We Know Less Than We Think We Do: Why David Brooks Is Not a Pariah But a Harbinger of Hope

August 13, 2015 | 2 books mentioned 23 13 min read

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“They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand. And until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…We cannot be free until they are free.”

–James Baldwin, “Letter to My Nephew James”

1.
As of this writing, the town of Ferguson, Mo., is in its third day under a state of emergency, following protests to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and the police shooting that injured 18-year-old Tyrone Harris, Jr. In radio interviews, Ferguson residents expressed unsurprising frustration and fatigue: “I’m fed up with it. I’m tired of it;” “When it’s all over with and said and done, we still have to live here.” Referring to the chaos that breaks out when citizens try to congregate peacefully, one man said, “I think next year, you’re going to see the exact same thing. And that’s sad.”

People who know me will tell you I’m not an optimist. The glass is usually half empty; the worst case scenario looms; I don’t hold my breath. At this moment, it’s particularly easy to feel this way — helpless, pessimistic — about race in America.

Which is why I am surprised to find myself rooting for — eagerly awaiting — something that many would consider highly improbable: a retraction and an apology by New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks for his July 17 opinion piece, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.”

2.
It’s been a month since Brooks wrote, in a direct address to Atlantic columnist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates,

By dissolving the [American] dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.

Brooks’s column, along with the voluminous online indignance that ensued, disturbed me; but I am more essayist than journalist by temperament, and so my response has been slow to form, relative to the news cycle. I am tempted to conclude, It’s too late, that ship has sailed (helplessness, pessimism). But then I think: “when it’s all overwith and said and done, we still have to live here.”

In other words, a plea for a mea culpa from Brooks is not just about words published on July 17; it’s also about something persistent and fundamental in how non-black people, conservative and liberal alike — who don’t have to live in Ferguson, when it’s all said and done — engage with black lives, and black deaths, in America.

3.
I am a left-of-left liberal who also happens to respect David Brooks’s pragmatism, his intellectual agility, and his clarity and economy as a writer. I appreciate his presence on NPR and PBS. I understand why liberal news outlets foster Brooks’s ubiquity: for all his alleged smugness, he praises and critiques policies and politicians equally on both the Left and the Right. Where he sometimes oversimplifies ideas, he eschews oversimplification of partisan packaging. I disagree with him frequently, but his commentaries don’t make me wince or shout. A low bar to clear, you might say, but a significant one, in this age of unbridgeable ideological hysteria.

This summer, in succession and by coincidence, I read both Brooks’s collective biography The Road to Character and Coates’s epistolary essay Between the World and Me. I found both compelling. The day after I finished reading the latter, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” was published.

Between the World and Me — a 150-page essay-letter from Coates to his teenage son, which describes a self-deluding white America that has relied, is relying, and will continue to rely on “defiling and plunder,” on “breaking[ing] the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation” for its peace and prosperity — has earned Coates an endorsement from Toni Morrison as this generation’s James Baldwin.

Brooks responded to the book with considered duplicity — the ultimate effect of which was to demonstrate precisely what drives Coates to conclude that

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct…sometimes it is insidious…

and to impress upon his son Samori that

my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic — an orc, troll, or gorgon.

Coates also invokes Solzhenitsyn — “’To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law’” — and then applies these words to the myth of the American Dream. Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates reiterates — through memory, historical survey, recaps of police killings of African Americans — that the Dream is a myth because it is available only to “Dreamers,” i.e. those who (knowingly or not) buy into the White “syndicate.”

This is the foundation of the Dream — its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present.

(This last aside — in case it’s not clear out of context — is Coates’s impersonation of a Dreamer.)

Brooks’s rebuttal focuses too on the American Dream, which he is eager to defend.

I think you distort American history…Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America. In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow.

In other words: the bad old days were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present.

As preamble to his hard pivot toward refutation, Brooks approaches then dismisses the crucial act of listening-and-hearing, with a rhetorical structure that is ever the enemy of authentic conciliation: I verb x, but… We’ve all been in these arguments with our loved ones: I hear what you’re saying, but you’re being unreasonable. I’m sorry I hurt you, but I was right and you were wrong. 

