Instances of police brutality and killing of unarmed Blacks, first revealed by social media, have been a catalyst for widespread expression of grievances about racism in colleges and universities. According to 538, “the most frequently requested data by protestors was for a survey on the atmosphere in classrooms that would collect information as part of end terms evaluations of subtle forms of racism, often called microaggressions, that are committed by specific professors and lecturers.” Microaggression: “everyday verbal, non verbal and environmental slights, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” A far cry from overt racism and hate speech, the alleged “slights” or “insults” may be the unintentional utterances and actions of progressives who would be appalled to discover their unconscious racism. The solution: “cultural sensitivity training,” conducted in “diversity and inclusion workshops,” resulting in a heightened awareness of the otherness of persons racially or ethnically different.
Would it root out the racism? Not if the ideal of post racial relationships entails the transcendence of racial difference. Race, we are told by progressive critics of racism, is a regrettable social construction not a biological reality, and yet some of these same critics demand an intensification of the awareness of racial difference, presumably to bridge the gap of racism, I suppose on the psychological assumption that bringing differences to consciousness would exorcize them. The unintended consequence of cultural sensitivity, however, is a heightened awareness of the otherness of someone racially or ethnically different and the consequent inhibiting of spontaneous behavior. Friendship with “others” becomes awkward, artificial and perhaps impossible. The other turns into a cultural incarnation and ceases to be an individual. Cultural sensitivity does not overcome marginalization; it enforces it. The object of “microaggression” becomes the monitor of the speech of the aggressor. He or she decides whether a remark is offensive. (I hardly need to remark the threat to free thought and speech.) Since the cohort of “others” is not homogeneous, he and she may differ in judging whether a remark or action is offensive. Unlike the law, rulings on microaggression have no recourse to objective standards. We are in the realm of pure subjectivity, arbitrariness and the constant risk of unfairness in passing judgment on the putative microaggressor. An example: a friend of mine attended an academic meeting in which he had the occasion to characterize a policy proposal as “niggardly.” He was called out for uttering a racist word by a black professor present at the meeting. Niggardly and the n-word are not cognate, but it mattered not. My friend was required to apologize. He refused and successfully defended himself. (I write as a retired professor from one of the universities in which students have demonstrated for mandated cultural sensitivity training in “diversity and inclusion workshops,” under threat of closing down the university.) Both the alleged aggressor and the alleged victim suffer. As the lawyer Harvey Silvergate, a strong advocate of civil liberties, has remarked, “The obsession with microaggression reveals the emergence of a new moral culture, one we call victimhood culture.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent widely praised and sparingly criticized book, Between the World and Me, is a powerful expression of the sense of victimhood that, on his account, virtually every black male experiences in racist America. Coates’s subject is macroaggression (overt and brutal racism), directed at the black male body. What macro and micro have in common is a sense of the overpowering and pervasive presence of white privilege in the America. The book takes the form of a letter addressed to his son, Samori, on the occasion of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth. “The terrible truth,” Coates writes, “is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own…You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always in your face and the hounds are always at your heels…The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.” As a white male of Jewish extraction, I am not in a comfortable position to judge Coates’s representation of black experience. But I am in a position to hear what other African Americans have to say. In a review in the London Review of Books, Thomas Chatterton Williams, an African American writer, takes issue with Coates precisely on the question of victimhood.
“The essential premise of Between the World and Me is that Blacks in America live entirely conditional lives.” Williams cites a passage, which he characterizes as an illustration of “Coates’s fatalism.” “Coates writes of watching the Trade Center smoulder on 911. His tone is what’s notable as he recalls feeling no pity for the police officers or even firefighters who died trying to save lives in the burning buildings: ‘They were not human to me,’ he writes. ‘Black, white or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.” Fatalism, it may be, but it seems to me an insufficient word to cover what the overwhelming sense of victimization had done to Coates. It froze his imagination, that is, his capacity, at least in this instance, for empathy and sympathy for the suffering of others, including the black firefighters. Coates does not affirm the sentiment, and he is to be commended for his candor in admitting it, but it represents a persistent strain in the book—as in the following sentence: “The problem of the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.” (“I have raised you,” Coates tells his son, “to respect every human being as singular” is a singular offsetting bright moment in the book.) For Coates the only solution to the condition he describes is the complete abolition of white privilege—as if Blacks themselves have little or no agency in changing their lives. Against this view of black experience and possibility, Williams poses the question: “At what point might an oppressed group contribute—perhaps decisively—to its own plight?” He turns to Orlando Patterson, the black sociologist from Harvard, who, while fully acknowledging the role of white privilege, also argues for the role of black youth culture, for instance, “the predatory sexuality and irresponsible fathering behavior of young black men.” (One might also add gang violence. Coates dismisses “black on black violence” as jargon, but he in effect acknowledges it by substituting the more benign “culture of the streets.”) According to Patterson, “the vast majority of blacks, and especially black youth and those working on the front lines of poverty mitigation, have been convinced that culture does matter—a lot. Black youth in particular have insisted that their habits, attitudes, beliefs and values might explain their plight, even after fully taking account of racism and their disadvantaged neighborhood conditions. Yet sociologists insisted on patronizingly treating blacks in general and especially black youth, as what Harold Garfinkel called ‘cultural dopes’.” If critics of police brutality speak of a police culture, why shouldn’t they be able to speak of black youth culture?
