THE ORIGINAL SIN: War on the self!

FRIDAY, MARCH 15, 2013

Part 5—In search of actual progress: We were puzzled by various parts of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent column.

Coates discussed the way Forest Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting. (Repeat: Was falsely accused.) This false accusation occurred in a deli where Coates and his family had frequently shopped.

In our view, Coates tried to cover a lot of topics in his 800-word column. To our mind, this seemed to rob his piece of clarity, including at the end:
COATES (3/7/13): The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.

And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.
As a tone poem, this makes sense. Beyond that, we don’t quite understand the reasoning. In particular, we don’t understand the way Coates describes his wife, who, it should be noted, didn’t write this passage.

Coates thinks the deli’s owners are good people, though he doesn’t say why he thinks that. He believes the false accusation was “beyond the merchant’s reach.”

For that reason, he says he feels bad for withholding his business from this deli, where he had shopped “with some regularity, often several times in a single day,” apparently without incident. (Like Whitaker, Coates is black.)

That said, we’re told that Coates’ wife isn’t like him. According to Coates, she has “often trade[d] small talk with whoever was working checkout” at the deli. But when she was 6, a little boy insulted her cousin, “and it has been war ever since.”

That is Coates describing his wife; this isn’t his wife herself. Having said that, with whom has his wife been at war all those years? With 6-year-old children?

Several commenters noted the oddness of this passage; we’ll guess that others offered ruder remarks which didn’t get waved into print. As a tone poem, that passage makes sense—and, inevitably, some commenters felt they could explain and/or defend every word:
COMMENTER FROM NEW YORK (3/7/13): All kinds of people have all kinds of prejudices. Everybody has racist inclinations, the "good people" and the "bad people." The columnist gives the impression he thinks he is somewhat immune. The truth comes out in the last sentence. His wife nurses steadfastly a grievance from decades ago and chooses to tar millions with the same brush. Thereby giving credence to my first sentence.

RESPONSE FROM CONNECTICUT: She doesn't have a prejudice, instead an open wound. She is not marginalizing a people by pre-judging them, she is saying, "If I see racism, I make no excuses for it." Big difference. If she sees bad people it’s because they have just done or are doing bad things—in this case overt racism.
The initial commenter said that Coates’ wife is gripped by prejudice—perhaps by a “racist inclination.” Responding from Connecticut, another reader rejected that view. There’s no sign that the second reader has met Coates’ wife, but he or she seems to know all about her. When Coates said that his wife has been at war, he only meant that she makes no excuses for racism when she sees it.

What is Coates’ wife actually like? Like these readers, we have no idea; we will assume that she’s a smart, decent person. Why did Coates mean by his tangy description? That point is rather murky. The nature of his wife’s alleged “war” isn’t made clear in this column. That said, Coates suggests that he is now avoiding the deli because of his wife’s question: “What if they did that to your son?”

If “they” did that to Coates’ son, that would be a bad thing. That said, various people seemed to be waging various wars in the 594 comments attached to this column.

Some of them waged the familiar war in which all-knowing white liberals drop R-bombs on everyone else’s heads, even on the heads of fellow white liberals. The x-ray vision of these people is quite highly evolved. For one example, examine this three-part exchange, in which a self-described “older Caucasian woman” gets R-bombed by a 60-something New York City man. Inerrantly, he was able to spot the “racism” in her upbeat remarks—and yes, that’s the term he used.

As you will see if you click that link, the older woman capably rejected this person’s R-bomb. But the world will never be free of these all-knowing types, who drop their bombs with abandon.

Other commenters waged a more familiar war, the time-honored war on the others. In the war being waged in these comments, the commenter is on the morally correct side. Many other people are not.

Most striking to us was the war some young liberals seemed to wage on themselves. To us, it seems unlikely that these wars will be productive, although there is no way to know:
COMMENTER FROM BERKELEY (3/7/13): Racism is a little more subtle these days, but almost as bad. We need to remember we live in a racist society and breathe racist air. TV, radio, internet, magazines, politics. It's racist. Not always intentionally so, mind you. But that's the rub. You can be racist and not mean to be. What's unacceptable is to not use every opportunity to examine your motives when you act or perceive or talk about race. It's unacceptable to ignore our racism. I'll admit, I've stereotyped, I've assumed. That's racist. I've made assumptions about some of my high school students based on race and class, and been disproven. That's racist. The question I ask myself is, What now? So I fight against it consciously, try to expose my racism, bring it out into the open to critique. And I try to bring it out when I see it in society too. Are you racist? Don't be scared of being racist. Be scared that you will live a life ignorant of the harm you are doing in our society by ignoring racism, including your own.