I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask…

Brooks, of course, does not have to do any such thing.

But he does ask. And what’s more, his questions are disingenuous: “Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?” The questions are disingenuous because he has already answered them for himself (no, no, yes), as evidenced by the publication of the column. The divestment of power by asking before negating is mere performance.

4.
All this said, I do not wish nor intend to demonize Brooks; others have done the job thoroughly. Rather, I propose that his column was not an irredeemable offense, but a concrete opportunity.

What Brooks has done is common, not extreme nor “fantastical;” no tobacco has been spat. Maybe I should just say nothing and let it sink in BUT is more often than not how a well-meaning majority person responds — liberal and conservative alike — when an unsettling truth about the foundations of her worldview and day-to-day well-being is presented.

The need to reframe and control — to redline discussions on American whiteness and the enduring structures of racialized injustice, especially when the discussion is not conceived from a majority point-of-view — simply exemplifies the predictable expression of white cultural power in the everywhere/everyday ways that Coates describes throughout Between the World and Me. Coates’s Dreamer dissects, double-talks, and reframes because she can; and because she cannot abide the constriction and instability she experiences within this non-majority-centered conception of reality; and because it’s too awful to imagine that it’s really that bad, now, today, in 2015; and because, Jesus, what if it is that bad?

No, no, it can’t be that bad. It isn’t. You’re distorting it. Or, as Brooks suggests, your realism is excessive.

If we can recognize that David Brooks is neither troll, nor gorgon, nor orc; that he is enacting what is enacted all the time, every day, by more non-monstrous people than we care to acknowledge; if we can quiet the Twitter indignation and see Brooks’s response for the utterly commonplace expression that it is, then we can see, possibly, the opportunity here. One worth rooting for.

5.
To those who feel that too much ink is spilled by and about Brooks already: the essence of the opportunity is in Brooks’s very ubiquity. He is a privileged public figure, with significant cultural power. He has a platform among elites across the political spectrum.

He has also just written a thoughtful book about self-inventory and moral depth — a book that seeks to foreground a moral logic in which

Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility, and learning…

The Road to Character is lucid and well-organized, as you’d expect. Each chapter profiles an individual whose “U-shaped” journey through trial, failure, and personal moral development Brooks admires: Dorothy Day, George Marshall, George Eliot, Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins, St. Augustine, and others. I found The Road to Character persuasive, and I believe it’s a book I will return to for insight on how to live, and how admirable individuals have struggled for that insight.

I also found it earnest. Road originally caught my attention because it is a personal book. In interviews, Brooks has discussed his impetus for writing it: how, in mid-life, he found himself more professionally successful than he ever imagined, but at the same time not very happy. He writes in the introduction:

Years pass, and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom. Not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth…

In the second-person “you” we hear an anxious intimacy, a simmering melancholy — the feeling of Brooks revealing to us, and to himself, that he has skin in the game. And then, he makes the inevitable shift to first-person:

I wrote [this book] to save my soul.

I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness…I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality.

I’ve also become aware that like many people these days I’ve lived a life of vague moral aspiration — vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose…

I’ve discovered that…it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve…you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else.

Notice the pivot back to second-person; the anxiety of a deeper self-revelation returns. It’s not Schadenfreude exactly that this effects in the reader, though perhaps something related: a point of connection in hearing this confession that being a well-paid Know-It-All is a problem with real stakes, a road to isolation and emptiness.

The Road to Character returns over and over to two core virtues. The first is recognition of one’s own brokenness. The profiled figures are all “acutely aware of their own weaknesses,” participants in the Kantian tradition of humanity as “crooked timber.” They also face down those weaknesses, work tirelessly at seeing themselves clearly and at getting better. In this manner, these individuals ultimately influenced human history and culture, far beyond themselves.

By successfully confronting sin and weakness, we have a chance to play our own role in the great moral drama…we have a chance to take advantage of everyday occasions to build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world.

Closely related is a second core virtue, which Brooks depicts as troublingly absent in American culture today: humility.

We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success. But that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character…

In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue.

“My favorite definition [of humility],” Brooks has said, “is radical self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.” Other-centeredness. Herein lies the hardest work for Brooks and Coates’s Dreamers.

