Robert Boyers: Readers of Salmagundi will recall that John McWhorter and Thomas Chatterton Williams were featured in a 2020 issue devoted to race matters. There, five leading intellectuals—the others were Orlando Patterson, Margo Jefferson and Darryl Pinckney—spoke at length about the delusions and misconceptions that bedevil our efforts to understand the meaning of identity. But McWhorter and Williams have addressed “racial-essentialism” in many books and essays, and both have asked how it is possible to write and to talk about vital issues when we are told not to say anything that goes against the grain of an entrenched ideology that binds adherents as if it were an old time religion.
Many of our readers will have read the recent books by these writers, namely, McWhorter’s Woke Racism and Williams’s Self-Portrait In Black and White. Of course both writers have won a loyal following for the periodical essays they write, and for more than a year John has been contributing a twice-weekly column for The New York Times. In light of their recent work, it seemed to us a good idea to open up a new conversation with them, to bring them together for this purpose, and to conduct the conversation under the auspices of The New York State Summer Writers Institute. That virtual conversation took place in July of 2022, with John at a summer retreat in the Catskill mountains and Thomas in Paris, where it was one in the morning.
We began with a question of interest not only to writers but to anyone concerned about the way that language can be used either to reveal or to obfuscate.
RB: You have both noted the way that battles over the words chosen to describe an existing state of affairs can shape debate. One example, entirely benign perhaps, trivial even, is the substitution of the term “opportunity gaps” for “achievement gaps” in talking about test scores and our hope to address existing disparities. As I say, perhaps a benign example of a linguistic shift, and yet perhaps worth a look.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Yeah, that’s a good question for someone like myself who is a linguist by day and a race commentator by night. So let me begin by saying that those who use the term opportunity gaps are not especially trying to manipulate the language. I mean, that would suggest a degree of self-awareness and camera pulled- backness that most people don’t always have. When someone decides to call it an opportunity gap, it’s because they sincerely believe that the issue can only possibly be a matter of opportunity, and there’s no use in talking about cultural differences between people that can arise either because of history or present conditions. For them, what I just said is a noxious idea that they don’t like; it’s not that they fear it—they hate it—and they think that it’s wrong. And so for them, phrasing something as an opportunity gap is a contribution to the pursuit of social justice. One consequence of this insistence is that a generation will grow up unable to believe that there might be things other than opportunity to address. Again, I don’t see such an insistence as a cynical attempt to control the way we think. The people who hold to this language as if it were indisputable think they are onto the truth.
Thomas Chatterton Williams: I think you’re right, John, that most people are good people, and want to be good people, and don’t spend all of their time kind of parsing all this stuff, so they just kind of reproduce stale and oftentimes imprecise language that serves only to bind them to a movement or the semblance of a movement that seems like the right place to be. After all, for a lot of people politics is about a kind of etiquette or manners. The goal is to seem like you’re a person who cares. The goal is not actually thinking.
JM: We’ve talked before about the fact that terminology changes all the time, more than ever in recent years. I think about this frequently when I’m reading about old-time civil rights leaders—about DuBois, or Randolph, or Lorraine Hansberry, or James Baldwin. They weren’t using their laser focus to argue about terminology. If I were sitting in a living room with one or more of those people, smoking and drinking martinis in, say, 1965, our conversation wouldn’t dwell on “no, don’t call it that, call it this.” The goal for them was to change the way people think not by changing the words they used. It was understood that the things you wanted to get rid of would not just go away if we used different terms. The changes these people were after were going to require slow work, and they knew it. And they knew the work wouldn’t always be fun.
RB: I hear you, John, and yet I want to focus again, if only briefly, on language. You’ll forgive me. In a great essay you wrote for the journal Liberties, Thomas, on the blessings of assimilation, you describe assimilation as “a means of experiencing the capaciousness of the world. A welcoming impulse, an expression of nothing more sinister than curiosity.” And you go on to say that “One wishes to assimilate because one wishes, during this fleeting life, to maximize one’s human potential.”