Every people craves amnesia over the wrongs that they or their ancestors have committed. We don't have a brave society right now. We don't have people who admit they're wrong. It's easier to pillory others, shift blame, drown our beliefs and values in our individualistic and escapist culture. It's easier than acknowledging the truth. But I can say it does feel good to admit that I'm racist—and that I'm doing something about it. Try it.
We’re inclined to feel sorry for this young person, who is plainly well-intentioned. We also doubt that his self-flagellation is the most productive way to go.

This young person is eager to R-bomb himself. In the process, he reveals a mindset we find somewhat puzzling.

“Racism is a little more subtle these days, but almost as bad,” he says. For ourselves, we’d have to say that the older style racism was probably quite a bit worse. We’ll guess that being hung before a mob until you're dead, having been castrated first, may have felt a great deal worse than knowing that some well-intentioned high school teacher may have the occasional imperfect thought, impulse or reaction.

Having said that, it’s all racism! And this young person is pounding himself for having those imperfect thoughts. Here’s where this sort of self-flagellation may end up:
COMMENTER FROM SAN DIEGO (3/7/13): [N]ot so long ago a childhood friend of mine told me of his realization that he is a racist despite his best intentions. He is distrustful of and uncomfortable around African Americans, and he does not like this in himself. This same man told me decades ago, in his first year of medical school, how his studies and the inevitable dissection lab made him realize emotionally what we had been taught—that all people are the same, our differences are merely skin color. What happened in between?

I tell myself that I am not a racist. But am I?

I find comfort of an odd sort knowing that my generation will fall away, and with our passing our peculiar prejudices will pass, too. I have no illusions that racism will die with us, but certainly attitudes will improve. There will be new prejudices and new injustices; we are an imperfect species.

I have hope for our country; I believe that our society will slowly, too slowly, heal the wound of our American Original Sin, slavery, but the scars will not fade for generations.
“The scars will not fade for generations?” Presumably, that is true. But this commenter dreams of the day when people like him will be gone from the earth.

He doesn’t imagine the ways in which he might create a better world, right now, while he’s still alive on the earth. He imagines the improvement which will occur when people of his type are dead.

This commenter shares a mindset with that young high school teacher. He is fixated on the R-bomb; he wonders if he is a “racist.” Adolf Hitler and Bull Connor were racists; it seems to him that he may be too! In this next comment, we see a problem which may arise from the power of that word:
COMMENTER FROM BROOKLYN (3/7/13): This is so disheartening. Thank you for coming forward and writing about it; it is important that these stories are made public. I'm convinced that the non-black population has no idea of what African Americans still have to endure.

But I don't agree with your assessment that "little has changed." I think if we young adults could momentarily transport back to, say, 1960 we would be astonished at the state of discrimination in the U.S. That is not to say that we don't have a very long way to go. But I think the point must be made that today, much racist behavior takes place in a subtler form. Saying "little has changed" is an overstatement, and I'm afraid you'll lose the attention of so many people who believe we've conquered racism. I have actually heard white colleagues of mine state their belief that "racism is over" in New York. There are laws in place protecting people against almost any kind of discrimination, and as a society we scorn racist acts and racist language. Everyone in our office is friendly! So where's the racism, they ask?

Everywhere. Presumptions, glances, suspicion, attitude, words—that often go unreported because in the overall scheme of things they are, one-at-a-time, more benign than being physically harmed, arrested, etc. But they're happening. All the time.
This young woman is thoughtful and well-intentioned—but everything is “racist” to her. The murder of Emmitt Till was racist. But so are the modern-day “glances” which constitute “racist behavior in a subtler form.”

We'd say those glances are quite a bit subtler. So much subtler that we might imagine finding new ways to descrfibe them.

Several commenters to this column describe the pain, and the pervasiveness, of ongoing racial discrimination. (“Thank you for writing this article...As a black woman, raised by a black man, married to a black man and sister to a black man, I have heard stories like this over and over. They are always sad, and always make me angry...”)