6.
As a pundit, Brooks’s job is to say things and write things; he is not expected to do things. But as an author of a book about moral evolution, he has stepped onto the stage of moral action — in his own words, onto the path of “moral adventure.”

He writes of a desire to manifest “ripening virtues,” as exemplified by his subjects — to submerge his ego to a greater mission as George Marshall did, to respond to the broken world’s clarion “summons” as Frances Perkins did, to be able to relinquish ego-centered control as St. Augustine did. An email from a man named Dave Jolly  provides “the methodology of the book”: “What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life…is what gets transmitted…The message is the person…”

The convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me constitutes a summons — away from mere “teaching” via words, and into the adventure. The moral imperative of this moment in America centers around black lives, black deaths. Here is a substantive chance to build virtue and be of service, to play a role in the great moral drama of right now.

The July 17 column is exemplary, in both senses of the word. It does, as I’ve described, exemplify the common response when one is faced with a version of America that upends both existential and material stability. But it also exemplifies an honest, and failed, attempt at dialogue about race. If Brooks was trigger-happy, if other-centeredness eluded him, if he needed to get his word in edgewise, he is not alone. That Brooks’s from-the-hip response to Between the World and Me was unseemly, blind spots on display, is no surprise; arriving at something true and consequential in a struggle over conflicting realities doesn’t come fast or easy.

Meaningful transformation in this struggle might be compared to writing itself: you have to write the shitty first draft in order to move forward. Without the shitty draft there’s nothing to revise.

So it’s not so much a retraction as a revision that we need. The column is Brooks’s honorably shitty draft — his stumble backward from revelations about “what he’s paid to do,” a lack of integration between his moral aspirations and his habit of sending pithy, fast-finger bytes to print. He writes in Road:

We have the tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite…We know less than we think we do.

Old habits die hard. A person of character faces down those habits when it matters. We need Brooks to model the humility and courage he admires and articulates. And we need the process of individual transformation to have consequence beyond the individual.

None of this is easy. It’s messy and perilous — U-shaped, in Brooks’s words, not linearly ascending, and the U’s descent can be deep. A revision usually means more revision to come. There are not many people I would exhort to such public self-inventory. But the characters in Road light the way — with their willingness to fail, get better, fail again, re-examine what they think they know, then ultimately step into the greater moral drama that requires them.

7.
I started with the notion of optimism. I’ll finish with a word about hope.

Note that I have thus far used words like await, anticipate, root for, opportunity, and desire. Like “love” and “friend,” “hope” has lost its power and concreteness. Hope has become wimpy and puling and dishonest — the opiate of old church ladies, the toothless promise of an upstart young black senator’s presidential campaign slogan, a million years ago.

“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law,” Coates writes.

It is wrong to claim our present circumstance — no matter how improved — as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children…you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Coates’s rejection of spiritual redemption for the pillaging of black lives is a hard pill to swallow; it is also the strongest thread of Coates’s message to his son. But there are moments when Coates doesn’t seem to swallow the pill fully himself; where he expresses something like an inability, and a kind of awe in the presence of the very spiritual depths — I’ll call this hope — that he denies. Recalling his visit to Dr. Mabel Jones — whose son, Coates’s classmate at Howard, was killed senselessly by the police — he writes:

As she talked of the church…I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mabel Jones to an exceptional life.

In Dr. Jones’s face, Coates sees “the odd poise and direction that the great American injury demands of you” and compares it to the faces of civil rights activists in photos from ’60s sit-ins:

They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real.

I wouldn’t over-read these moments as actual ambivalence on Coates’s part about his materialist reality, but they do belie, in my reading, a deep fatigue. Hope — of the real, exceptional kind that Coates witnessed in Mabel Jones — is neither wimpy nor toothless. Hope may be the hardest work there is.

And yet still, the watching world expects hope from its victims. It’s terrible what’s happened to your sons, your brothers, your sisters, your community; but surely there is HOPE? Even if, say, you don’t buy the premise that today’s American Dream is a white dream built on black bodies, you might at the least recognize that we who are not black — and we liberals may be guiltiest of this — have built our sense of hope on black hope.

