“esoteric ramblings about white-skin privilege”

A Deeper Black By Ta-Nehisi Coates appears in the May 1 edition of The Nation.  It’s an unfavorable review of Shelby Steele’s book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win.    In it Coates presents a picture of Obama’s supposedly ‘post-racial’ candidacy as not that at all; it shows instead ‘a deeper black,’ which is due to Obama’s acceptance of his ethnic identity and his construal of that as on a par with other ethnic identities.

I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of days and have wondered whether there’s a comparable shift that women can make or that some women have already made.  And then this morning I received noticer of a new APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy, which has a number of valuable, thoughtful articles on race and gender.  I suddenly realized that in effect the Coates review poses a question for feminist philosophy that we might do well to be aware of.  The question isn’t easy to formulate, and indeed there might be different versions of it, but its basis can be found in this comment:

This is the blackness of Barack Obama. It is an identity that asserts itself without conscious thought. It has no need of marches and placards. It rejects an opportunistic ignorance of racism but understands that esoteric ramblings about white-skin privilege do not move the discussion further. It does not need to bluster, to scream, to hyperbolize. Obama’s blackness is like any other secure marker of identity, subtle and irreducible to a list of demands.

And now I’m wondering whether my attitude toward the ubiquitous sexism of the academy is a good model or analogue for the experience of racism, as I realize I had assumed it was.  If the place of racism is  much more complicated in the lives of black students than we others might have thought, what implications does that have for our teaching?  Is Coates’ comment about irrelevant esoteric rambling something we should be taking to our methodology?  Or on a par with other students’ complaints about our wordy and out of date texts?  These questions are just that: questions.  What do you think?

Two more quotes may give you a fuller picture of what Coates is saying:

This is why all the fuss over how much or how little Obama addresses racism misses the point. Obama mentions white racism about as often as black people actually think about white racism–which is to say rarely.
… Survey the average voter in Harlem, Detroit or West Baltimore, ask her to rank her presidential concerns and see where “reparations” or “abolishing the Confederate flag” compares with, say, “healthcare” or “ending the war.” In the wake of Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia, the pundits swooned, marveling specifically at Obama’s willingness to say that those who fled inner-city America, who opposed affirmative action, were not racist.
… To see Obama’s point as a mark of courage or even a concession, you’d have to imagine a black America that woke up, every morning, thinking only about welfare and affirmative action.

… there is nothing “postracial,” “postblack” or “transcendental” about it. … Indeed, it is a deeper black, the mark of a less defensive, more self-assured African-American leadership. Our forebears, God bless them, held blackness like an albatross, which they sought to affix around the neck of white America. But this generation, Obama’s generation, holds blackness like a garland, sure in the knowledge that the only neck it belongs around is our own.


4 thoughts on ““esoteric ramblings about white-skin privilege”

  1. I haven’t heard of Coates before, so some of the following in speculation and interpolation based solely on this piece.

    First and foremost, there’s a false dichotomy in the second quotation. Simply put, healthcare and the war are issues with racial aspects. Due at least to the demographics of class in this country, African-Americans will be among the primary beneficiaries of any universal health care system. And, similarly, African-Americans are overrepresented among the front-line soldiers being injured and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Obama, as far as I know, isn’t giving an analysis of these racial aspects. And maybe many or most black people don’t normally think about the racial aspects of these issues, either. My point is simply that it’s a mistake to infer `black people don’t think about racial issues much’ from `black people don’t think about reparations and the Confederate flag much’. (And I suspect, anyways, that reparations and the Confederate flag aren’t likely to be as big a deal in Harlem and Detroit as affirmative action, voter ID laws, and other `obviously’ racial issues.)

    Back on topic, I think Coates is just taking one common stand on the old Marxian problem of the relation between theory and practice/activism: the theorists are off in the ivory tower, spinning out their esoteric ramblings (yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor), while the activists are the ones who actually bring about change. I prefer to think, in a Deweyan or Rawlsian sort of way, that theory and practice are two interlocutors in a dialectic. Loosely, activists identify problematic situations in an immediate way, and theorists identify commonalities between particular situations and provide conceptual tools. Or, activists conduct the experiments with which theories are tested. The interplay between the two improves our understanding and (what amounts to the same thing) tools for dealing with problems. Think, for example, of the history of sexual harassment.

  2. Noumena, thanks!

    I’m not so sure. I think the message is a bit more: look, we are as full members of this society as you whites are and like you, we are extremely interested in fixing some of the really egregious things in this society; stop presuming we are somehow concentrating on the things that separate us from the society, or that our interest is really a narrow racial interest. And that’s a pretty powerful message, one that really makes me worried about my own assumptions of the place of discussions of racism.

    It is, after all, a standard black comment that whites see a black and they see race rather than a particular human being.

    I worry about poor blacks; why should I ever think they don’t worry asmuch about poor whites, as indeed Obama purports to do?

    I now suddenly am wondering if a black person might look at white discussions of white-privilege and hear behind it a narcissistic concentration on power arrangements. I don’t know if many blacks do think like that, but I think that’s more Coates’ view. The article has a number of references about people just not getting where ‘this generation’ of blacks are coming from.

    In any case, there’s a basis here for an explanation of Obama’s avoidance of explicit racial issues that is different from the more negative ones that I at least hear: He’s selling out or he’s trying to avoid stirring up negative associations.

    In some way perhaps Coates’ interpretation of Obama could be taken back to Kennedy and his clarity on the separation of his country from the Vatican. One might say that people were confusing Kennedy with the earlier lace curtain Boston Irish. (Some of whom were relatives of mine, I should say.)

  3. V. interesting- thanks for posting it. Though I’m struck by something from my feminism teaching: it’s clear that most of my women students have never (or very rarely) thought about sexism before they get to the class. If Coates is right, then there’s a substantial group of black students who won’t have thought about racism much before getting to a class that addresses the topic. As I write that, though, I can’t help thinking that it just seems wrong. But what do I know??

  4. Thanks, Jender. There seems to be some tension between this post and the one before it. It’s hard to believe any young black person would fail to see the racism. So I’m not sure what to say, except that perhaps Coates claim is that they don’t always define their interests in terms of – or solely in terms of – their race.

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