JM: Damn, I wish I could write like that.
RB: I had the same feeling, John, when I read and reread that essay. And yet, as both of you often acknowledge, assimilation is by no means an attractive idea to a great many people. The term itself, you know, for many people, has a bad odor. So I thought I should put that to you both.
TCW: Yeah, well, that was very kind of both of you, to say that about my writing. And you know, when I was a student, I often read John’s work, and learned a lot from it. The way I’ve been learning things in our times together, Bob, over the last few years. And you’re right about that term. I guess I wrote that essay because I’ve been amazed by the way that assimilation has now become a dirty word, and the way that people are now okay with the notion that cultures just have to be walled off from each other and defended. So that, in keeping with this, some cultures are never able to participate in other cultures because there’s this presumed power dynamic that’s bound to distort and poison everything. You know, of course, that though I am a descendant of African slaves I am also a voluntary immigrant to France, a foreign culture that has been most welcoming, while also challenging. And I know there are bound to be difficulties and joys in taking down fences, allowing the external world to come into you and actually change you, which is a scary thing for a lot of people—the idea that the world can change you—, though it would seem obvious, wouldn’t it, that there are good things that can come through that kind of change. I think that if more of us adopted a less defensive posture we’d see that there’s a kind of virtue in allowing yourself to be influenced and not just exerting your own influence on the people and places that are new to you, or unfamiliar. I’m troubled by the current discourse promoted by people who insist on a one-way interaction—I come into a workplace, they say, and I’ve got to change the workplace to adapt to me, and to my identity group, the one I already feel myself walled inside of already. Anyway, that’s why I wanted to say two cheers for assimilation, and to talk about what it means to be flexible and open.
JM: I am dismayed by the encroachment of an idea that’s been beneath the surface since the 1960s, but has been given new life by events unfolding over the past few years. It has a lot to do with the notion that there’s something wrong with whiteness. That you don’t want to adopt anything that looks like whiteness because there’s something wrong with it, and because there’s something wrong with white people, who just unfairly, whether they know it or not, take things from others. This notion is felt deeply by many people, and it extends all the way to the thought that it’s white to be precise. No, these people wouldn’t usually put it that way, but it’s what they feel. That whiteness is seeking an answer to questions, and being on time, and objectivity, and cool- headedness, and demanding an explanation. Whereas blackness is what is not that, so that if you ask what blackness is supposed to be, then somebody will say “community,” the outgrowth of the idea that whiteness is about individuality, and that individuality is wrong, rather than an advance in human consciousness that we should be thankful for.
So the idea that black people are somehow communal has taken hold, in spite of the fact that there are no people who aren’t communal, including some of the whitest people in the world. At the end of the day, what people are thinking is that blackness is three things. One of them has to do with blackness as an emotional kind of intuition, such that what you feel is truth. Rather a primitive notion, it seems to me. And then blackness, as presently felt, has also to do with a fixation upon one’s victimhood, so that being a victim is what people believe they’re all about.
And then there is a third thing, which has it that black people are especially good dancers, with a unique gift for and connection to rhythm, and by extension to sexual intercourse. I’m not trying to be facetious here, and I really do believe that putting these characteristics together gives you a profile of a very limited kind of person. A person whose complexity is distinctly limited by consigning other desirable characteristics to whiteness. Whose prospects for growth are limited by a refusal to appreciate that when different peoples live together, and love together, they’re going to come to be more like one another. A good thing, that.
TCW: The very thing that racists always understood, and feared.