In the wake of death after death permitted by unbridled ignorance, negligence, and a heritage of hate (and let us not forget that these are only the cases that break into mainstream media), we who absorb this violence indirectly have become accustomed to witnessing, and perhaps now implicitly demand, the hope that rises up from ashes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching deliverance through nonviolence, members of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston preaching forgiveness, President Obama reconciling his white grandmother’s racism with his own black body and incanting amazing grace; the displays of dignity by grieving mothers and widows, like Mabel Jones.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates rejects that role for himself and his son, when Eric Garner’s mother will not forgive the police officers who killed her son, when some residents of Ferguson say they’re fed up with protesting, they are saying to the Dreamers: you’ve lived off of our bodies, now you want us to supply you with hope? That’s enough; that’s too much.

“Excessive” is an apt word for this moment, but it’s been poorly applied. What is excessive is for a white person to suggest that Coates should have a more hopeful assessment of American history and his son’s reality.

We must shift the burden of hope elsewhere.

Dear David Brooks: I hope that I have not failed to express myself as earnestly as you have. I hope there is enough humility in my words to convey something meaningful. I hope you hear in these words not petty attack but respectful exhortation. I hope the news cycle does not trump the moral adventure. I hope you know that I, and many who read Between the World and Me and “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” are on the side of real and truthful hope.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016.  She is founding editor of Bloom and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College.  Learn more about Sonya here.

23 comments:

  1. This is a brave and quite humane essay, Sonya, one that will could be unfairly lambasted by somebody. I wish I could share your optimism, but David Brooks, is a bona-fide professional troll who does not deserve empathy. It would be one thing if Brooks extended some genuine effort in understanding Coates in his infamous column, but, as he retreated into the amniotic fluid of his own self-distortions (while accusing the truthful and soul-searching Coates of doing the same), his failings as a thinker and as a human were quite evident. Yet the bona-fides of his privilege is overstated, driven more by smug pugnacity (“In any case, you’ve filled my ears unforgettably.”) than a real desire to understand anybody who is not Brooks. He does not speak on behalf of the white male at large anymore than Donald Trump does and his abysmal book is not so much thoughtful, as it is bromidic and delusional, particularly in his astonishing reductionist take on Viktor Frankl (“He had the chance to share his observations with his fellow prisoners, and, if he survived, he figured he could spend the rest of his life sharing this knowledge with the world beyond,” writes the egregiously pat Brooks of the man who sought meaning after toiling in Auschwitz). You are, however, right to pinpoint Brooks’s anxiety, but I don’t believe that Brooks is articulating anything that isn’t already known about the white male, whose viewpoints are presently receiving an appropriate referendum. One extends olive branches to those who are willing to listen, not those who wish to drown out a room with a rigid and inflexible viewpoint.

  2. This is really excellently and humbly written; thank you for writing it. I felt many strange feelings after reading Brooks’ column that were hard to articulate and I think you’ve done it for me here. (Side note, though, I’m confused about why you spell Ta-Nehisi differently.)

  3. It was very brave of you to admit to reading David Brooks. I wish you luck on your continuing journey towards a true understanding of dialectical materialism.

  4. This is an excellent article. I did think while reading this essay about the over simplification of Whites and Dreamers.

    What about the Whites who didn’t come to this country till the 19th and 20th centuries?

    What about the Irish and the Italians, who were treated as bottom feeders, building our railroads and cities, while barely bringing in enough for their families?

    What about the White men and women who fought to free slaves, stood up for civil rights, treated all people as equals?

    And it bothers me that it’s okay to say that person thinks that way because they’re white, because that’s marginalizing that person’s voice.

    I think generalities are dangerous. We need to be able to separate people, not on the color of their skin, or what their ancestors might have done, but based on their character and their actions.

  5. “A low bar to clear, you might say, but a significant one, in this age of unbridgeable ideological hysteria.”

    A bar this article fails to clear.

    Maybe people would read more if the writing world wasn’t “left-of-left.” Can’t you just be left?!

  6. Well done, but I scarcely think Brooks deserves you fretting over his banalities. Brooks is a milquetoast conservative, an intellectual non-entity. Like his desk mate Thomas Friedman at the New York Times, the columnist packages conventional wisdom as deep insight. He travels in simple sophistries that make the middlebrow pseudo-intellectuals gawk in amazement.