Coates evokes the oppressive circumstances of urban black life. However, as Williams argues, “[i]n Coates’s telling, an essential part of the story of black life today—the only black life I have ever known—is missing. The capacity of humans to amount to more than the sum of a set of circumstances is ignored. The capacity to find gratification in making a choice—even if it’s the wrong one—is closed over.” Being a victim is a fatality if you’re incarcerated for an extended period or have an advanced case of cancer or an incapacitating mental disease, but it is a choice if you are physically and mentally able and there are alternatives to the victim state. This is especially true if you possess gifts of expression—as is the case with Coates. Coates, a writer praised and prized, has a choice; he can enjoy the success and admiration he has received, and he could have sent an altogether different message to the world and to his son. He has chosen instead to cultivate victimhood; worse, he has communicated it to his teenaged son. “I didn’t comfort you because I thought it wrong to comfort you.” He tells his son: “my work is to give what I know of my own particular path while allowing you to walk your own.” The path the book lays down is in the direction of despair.
For Coates, there has been no progress since the founding of the republic, no difference between 1776 and today. “The birth of a better world is ultimately not up to you.” Despair, fear, anger are the dominant emotions as well as confusion. He obsessively speaks of his wounded, shattered, lost black body, only to admit toward the end of the book: “If my life ended today, I would tell you it was a happy life—that I drew great joy from the struggle toward which I now urge you.” Why then the unrelieved dark vision in the rest of the book, and why was he unable to communicate his happiness (and its content) to his son and his readers? And where is the evidence of the struggle that he was urging his son to undertake? It may be that his experience of oppression growing up has simply overwhelmed his sense of the possibility of personal agency in overcoming it. Or, it may be that his literary imagination finds its freedom, yes its freedom, in apocalyptic language. Or, it may be that the choice absolves him of responsibility for his fate. If freedom and happiness for Blacks depend on the complete disappearance of all white privilege, discrimination and bigotry, they may find themselves waiting for Godot. The victim who embraces his condition tends to generalize his suffering, avoiding specific instances, so the person or institution targeted is helpless to do very much to remedy the situation, even if the person or the institution is in good faith and eager to remove injustice. This is especially the case if the grievance is global and can’t be made to disappear in its totality. Generalized suffering provides no handles for those asked to redress it. Coates names the unarmed black men who have been killed by the police (he was traumatized by the police shooting of his friend Prince Jones), but he tells us very little of the events of his growing up in Baltimore. Which is not to say that specific racist expression and action, of which there are abundant examples, should not be protested, fought against and redressed. The book would have been benefited from a richer and more sober recounting of particular events of racial oppression in Coates’s life and those of family and friends.
In an earlier piece for the Washington Post, Williams praised the book, in particular its driving home of “the visceral experience of racism,” epitomized in the following sentence: “It dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” He does not account for his switch from praise to severe criticism in his LRB review, as he would seem to have a moral obligation to do. What seems clear is a change of focus from the considerable emotional impact of Coates’s rhetoric to his analysis (or lack thereof) of the plight of African Americans and their prospects. There is a passage in the earlier piece that anticipates what Williams has to say later. “A people in possession of nothing but struggle is by definition a people composed of eternal victims. This is a blues that even Baldwin [Coates’s model]…could never allow.” Williams quotes Baldwin: “It seemed to me that if I took the role of victim then I was reassuring the defenders of the status quo.” (It is a disservice to a person to treat him or her, even with the best of intentions, as a potential victim. It is a disservice to oneself to want to be treated as such.) “Nothing but struggle” may ultimately be self-defeating, but Williams fails to make an important distinction between kinds of struggle: that is, between struggle directed toward winnable battles and those aimed at achieving the impossible, which means endless and futile struggle. It again brings to mind The Fire Next Time where Baldwin asserts the following: “In order to survive as a human, moving, moral, might in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long.” As F. W. Dupee responded in his review of Baldwin’s work in the New York Review of Books: “Since whole cultures have never known to ‘discard nearly all their assumptions and yet remain intact, this amounts to saying that any essential improvement in Negro-White relations, and thus in the quality of American life, is unlikely.” If Baldwin acted in his life as if this complete transformation were possible and desirable, his struggle would make him the eternal victim he eschewed. And he did not. On leaving a party at the Nation of Islam, the leader Elijah Mohammed provided Baldwin with a car to protect him “from the white devils until he gets where he was going.” Baldwin accepted the offer. He tells us he was “in fact going to have a drink with several white devils on the other side of the town.” We might take heart from Coates’s advice to his son to regard each human being as singular.
Again, to speak against victimhood one must not deny the reality of victimization. Michelle Alexander has argued in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness that admonishing black males for abandoning their responsibilities as fathers, President Obama, Bill Cosby, and Louis Farrakahn fail to mention the mass incarceration of black males and the grossly disproportionate punishments they receive for the violation of drug laws. Alexander, however, also acknowledges that the African American audience that heard the preaching of responsibility to black youth responded with applause. The need to reform our laws and the call for personal responsibility are not mutually exclusive. (Obama has embraced the cause of ending mass incarceration.) Cultivating victimhood only intensifies the condition rather than mitigating or ending it, and it diverts focus from where the focus should be: police brutality, disproportionate sentencing, job discrimination, gross economic inequality from which the perpetrators should be given no excuse to escape their responsibility.