LETTER: Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White – David Brooks/NYTimes
So David Brooks wrote this letter below a couple of days ago and got some flack for it, which Plato’s includes at bottom of his letter.
Dear Ta-Nehisi Coates,
The last year has been an education for white people. There has been a depth, power and richness to the African-American conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive.
Your new book, “Between the World and Me,” is a great and searing contribution to this public education. It is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it.
There is a pervasive physicality to your memoir — the elemental vulnerability of living in a black body in America. Outside African-American nightclubs, you write, “black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed.”
Written as a letter to your son, you talk about the effects of pervasive fear. “When I was your age the only people I knew were black and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”
But the disturbing challenge of your book is your rejection of the American dream. My ancestors chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.
Your ancestors came in chains. In your book the dream of the comfortable suburban life is a “fairy tale.” For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption. America is Egypt without the possibility of the Exodus. African-American men are caught in a crushing logic, determined by the past, from which there is no escape.
You write to your son, “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” The innocent world of the dream is actually built on the broken bodies of those kept down below.
If there were no black bodies to oppress, the affluent Dreamers “would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism.”
Your definition of “white” is complicated. But you write “ ‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining).” In what is bound to be the most quoted passage from the book, you write that you watched the smoldering towers of 9/11 with a cold heart. At the time you felt the police and firefighters who died “were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.”
You obviously do not mean that literally today (sometimes in your phrasing you seem determined to be misunderstood). You are illustrating the perspective born of the rage “that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”
I read this all like a slap and a revelation. 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, 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?
If I do have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.
I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. 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.
This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the 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.
Maybe you will find my reactions irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change. In any case, you’ve filled my ears unforgettably.
New York Times Columnist David Brooks Blasted for White Privilege Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Wrap
New York Times columnist David Brooks was slammed on Twitter Friday after he wrote a column — in the form of a letter to The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates — about Coates’ new book about the African-American experience and white privilege.
Brooks’ “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” compliments Coates’ “searing contribution to the public education,” but then switches gears to criticize the book, “Between the World and Me.”
“The disturbing challenge of your book is your rejection of the American dream,” Brooks wrote. “My ancestors chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.”
Brooks goes on to argue Coates’ book distorted American history and asks if he has the standing to criticize it.
“I have to ask, 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?”
Brooks, one of the most polarizing columnists in the country, has been taken to task.
Salon, which has made a sport of Brooks bashing, wrote a review of Brook’s column, and opined that “the Times columnist displays more white privilege in one column than some white people experience in a lifetime.”
Social media was even more frosty to Brooks.
David Brooks scolds Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I think you distort history” –/Salon.com
The Times columnist displays more white privilege in one column than some white people experience in a lifetime.
The New York Times’ moral scold David Brooks took time out from his very busy schedule to write a letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates about the problems white people will have with his new book, “Between the World and Me.”
That’s not to say Coates is particularly interested in what white America in general thinks about his book, much less David Brooks in particular — nor in the case of the latter, should he be.
Brooks no doubt thought it clever to mimic the epistolary style in which “Between the World and Me” was written, but he apparently isn’t aware that writing a letter to one’s child, as Coates did, isn’t likely to appear nearly as condescending as, say, a white male directly addressing a black man in the pages of the New York Times with questions like “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?”
He somehow doesn’t seem to understand that if you have to ask those questions, you damn well already know the answers to them. But the condescension of the privileged is a many blinkered thing, so it’s not surprising that it appears in many forms throughout Brooks’ “letter.”
There’s the knowledgeable lecturer — “You obviously do not mean that literally” — and the old man with children on his lawn — “You reject the dream itself as flimflam.” There’s the backhanded compliment — “You’ve filled my ears unforgettably” — and the historical apologist — “There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis.” And then there’s whatever this is — “The last year has been an education for white people.”
Making black deaths at police hands about the education of white people is an asymptotic display of white privilege. I take that back — it doesn’t just approach, it actually aspires to whatever the infinite expression of white privilege should be. And it’s the first sentence in Brooks’ “letter,” serving as an inspiration for all the ignorant ones that come thereafter, about which I can’t put it any more eloquently than NPR’s Gene Demby:
That his beloved abstraction — “the American dream” — might be a daily nightmare for millions of his fellow citizens is a point someone who castigates Coates for “excessive realism” is never likely to understand. But I suppose it’s all well and good to talk about “transcend[ing] old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow” when the only place you’re likely to encounter the legacy of them is on the way home from the airport.
Abandoning reality for being too “excessive” is basically his job, after all.
UPDATE: The original version of this argument identified Brooks as a “professional taxi cab passenger.” That, of course, is the Times’ other professional contrarian, Thomas Friedman – Scott Eric Kaufman.
Scott Eric Kaufman is an assistant editor at Salon. He taught at a university, but then thought better of it. Follow him at @scottekaufman or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.