Ta-Nehisi Coates walks into an alt-right bar. The bartender says, “Why the wrong face?”
Richard Spencer walks into a bar.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asks.
Sitting on the stools at the counter are three Jews, one Italian, two Pollacks, three blacks, three Chinese, and two Arabs.
“White genocide!” Spencer yells.
“Not familiar with that,” the bartender says. “How do you make it?”
I spent a painstaking 4 minutes writing the above jokes after reading “How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power” by Thomas Chatterton Williams on the occasion of Coates’ latest publication, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. Williams writes:
In the study of German history, there is the notion of sonderweg, literally the “special path,” down which the German people are fated to wander…
A similar unifying theory has been taking hold in America. Its roots lie in the national triple sin of slavery, land theft and genocide. In this view, the conditions at the core of the country’s founding don’t just reverberate through the ages — they determine the present. No matter what we might hope, that original sin — white supremacy — explains everything, an all-American sonderweg.
No one today has done more to push this theory in the mainstream than the 42-year-old author Ta-Nehisi Coates. Anyone interested in the durability of racism in American life is probably still discussing his breakout 2015 memoir “Between the World and Me,” a moving and despairing letter to his then-15-year-old son that warned: “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at 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.” The book won Mr. Coates millions of readers and fans, many of whom are white…
Amazingly, despite his near godlike status within white liberal circles, in the collection’s finest essay, “The Case for Reparations,” originally published in The Atlantic in 2014, Mr. Coates worries that “today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything.” It is a jaw-dropping sentence if you take even a moment to consider the current discourse in progressive circles…
I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.
This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring…
However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.
Spencer and Coates frequent the same bar and drink the same drink. The difference between the two is Spencer spends all his time trying to convince other people in the bar that whites reign supreme over other races, whereas Coates spends his time trying to convince his own son and other blacks that Spencer is right. What a responsible father Coates is.
“Hey, Mr. Eliassen,” some of you might be thinking. “Haven’t you already written about Coates and Spencer a few times already? Aren’t you beating dead horses? Isn’t there something more important in the cultural zeitgeist you should be focusing on? You seem to just be phoning this column in.”
First, Mr. Eliassen is my dad’s name. You can call me Dillon; just don’t call me late for dinner.
Second, what do you want, more potshots at Trump? Or another article about how Harvey Weinstein is a hypocrite for being rapey while supporting progressive causes? The truth is, the only thing funny I could come up with about Weinstein is that he’s so ugly that it makes perfect sense that the only way he could get laid would be by promising to put young actresses in movies. The right have their share of hypocrites just as the left does, so singling Weinstein out only perpetuates partisanship, and I’m under no obligation to cheerlead for either side.
Besides, you shouldn’t need me to point out that politicians and big name/money supporters of politicians are not so pure of heart.
And that’s the way it is, as far as you know.