  7. If you trace Mr. Brooks’ career from the 2000s — when he made a living writing liberals-are-stupid-and-crazy hit pieces as the managing editor of The Weekly Standard — until today, you will quickly start to notice that Mr. Brooks is almost congenitally incapable of writing about America as it actually exists today, and especially allergic to speaking truthfully about what has happened to his Conservative movement and his Republican Party over the past few decades.

    As such, Mr. Brooks writes what I can only describe as Whig Fan Fiction: artfully constructed fairy tales which, over time, the astute reader will notice bear less and less resemblance to any observable reality.

    But Mr. Brooks’ fairy tales are pleasing to the financial, corporate, political and media elite who, in turn, enrich him and revere him as a model of humility and rectitude.

  8. The one thing you have to confront and don’t is Coates’ blatant racism. Anytime you say/write “white people” as often as he does and speak in generalities and conflations, you’re no better than the racists grousing about “darkies” on unemployment or welfare queens or how the blacks need to pull their pants up.

  9. Hi Katie N.,

    You’re right to point that Italians, the Irish, and, I should add, jews, like, say, Mexican and Arab immigrants to the US today were once treated as “bottom feeders” by the white establishment.

    But you have to admit that it’s not their kids and grandkids or great-grandkids that are getting abused disproportionately by the ruling whites today, nor back then. Back they weren’t getting lynched. Today, they, for sure, ain’t worried about their unarmed kids getting killed by random cops who walk away scot-free.

    Also, since all whites seem to accept a certain spite towards black lives from the justice or corporate system. Whites who want to be considered better than their ancestors and their parents or uncles or aunts who sanction over-the-top evil towards blacks have to speak up louder. They have to join the frontline of the protests against racist brutality in Ferguson and elsewhere. They have to protest against and vote against politicians who try to strip blacks of the right to vote. In short, whites who are not racist have to tell the world, especially blacks, that they are pro-black. They can’t be mute or passive or defensive or racist. The burden of giving America’s 400-years and counting “bottom feeders” hope is on whites who see us as fellow humans, brothers, sisters, community members screaming this spirit from their rooftops and through every mechanism of power available to them.

    That was my favorite part of Sonya’s essay. She shifted the burden of providing hope to white people. Coates does too. It’s a reasonable request.

  10. “Since all whites seem to accept…”
    Check yourself, please.

    “And, I should add, Jews…”
    Hmm… Problem with Jews much?

    “The…hope is on whites.” – a quote by Malcolm X?

    “…through every mechanism of power available to them….” … And then vote for Hillary Clinton.

  11. @SeanH “The one thing you have to confront and don’t is Coates’ blatant racism. Anytime you say/write “white people” as often as he does and speak in generalities and conflations, you’re no better than the racists grousing about “darkies” on unemployment or welfare queens or how the blacks need to pull their pants up.”

    hahahahahaha this comment made me smile cause it’s true. I think I read about how Coates feels afraid in Starbucks because he feels a constant threat against his “black body.” Good lord, this man with mental health problems is being taken seriously.

  12. Always Left: kids getting killed by random cops who walk away scot-free? Using exaggerating words is of no use to effecting change. You know most cops never fire their gun in their whole career. The American justice system, however, is indeed an atrocity. The number of black men executed despite human rights lawyers fighting their asses off, is staggering, and that is no exaggeration. Capital punishment in a modern world, by a so-called world power. Don’t say fuck in a young adult fiction book, it will be pulled from schools, but yes – execute that guys ass! Ugh.

  13. Alwaysleft,

    Human rights are a human issue. It’s not the responsibility of any one large swath of people grouped by their skin color to “provide hope.” It is up to every individual, of every color, to provide hope and instill in others the desire to do the same. We can’t move forward as a society if this is done piecemeal, each looking to the other to do it for them. That attitude fosters nothing in the realm of progress. And this is, of course, true for any human rights issue, not just race. I don’t know a single supporter of gender equality who says, “let’s let straight men figure this one out.”

    Grouping all members of one race or gender or religion as a single, undifferentiated mass sure is handy when you’re looking to demonize them, but it’s also never true.