An Hispanic woman from Los Angeles describes how discrimination feels. (“How it feels when you're discriminated? As if someone dumps a bucket of frozen water on your head. You don't expect it, and the shock is such that you cannot speak or know how to react. You're simply not ready.”) Ironically, she then somehow decrees that “the columnist is blowing this out of proportion” because the deli employee “probably would have done the same to a white person in the same situation.”

How could she possibly know that? We have no idea.

An American woman writing from France tells Coates to see things from her point of view. (“I don't doubt that you have had some uncomfortable situations because of the color of your skin. But from the time I was able to wear a bra, I have suffered from ‘come-ons’ and ‘cat whistles’ from men of all skin colors except those who are obviously descended from Asia regions. I've been in situations where I have been fondled, cornered, beaten, and very close to having been gang raped. Thank goodness for the college student who stepped in and protected me. I still don't know who he was and 40+ years later I still think of his bravery.”)

That woman goes on to dream of the day when her gender, and Coates' race, won't matter any more. In the meantime, should that Berkeley teacher beat himself up as a “misogynist” too?

For ourselves, we would have liked to see more commenters offer paths to societal improvement. Very few commenters offered such thoughts. Many more were waging war, on themselves or on others.

We’d like to see progressives help more people learn how to see that these kids are good kids too. We’d like to see Rachel understand that kids in Chicago count as much as kids in Newtown—which is to say, a lot. We’d like to see Rachel talk about black high school girls who aren’t pregnant—or do black kids only seem real when they become “transgressive?”

We’d like to see the public told about the large score gains achieved by black kids—and by Hispanic kids too. We’d like to see people helped to feel pride in what those many good kids are achieving.

We’d like to see people helped to open up to the many good people found all around them. But people do enjoy waging war. And waging war is good business on liberal cable. It helps our TV stars stuff sacks of cash in their pants.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people get stopped and frisked every year in New York City. Eighty-five percent of these people are black or Hispanic. But we melt down when an Oscar winner is falsely accused in a case where we can’t exactly know what happened.

The actor matters; those other rubes don’t. Does anyone know what’s up with that? It’s very much how our world works.

What’s in a word: One commenter said the R-bomb “gives offenders a word to rally around.” We can’t exactly say she’s wrong:
COMMENTER FROM NEW YORK CITY (3/7/13): Excellent article. I, too, struggled with the idea of inherently good people who exhibited racist tendencies—not in the context of Upper West Side delis but another complex New York setting: Wall Street. Various incidents offended but I thought these genuinely cordial colleagues were not racist. I don't say this naively—I was always aware of my double minority status (black woman) and the challenges it would present—but these people with whom I spent 20 hours per day were not Selma racists. They just weren't. But the incidents were egregious—I was utterly conflicted in finding a label. Then I realized: they were not racist, but they had distinct & overwhelming racial biases. This may seem like wordplay or window dressing but I think not.

The word racist means and implies "villain." It means one believes a race inherently superior over the other. There are still some racists but they don't live on the Upper West Side and there're not many on Wall Street. What's really going on is folks still have default settings for races & ethnicities. "Black men in delis steal" is one. "Black women on Wall Street, while perfectly pleasant people, are not really among the talented here" is another. (White women get that one too.) My conclusion? Stop giving offenders a word to rally around. There's so much indignation when the word is used (and, to be fair, it may actually be not quite the right word) that we never discuss the transgression! Fine, you're not racist, but please, if you would, stop oppressing me.
Everything doesn’t have to be “racist.” Quite often, that word actually does give offenders a way to change the subject. And it helps other people beat themselves up rather badly.

This commenter wants her colleagues to improve—and not just in their views about blacks. The R-bomb may not be the best way to encourage that outcome, although one commenter said it feels good to admit that he’s a racist.

Hitler was a racist—and he is too! We don’t really think this is the best path for young people with so much to offer.


  1. Wow. Some of those earnest young commenters sound like they're in self criticism sessions in the Cultural Revolution or purge victims forced to denounce themselves under Stalin.

  2. Being in Bob's generation, I'm also struck by the way youth's view of racism focuses less than it should on actions. Sometimes words seem more important than actions.

    E.g., today's college student is taught to be careful to use the term "Asian", rather than "Oriental." Yet, s\he's not concerned about actual discrimination by colleges, whereby Asians typically need better grades and test scores than non-Asians to get admitted.

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