RB: Not surprising to anyone who’s read your works: I ask a question about assimilation, and I hear much more than I imagined I’d hear. And your responses offer a path into — sorry—another questionfocused somewhat on language. You are both familiar with a widely read book by Ibram X. Kendi, called How To Be An Anti-Racist. In that book, Kendi offers what he calls “definitions” of racism that are intended to shape the way we think and speak about it. Thus, one important definition of racism, according to Kendi, is the failure to participate in what he regards as legitimate anti-racist activity. Passivity, as he calls it, is itself racism. Neutrality, he says—that is, not becoming actively involved in anti-racist struggle—is racism. The claim of “not racist,” he says, is a mask for racism. And so I ask you to speak about the way that Kendi deploys the language so as to shape the way we write and speak about race.
TCW: If you have an unequal world, and you accept that the world is unequal, then on some level it makes sense to say that doing nothing reproduces the status quo and thus reproduces inequality. That’s not such a controversial thought. But I don’t agree that what we’re talking about there is racism. Not necessarily. I guess we can just go back and forth and disagree over what actual anti-racism is, but Kendi’s take on the question doesn’t seem to me to be helpful at all. A lot of what Kendi says reduces to a kind of tautology. You know, something is racist because it’s racist, and something is anti-racist because it’s anti-racist, but we never actually get to the heart of the matter. All sorts of people are in good faith when they say they want to make the world less unequal, and look for what are the best strategies going forward. But claiming control of the conversation by defining who is and isn’t anti-racist doesn’t get us anywhere.
JM: I would agree with all of that, but you know, Kendi is an uncomfortable topic, because it’s become clear that when you engage closely with what he says, criticize him even in a respectful way, you find that he’s not in a position to understand the criticism as anything but recreational abuse. Not surprising really when he operates from an essentialist notion of blackness. When Kendi says that standardized tests are racist because black kids tend not to do as well on them, what he’s saying is that, for some reason, it’s inappropriate to submit black kids to tests of abstract cognitive skill. That’s not a distortion of what he’s saying. He believes that doing well on tests of abstract cognitive thinking is a white thing. Being precise is a white thing. And so I don’t think he’s capable of seeing that he’s reproducing a kind of racism that a white supremacist would be satisfied with. And speaking of language, I don’t think Kendi “deploys” anything. He just says what he feels, and he thinks of everything he utters as the truth, and is put off by anybody who questions it. He doesn’t understand that substantive issues are subject to different –and morally equivalent– interpretations. Kendi doesn’t deploy but preaches, not because he’s a megalomaniac, not because he’s searching for big bucks, but because really he isn’t at all curious. He doesn’t find the world intriguing (some people don’t)—and he is not reflective, at least on the issues he pretends to engage with. He’s not looking at these things from different sides. He may well be a wonderful person, but he won’t consider how things look to people who don’t subscribe to those foundational premises of his about what is and isn’t “racism.” Does that sound reasonable to you, Bob?
RB: Perfectly. And I’m going to bear it all in mind as I put to both of you another, somewhat related question. At our Salmagundi conference on black intellectuals a few years ago, one of the speakers, as you remember, was Margo Jefferson, who is frequently a participant at our New York State Summer Writers Institute. I thought I’d quote a few lines from her book, Negroland. “How many pieces of journalism have I written,” Margo begins, “where my race might as well have been invisible. Then, I chose a subject that made it the guiding principle. Or, an approach that refused to let a subject be solely white or black.” As I read and re-read that passage, I can’t help feeling that it marks and celebrates a kind of freedom. Margo also tells us that freedom is not always “to perform in the generic style each race demands.” When Margo says to her lover, “actually I’m as white as I am Black,” she explains, this is “not a disavowal, but a claim to a free space.” That’s one of many powerful passages in Negroland, and I thought I would put those observations to you, to both of you, to think about a little bit. To ask what you make of that “free space.”
