This week, New York magazine ran a nearly 6,000 word piece by Lyle Ashton Harris on columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates, the widely-praised writer for The Atlantic who has now been dubbed the voice of black America.
The piece is an absolutely uncritical look at Coates – an atheist militant who sees a racist infrastructure lurking behind every act in American life, and who admits freely that he felt nothing while watching 9/11 occur from a rooftop apartment while high: “he watched 9/11, slightly stoned, on the roof of his Brooklyn building, he recalls that he felt nothing at all.” America, after all, had it coming, as he wrote to his son later: “You must always remember, that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
Coates is, in other words, an areligious, far more intelligent Jeremiah Wright. This makes him the perfect antidote to the optimistic foolishness of Americans, New York believes, who bought into the notion that Barack Obama’s presidency would calm the racial waters. Coates has been praised by renowned racial healer Toni Morrison (“I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back”) and called the next James Baldwin (“if you are born under the circumstances in which most black people in the West are born… it is perfectly true that you see that the destruction of the Christian Church as it is presently constituted may not only be desirable but necessary”).
“Coates,” says Harris, “has often been a critic of the president from the left – of his instinct to submerge race in talk of class, of his moralizing to black audiences.” Harris says, “Against the optimism of the Obama ascendancy, Coates offered a bleaker view: that no postracial era was imminent, that white supremacy has been a condition of the United States since its inception and that it might always be.”
The media embrace of this nihilistic and counterfactual viewpoint demonstrates the media’s obsession with racism as a point of American conflict – a conflict that must be kept fresh, an open wound, so as to maximize the power of the government. Coates provides a convenient counter for the media with regard to Obama. Obama has polarized the country along racial lines for years, whether by suggesting Trayvon Martin was his fictional son, or by justifying rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore. But in order to paint Obama as a racial moderate, a contrast must be created: at least Obama isn’t Ta-Nehisi Coates! Thus, Coates has been praised by the media for keeping Obama honest; Obama has been praised for promoting optimism and not embracing pessimism.
Thus, Coates has called for slavery reparations on the basis of the Michael Brown shooting (Brown attacked a police officer and attempted to take his gun before being shot) and Walter Scott (the officer was prosecuted). He was confused by the country’s general willingness to take down the Confederate flag. He refused to believe the sincerity of members of the families of the slain in Charleston when they said they wanted to grant the killer forgiveness. Harris says Coates “believes in the power of social structures, not in the power of emotions,” but all of his arguments about social structures are based on emotion rather than evidence.
Coates’ background is even more radical than Obama’s: he grew up in Baltimore, the son of a Black Panther and “radical librarian” (this is usually code for communist in New York speak) who fathered seven children from four women. In his book, Coates blames his childhood not on his apparently reprobate dad, but on the society at large: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world. The nakedness is not an error, nor the import of deviant culture. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy.” Not a policy of dependency, of course: a policy of white supremacy, with which Coates became obsessed, finding conspiracies in his Cheerios to the cheers of the left. He blames white supremacy for his father physically abusing him:
My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that was exactly what was happening all around us.
Coates went to Howard University, where his radicalism was quickly reinforced. He then left college (he, unlike Scott Walker, is characterized as a genius) and wrote on-and-off for various publications before settling down at The Atlantic, where he finally had time to bone up on incorrect historical narratives:
Reading new books, trading notes with his commenters, Coates sharpened his sense of the historical weight of white supremacy: The Civil War was fought over slavery and nothing else; the American Dream could not be separated from slavery because “slavery was the dream.”
All dreams of American goodness must be slain, Coates believes. Coates’ rise – the respect he has garnered from the mainstream left – makes perfect sense in light of the Obama/Coates dichotomy. If Obama is to be the new Martin Luther King, Jr., despite his legacy of racial divisiveness, then he needs a Malcolm X. Coates plays that role to perfection. Coates is the cattle prod spurring white leftists to a constant sense of guilt; Obama is the promised salvation. But at no point will that salvation be delivered. As Harris puts it:
Coates’s quarrel isn’t really with Obama, in the end, or with civil-rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. It is instead with the metaphors through which they made a compromise with the country — Obama as the embodiment of hope and King the embodiment of dreams. These formulations gave white liberals a pass….Coates’s writing takes an almost opposite position: that religion is blindness, and that if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.
The New York piece concludes with a bizarre account of an event for The Atlantic in Colorado, at which Coates makes white leftists uncomfortable, and they uncomfortably attempt to avoid pushing his hot buttons – and, of course, fail. Coates is treated as a celebrity, with the mayor of New Orleans constantly paying homage to him. The white upper crust leftists who spend $9,000 on tickets are perfectly happy to play Leonard Bernstein in this version of radical chic. In the end, it turns out, Coates is moving to France for a year. Says Harris, “It is also the instinct of a survivor, who realizes his home is fundamentally inhospitable: to keep an eye on the exits, and to map out the routes of escape.”
The left has surrendered to Coates – and Obama agrees with Coates. The great lie is not that Coates is ascendant, but that he has any opposition on the left. In the end, it turns out, the left never wanted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. They just wanted to offer it as a false promise to a hungry America so that they could continue stoking Ta-Nehisi Coates’ nightmare vision of the country.
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.