    As Heather pointed out, there is a lot wrong with the American justice system (to name just one institution), but the ideas you’re celebrating are rooted in racism and that is not the direction we should be facing.

    In the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I have seen many “non-black” people in the crowds. They are there; you may want to consider why it is you think they’re not.

  14. With respect to them all, Coates and Brooks and Ms. Chung share a glaring privilege, which is *education* and (by association) class. Why are they published? …because they were encouraged toward a certain education, which gives them voice.

    Voice is exactly what so many Americans of lower socioeconomic backgrounds lack. Many (though certainly not all) of those are people of color. I am exhausted by seeing such an important national conversation framed as an all-race issue while *class* is left out of the conversation. No progress will be made until we address society’s problems more wholly.

    Certainly, no progress will be made while white people (yep, that’s me) are told to sit down, shut up, and accept whatever they are told about their own history and actions. Why would I let someone else tell my story? I’ve fought damn hard for my voice. Am I now supposed to give it away?

    Brooks was right to issue a response, even an imperfect one. Only when this becomes a *conversation*–again, an imperfect one–will our society arrive at a deeper truth.

  15. It’s the “Left of Left” that are the problem. In most, or perhaps all major cities with high crime rates and horrible living conditions, who is running the cities? Liberals. Who is it that has convinced blacks that they have no chance of the American Dream? Liberals. Who are the authors of Welfare and Food Stamps for anyone with a pulse, that have kept blacks in a sort of social slavery? Liberals.
    We are always hearing that there needs to be a serious dialogue about race, but when Whites speak the truth they are lambasted and called racists.
    If Coates thinks America is such a bad place then why is he enriching himself off of White Guilt. Let him try that in Brazil of South Africa.
    Oh, and the white cops who have shot black men in recent months get all the news time, but one night in Chicago would convince the country that Black Lives Don’t Matter Very Much…at least to Blacks.

  16. Kirk,

    Without addressing the content of your idiotic comment, what is with the Random Capitalization? At a glance, this looks like the track listing for an unreleased Smiths album.

  17. I recently read Coates’ piece in the Atlantic about mass incarceration and the black family. I have to say I can understand where Brooks is coming from.

    Let me see if I can boil this down:
    Coates: I have had a bad experience as a Black male in modern day America. I blame this on White America – the historical legacy of slavery, and the modern institutions that continue to oppress Blacks.
    Brooks: That’s great. You have your experience. I have mine. But people do still come to America like my ancestors did because it offers hope and opportunity. I am sorry your experience hasn’t been a good one. Additionally, to keep blaming criminal acts committed by Blacks today as a consequence of slavery is a stretch.

    Did I capture it?

    Hey listen, I think they both have valid points. Some thoughts:
    1) our experiences in life will absolutely be shaped by the life situations we are born into and the choices we make.
    2) Baltimore is a shitty place. No jobs, high unemployment, high crime, no hope. If you grow up there as Coates did, it is no surprise you have a negative experience.
    3) If you are white, it is tiring to be continually reminded of Slavery and Jim Crow. The Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery was in 1863. Civil Rights Act was in 1964. Please don’t say I benefited from or am somehow responsible for historic black oppression. I wasn’t even alive then.
    4)The underlying thread through all these racial discussions is an issue of who is to blame. Blacks blame “The System”, a white system. Whites, even sympathetic whites, think individual responsibility should take a larger role. If a Black person commits an act of violence is this the system’s fault or did he make an individual choice? None of us live in a vacuum but individual responsibility to better one’s own life is also important.
    5) There is crime. There is out-of-wedlock births. There is plenty of black-on-back violence. These are facts. We can argue over how representative they are. But it is a disturbing amount.
    6) Negative stereotypes – Do they portray all Blacks? Certainly not. I even hate using the term Blacks as if there was a homogeneous group. I find “Black underclass” to be a better term. How do we change the negative stereotypes, the associations people make? By portraying more favorable images of Blacks in the media. And then working on the difficult task of changing the underlying facts.
    6) Way too much blame game and not enough efforts to address the situation. I didn’t see Coates or Brooks make any recommendations. I didn’t see the democratic presidential candidates make any other than to let non-violent drug offenders out of jail. It’s fine to state there is a problem. But what do you recommend to fix it?

