Ta-Nehisi Coates hasn’t been writing in the daily political discourse, but that hasn’t stopped other people from writing around him. “Ta-Nehisi Coates” is a marker to argue against, an avatar of “identity politics” or “pessimism” or “reparations,” and it’s a relatively easy argument, since he hasn’t been around. A certain type of hustler feels empowered to throw old arguments at his name, as if they’re new ones, and to take the lack of response as a sign that they’re winning.
Yesterday, New York magazine published an interview with Coates, by Eric Levitz. It was welcome to see him reappear at all, in a world where David Brooks now supports reparations, but it was even more welcome to see him thinking out loud. The habit of treating Coates as a set of positions, rather than as a person engaged in argument, tends to make his topics themselves seem static—which is how the reactionary side prefers things to be: if the discussion goes nowhere, then neither does American racism. The governing premise is that nothing can be done about it, or nothing needs to be done about it.
Coates’ project has been to make the discussion possible. “The Case for Reparations” wasn’t dedicated to demanding reparations, but to getting people to engage with reparations as a live question at all. He said as much in the interview:
When I wrote “The Case for Reparations,” my notion wasn’t that you could actually get reparations passed, even in my lifetime. My notion was that you could get people to stop laughing. My notion was you could actually have people say, “Oh, shit. This actually isn’t a crazy idea. This actually isn’t insane.” And then, once you got them to stop laughing, you could get them to start fighting. And so it doesn’t particularly surprise me that reparations is unpopular. A part of it being unpopular is the people who have the megaphone not taking it seriously at all.
What was striking about the interview, though, was the way Coates did all the things that the people who pretend to debate him in effigy don’t do. He absorbed criticisms, tested his own beliefs, considered new evidence. He was trying to solve things, not settle them. (“I’m always gonna be the guy that did not think we would have a black president in my lifetime,” he said. “You need to take that in consideration when you hear any sort of prognostication from me.”)
He acknowledged the gap between his criticisms of the way Obama lectured black audiences on responsibility and the way the community in general seemed to have felt, and extended that reasoning to Kamala Harris’ history as a heavy-handed prosecutor: “I am not yet convinced that people are going to be as concerned, that voters are gonna be as concerned about it as I would like them to be.”
Most political commentary depends on pretending that distance, between what the writer thinks should happen and the public thinks should happen, can be closed by one good argument. Coates works within the consciousness of actual American history, where the right arguments have often enough sat unheeded for generations or centuries, and where the wrong ones have assumed the force of common sense or fact. Nothing is gained without working for it, and not necessarily even then.
And you can’t create a clean slate by pretending that the past didn’t happen, or that facts aren’t facts. Glibness is useless whether looking forward or back. Don’t universal programs like Social Security, Levitz asked, benefit black people without being racially targeted? Coates replied:
Look, I can agree with you about Social Security, right? But when I hear that, I think about my great-grandparents. And it’s nice that, at this point in time, that we have a Social Security program that we would support. But the price of that was my great-grandparents not being eligible for it. Do you understand what I’m saying? Actual people, because of how Social Security was actually passed, because of who could qualify for it and who could not. So I can’t in my mind say, “It’s fine because it all worked out in the end.”
The question wasn’t just answered, but weighed. The tension between racial justice and universalized economic justice is a real one, requiring real consideration. When Coates is offstage, the easy claim from the left is that he’s too rigidly locked into talking about racism and its remedies to work with larger economic questions. In the interview, he made it clear he was following and absorbing the questions:
Folks rightly get skittish about a straight-up exchange of private property, period, without any sort of reform to the larger economic project, right?
….Because the point of reparations is to destroy white supremacy, not displace its emphasis. Not integrate black people into its most acquisitive functions. It’s to question and assault the entire paradigm. But that is why it makes me really nervous when I see leftists saying, “We should abandon the whole project altogether.” Because I feel like the way to counter that is to get into the debate. Okay, so you don’t like reparations being talked about strictly in terms of capitalism and market. Well, let’s think about it in another way. Let’s think about cooperatives. Let’s think about something more transformative. Let’s ask, you know, should I be in line in the same way that somebody that has been living in the projects for generations should be in line? You understand what I’m saying? Let’s ask how we deal with class within the African-American community. But we can’t have a debate if people leave the room.
Much of the discussion—the worst of the discussion—around Coates as a figure comes down to status-wrestling over the title of “public intellectual.” By what he said and how he said it, he was inviting people to try doing intellectual work in public, instead.