, America was far worse in the past than it is today. Just as obviously, Noah knows that prejudices against blacks continue to pervade our society in various domains. What, then, are we even arguing about? We have two writers employing different notions of racial equality--one relative, and one absolute.

    If the argument is about whether the relative, pessimistic take or the absolute, optimistic take is better at motivating people to continue working towards racial equality, then that is fine, but I'm not sure Coates' stating the obvious and Noah's AP US history notes add much to the discussion except to insult the intelligence of their audiences.

    1. One approach suggests action and vigilance by constantly comparing the current status of African Americans to the current status of white America and the other suggests navel gazing, self congratulatory back slaps based on the distance traveled from chattel slavery.

      The former is progressive and activist oriented and the latter is conciliatory with no clear goal/perspective in mind other than "sho' is glad we ain't slaves no mo".
      Pretty clear choice in my mind.

    2. Fair enough, but the point is that there are facts everyone clearly agrees on: (1) a tremendous amount of progress towards today's notion of racial equality has been made over the last couple of centuries, and (2) a lot remains to be done. It's not clear to me what the value of stating either of these things is when everyone in the conversation is basically on the same page. If we want to motivate people, maybe just point out specific ways in which we currently fall short of the ideal of racial equality, and then propose specific changes to address these. Neither piece seems to fall into this category.

    3. "If we want to motivate people, maybe just point out specific ways in which we currently fall short of the ideal of racial equality..."

      Coates article spends considerable space doing just that. His piece deals with the dismantling of diversionary tactic used by many to avoid having conversations about race and/or equality. The diversionary tactic is to blame Black "culture" for racism. Coates presents evidence that shows that this "culture" has never been free of the effects of white supremacy and goes further to dismantle the idea that Black "culture" has ever been concerned with anything other than advancement. Understanding this diversionary tactic and rejecting it as an attempt to diminish/dismiss discussions of racial equality is one of the "specific changes" you requested.

      Mr. Smith ignores the majority of what Coates writes and skips ahead to his purpose by trotting out an older less sophisticated diversionary tactic- the unhappy, ungrateful, petulant Negro trope. He suggests that Mr. Coates is a "pessimist", unable to see all of the wonderful things that have transpired in this country. Less intellectually inclined writers usually list celebrities like Oprah, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan as examples of all that is wonderful about being Black in the 21st century (they usually save Pres. Obama for the closer). Mr Smith uses carefully parsed history and economics to make his points but somehow forgets to list all of the CR era inspired legislation that has been dismantled in the name of white supremacy. Smith would rather not entertain a discussion about the racism Coates points out so he attempts to dismiss him by characterizing his view as pessimistic by suggesting that we're actually doing a whole lot better than we think. After all he should know, right?

      Coates' piece elegantly deconstructs a diversionary tactic designed to perpetuate racism (fulfilling your request to "point out specific ways in which we currently fall short") and Smith's blog post looks to ignore that deconstruction by asking that we all just "look on the bright side" and wait for white supremacy to just die out naturally- on it's own, whenever it's ready... whenever the time is right... whenever.

    4. You're right--I made a false equivalence between the two pieces. Coates is making an effort to say something interesting about the form that racial inequality takes these days. Consider that claim retracted.

    5. MaxUtility12:43 PM

      @Nate - I think you're being way to hard on Noah here. I think he's trying to have an honest discussion and not deliberately trotting out the "petulant Negro trope". But the problem is Noah and some commentors weird assertion that Coates does not acknowledge any progress or thinks that white supremacy of today is somehow equivalent to that of the past. That just seems like such a shallow reading of Coates articles.

  9. Anonymous3:00 PM

    It is true that there has been progress on treatment of blacks in America - from slaves - a condition codified by the US Constitution - they have become more or less normal members of American society - that is, the overt oppressive action of the state have been systematically eliminated. But white racism remains a powerful force in America today. The Republican Party would not exist in its present form without it - orchestrating white racism is the number one tool it uses to achieve its ends. And it looks like it will control the Senate and the House after the next election.

    1. And it looks like it will control the Senate and the House after the next election.

      What dreadful thought, actually worse than whiteness, blackness and all that may be in between.

    2. Utter b.s. White supremacy is a marginal belief in the US today. That contrasts pretty sharply with the US only 40-50 years ago. The vast majority of Americans - including conservatives and Republicans - reject white supremacy as a political philosophy and while they may suffer from prejudice (being only human and not saints), they know that prejudice is a sin and are willing to accept the role of law in constraining choices based on prejudice. None of this, of course, has anything at all to do with the growth and persistence of the black underclass. Coates's explanation for the black underclass fails to account for the indisputable fact that there is far less prejudice against blacks in the US today than 50 years ago. That is why he can't be taken seriously.