    Stop the blame game. Acknowledge the problem. Let’s talk policy.

    Jobs opportunities, especially for black males !
    Better education and training
    Policies that aid the family unit – not ones that encourage multiple out-of-wedlock births
    Rethink the war on drugs. Prohibition does not work.
    More positive images on TV.

  18. “There is plenty of black-on-back violence.”

    Either you are ignorant or you are racist. Please leave and take your garbage with you.

  19. The problem with this essay is that it relies on the reader coming in opposed to Brooks, and never itself takes him down.

    Brooks supposedly responds to Coates with “considerable duplicity,” but this is never explained.

    The summarization of Brooks as saying “in other words: the bad old days were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present,” is utter nonsense. Brooks said nothing of the sort. This was such a fantastic misrepresentation that I completely lost trust for the speaking voice.

    The assumption that Brooks did not fully listen to or consider Coates just because he disagrees with him is completely empty and could equally well be turned back on Coates. Married individuals, like any individuals in a disagreement, may hear what the other person is saying but still feel or see things differently. That Brooks claims he tried to hear out Coates is not evidence that he did not.

    Mentioning that the internet already thoroughly completed the job of demonizing Brooks was not enough. I needed to be told here and now how he was wrong if the rest of the essay was to have any relevance.

  20. Such a fascinating thread, one that sheds a lot of light on where we stand as a country. First, to the essay–I think its brilliant and important. To take both Coates and Brooks seriously, on their own terms, is a rare and brave act in a world that has poisonous pens and arrows lined up on both sides of the narrow ridge of thoughtful dialogue. But then the brilliant move of using Brooks’ own words in his Road to Character as the leverage to potentially move him to better understand the points Coates is making but which he doesn’t seem to understand is incredibly compelling. To the commentators above who have dismissed either Coates or Brooks as 2 dimensional objects of scorn this is of course no great accomplishment, but to me, it’s a much needed act of cultural diplomacy at a time when the battle lines seem desperately entrenched. And to the comments above, at least the ones that seek to understand and explore rather than merely sling mud, it seems that a common tension is the stalemate of “we should just get on with it and solve problems rather than complain about history” vs. “the legacies of the past have created unjust systems that keep causing problems today.” What seems to be missing in this discussion is a point Coates makes so well in his book–whiteness is not ultimately about race (in fact he avoids the term “white people” in favor of “people who believe themselves to be white”) so much as a membership card passed out to some–through policy–and not to others. If it were merely about skin color, we probably could just move on today. But its about concentrations of power, and the tendency to use that power to plunder. This power is in the hands of police (white and black officers deliver deadly force with public support, as Coates makes clear) who commit brutal acts, caught on film, and yet walk away unpunished. Its power in the hands of Wall Street executives who created ponzi schemes that drained nearly $4 Trillion from pensions, retirement savings, and wages of regular folks, and foreclosed the dreams and neighborhoods of millions of regular folks, and yet who walk away unpunished. Its power in the hands of Corporations who destroy the lands and the icecaps and the peoples who are not equipped to push back. As Faulkner said, the past is never dead, its not even past. Which is why Chung’s essay is so critical. The point is not to demonize all Wall Street Executives, or all whites, or all corporations. Its to name the brutality and injustice, hold people accountable, and to build an alliance among anyone committed to a world in which people are supported to become the best versions of themselves, or held accountable for their actions, irrespective of their race, social position, or ideology. We have to change the systems which perpetuate inequity, but since these systems are ultimately replicated through all of us, we have to change them by changing ourselves. I find Ms. Chung’s appeal to the best in Coates and the best in Brooks a refreshing move forward at a time when its easy to feel justified in one’s resignation. To speak of hope in the face of a history of violence, and a present of injustice, risks appearing the dupe; but to not speak of hope, and even more, to not work toward creating the evidence that hope is warranted is to chose either self-satisfaction or despair at the expense of a better world. For me, I’ll side with Chung, Coates, and Brooks, and trust that despite the tensions and misunderstandings, essays like this one can keep us moving forward together.

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