Yesterday I published a post at 3 Quarks Daily in which I quoted a July 21 remarks between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury to the effect that antiracism has become something like a religion. In particular, they focused on the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. McWhorter has now published a piece in The Daily Beast, Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion.
Religion vs. Practical Action
In view of that piece I’d like to continue the discussion. First, here’s a bit of the Loury/McWhorter discussion I didn’t quote. This is McWhorter at about 35 minutes in:
What we’re talking about as not worthy, what you see as condescending, David Brookes pretending to think that he has no right to question something that somebody wrote just because they’re black and they have a way with a pen, none of that has anything to do with being concerned with black uplift. And black uplift has to take place separately from that. It has nothing to do with Charles Blow and his artful prose. So all those people are going to be doing the Bible. That’s what they’re doing, I think of it these days. It’s religion and I can’t say it’s a terrible thing, but it will have nothing to do with changing poor black people’s lives.
So, the religion of antiracism is one thing while political and social action that will improve black lives is something different. One of McWhorter’s concerns, obviously enough, is that the religion will distract attention and action away from concrete action.
Here’s a passage from McWhorter’s new article:
Coates is “revered,” as New York magazine aptly puts it, as someone gifted at phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points that are considered crucial—that is, scripture. Specifically, Coates is celebrated as the writer who most aptly expresses the scripture that America’s past was built on racism and that racism still permeates the national fabric.
The very fact that white America today cherishes this religion is evidence that Coates’s particular pessimism about America and race is excessive.
This became especially clear last year with the rapturous reception of Coates’s essay, “The Case for Reparations.” It was beautifully written, of course, but the almost tearfully ardent praise the piece received was about more than composition. The idea was that the piece was important, weighty, big news. But let’s face it—no one, including Coates himself, I presume, has any hope that our current Congress is about to give reparations for slavery to black people in any significant way. Plus, reparations had been widely discussed, and ultimately put aside, as recently as 15 years ago in the wake of Randall Robinson’s The Debt. Yet Coates’s article was discussed almost as if he were bringing up reparations as a new topic.
Here is a passage from Coates’ piece that gives some idea of what he’s looking for:
A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.
John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
Coates had earlier noted that Conyers has been introducing his reparations bill, HR 40, annually for the last quarter century and had gotten nowhere with it, and all it called for was to study the issue. That is, all that Coates is calling for is a grand ‘conversation on race’ inscribed within the conditions of HR 40, whatever they may be. It is not a call to action. It is, to use a word that Loury had introduced into his conversation with McWhorter, an expressive act.
Its audience sought not counsel, but proclamation. Coates does not write with this formal intention, but for his readers, he is a preacher. A.O. Scott perfectly demonstrates Coates’s now clerical role in our discourse in saying that his new book is “essential, like water or air”—this is the kind of thing one formerly said of the Greatest Story Ever Told.