    3. MaxUtility12:48 PM

      "Coates's explanation for the black underclass fails to account for the indisputable fact that there is far less prejudice against blacks"

      I simply do not understand how you see this in Coates' writing. Are you asserting that somehow the existence of an underclass is directly tied to the current exact ratio of prejudice and will magically adjust as incremental improvements are made. If if you tried to make the claim that at the current time there is zero racial prejudice, do you believe that somehow there will be no lingering effects from centuries of a coordinated campaign to disenfranchise and impoverish people?

  10. Anonymous11:08 PM

    Do you even disagree with Coates? You focus on his line "[white supremacy] will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust," but you agree that white supremacy will remain a powerful and significant part of America, even if it loses ground over the centuries. It seems that your main difference is one of tone and perspective.

    Coates didn't say nothing would ever change, and he's also speaking to a totally different issue, the question of "black pathology".

    1. MaxUtility12:53 PM

      Exactly. Noah's central premise seems to be that Coates does not acknowledge any progress. That just seems to be a bizarre takeaway from Coates' writing. Unless you demand that any reference to white supremacy must always include the disclaimer "of course we all know things are soooo much better than they used to be."

      Coates does take a pretty dark tone and tries I think to point directly at uncomfortable truths that many of us would prefer to think we're past. For some reason, this seems to lead many otherwise smart, thoughtful people to misunderstand him or take offense.

  11. Anonymous1:01 AM

    Not sure if the previous post worked. Maybe posting as Anonymous will.

    Pinker's full of it. He isn't honestly presenting the data.

    As for "white supremacy", it was never really about racism anyway. It was about economic power, and separating the poor whites from poor blacks made it easier to control both populations (this became very literally true after a few mixed-race bondsman rebellions). But today this is still true - the inhabitants of inner cities, primarily black, have little to no use in American capitalism except as profitable prisoners. This is the fundamental reason why things are still so bad, leaking into race relations and everything else - but it's a reason that isn't going to be mainstream anytime soon, as it has other threatening implications.

  12. There are probably still people out there who think that Europe should be ruled by a Holy Roman Empire.

    Some Austrian economists, also neoreactionists.

  13. Anonymous3:48 AM

    I feel certain we're approaching the time when all of us , of all races , religions , etc. , will be treated equally. Well , let's say 99% of us , anyway.

    The 1% will treat us all equally , as slaves.

    Don't despair folks , we're almost there !

  14. This is silly--of course Coates knows there has been progress, and whether or not the country will ever be purged of racism is impossible to know (hard even to define). And it's tough, especially as a white man, to celebrate progress against racism, since you are always opening yourself to the criticism that you are not giving enough attention to the truly awful state of things as they continue to be. Nevertheless, let me add my mite to the pile of evidence of progress. WHen I started teaching high school en years ago, my school's cafeteria always had several tables that were all-black (we also had tables that were all-Russian, or all-Chinese, or all-lacrosse, etc.). But over the past several years there has been notable progress, and now there is almost never even one table that doesn't have at least one white or asian kid sitting at it. Along with other signs (more interracial couples, etc.), this increased mixing of the cafeteria has been just amazing to see. I really never thought it would happen in my career as a teacher. And yet it has. To be sure, the school is still deeply unequal, and the black kids have a much tougher time in many, many ways, but things are very noticeably better now than ten years ago.

  15. Anonymous1:19 PM

    Interesting post, as is Coates's. You both have really valid points. Although I'm a fat old white guy, I've never had much money and so have lived most my life in urban areas largely populated with "minorities." I can never feel the way Coates does, but for decades I've seen my honest, intelligent, hard-working friends and neighbors overlooked or mistreated because of their ethnicity. On the street, in class, or in the boardroom, same old stuff. Yeah, it's getting better, but there's a hellofa long way to go.

    Anyway, a tidbit: some researchers now think much of the reduction in urban violence has been due to the elimination of lead in the air and in paint.

    Also, could you add Discus to your comment choices?

  16. "But would it have been possible in 1868? In 1968? Even in 1998?"

    I would put the first plausible year for an African American to be elected president at 1992. For an African American not named "Colin Powell," you may be right.

  17. "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.'"

    Someone may have already pointed this out, but I don't think you properly understood what Coates meant by "white supremacy." He's not referring to "white supremacists" in the traditional sense--people who believe that the white race is superior to all others--but to a endemic institutional bias that favors white people over minorities (specifically African-Americans in this case). Coates argues that the federal government essentially sanctioned terrorism against African-Americans through legalized slavery--and later on, segregation. That point is crucial. For Coates, the problem lies not in what individuals feel in their hearts regarding race; it lies in the U.S. government's willingness to either adopt laws and policies that further discrimination (see the War on Drugs), or to refuse to put laws on the books to curtail discrimination against African-Americans (see America post-slavery). That's his point. Now, you can reasonably suggest that he's not giving the U.S. enough credit for gradually ending those discriminatory institutions (as Chait does in his rebuttal today), but it's important to frame Coates's positions as one of institutional critique.

  18. Noah, beyond the several other good points made about white supremacy, I feel like you were pretty rose-colored with your financial data. What about the racially targeted subprime loans ( & the growth in wealth gap (