TCW: My thinking on this has evolved over the course of the two books I’ve published so far, books separated by a decade or so. The first book, Losing My Cool, was really a coming-of-age memoir about the influence of a kind of hip-hop culture, a black street culture that, when I was growing up in the eighties and nineties, was sold to my generation as a kind of racial authenticity. In effect we believed that we were performing a kind of behavior that was the true and genuine way of being a black person in America, and that other ways were artificial or false—other ways of acting that might have felt normal to us, or that we might have liked even more, ways we might have just flitted in and out of, but couldn’t, in that we were given to understand that these other ways would have been deemed white. So I wrote that first book, in part to compare my own upbringing and my own cultural context with that of my father, and even my grandfather, who grew up in the thirties and forties in the segregated South. My father didn’t have to deal with those same issues because there wasn’t an inauthentic way to be black where he grew up, in his segregated neighborhood. You know, you could be the janitor, you could be the physician, you could be a good dancer or a bad dancer, but everybody knew you were black.
But I came to understand that there are ways of performing a racial identity. You might rebel against that, might chafe at the straitjacketing of behavior that’s prescribed, but that would come at a price. Maybe a heavy price. And I might have rebelled against it or not, might have chafed at the kind of straitjacketing of behavior I felt on me, but it took me a while to fully understand what was entailed in all of this. In fact I was still sort of adhering to the one drop rule– even when I was married to a woman in France, to a French woman, I thought that my children would have to be and to identify as black, because I was still understanding race as a kind of essential quality. I wasn’t fully able to shake off the idea that the blackness of my children would have to be biologically real. But the birth of my daughter, in 2013, really thrust the fiction of race before my consciousness in a profound way. Such that now, while I find what Margo wrote very beautiful, I can no longer buy into the idea that there are parts of her that are as white as they are black. I want to go further and reject that kind of racializing language to the core, to say those characteristics she’s thinking about are just aspects of the human experience, and that they have nothing to do with black skin, or white skin. The ethnic context is real, and the cultural context, but I think it’s essential not to think in terms of racializing aspects of ourselves as white or black. I want us to learn how to transcend that way of thinking about who or what we are.
JM: I salute all of that, and I’ll add that I’d like to see black writers writing about things other than the black experience if that’s what they want to do. Oppression and identity are not the only subjects suitable for black writers. People in the media business tell me it’s hard to get a black person to write about anything other than the standard issues assigned to black writers. I find that unfortunate. One of the things that I enjoy about my work at The Times is that on one day I’ll write about race, and then the next day about language, or something Russian-related, or pronouns. Of course I know that some readers are waiting for me to begin with, “as a black person,” but the truth is I’m not thinking about being a black person all the time. You know, sometimes I’ll write about musicals, and it’s not always going to be about Dream Girls, it might be about Oklahoma. And I don’t do that to show that I don’t have to be black. I do it because I want to show all of me, and I think most black people, especially educated black people, are the same way. There are all sorts of things you like that have nothing to do with race, and I think that we shouldn’t be afraid to show that in public, because that is how you make real progress.
You know, I’ve lived long enough that I’m asked now and then if I want to write a memoir, and really I don’t want to do that, but if I did I’d have to say that I’ve lived a life where being black was certainly part of my experience, but by no means all of it. Maybe not even fifty percent. A lot of what’s happened to me– and I’ve had some bad things, I’ve had some good things, and a lot in between–, have just been part of the common experience of a post- Civil Rights era person, living in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, doing some things and going through some things. And the thing is, my feeling is that if I wrote my life– you know, it could be easier than writing about lots of other things—I could write it to settle some scores, so that people would pick it up and be thinking, this is the story of a black man. And everything I was writing about would be seen through that lens. No matter what I decided to write about—the words I picked up, the places I happened to travel to, the people I got to know, even the bungalow colony where I spent a summer in 2020—well, you know, right away people would be demanding to know how I could have spent all that time in what was mainly a place for Jewish families, and they’d ask, why is he black and in the bungalow Colony, whereas I’m just thinking, I was sure enjoying the bungalow colony, and so were my children. So I’m not going to write that memoir, because it would end up being read primarily as the life of a black man. And I’d be thinking no, sorry, that’s not mainly what my life is.
RB: That’s a great response: thank you both. And yet, there’s more. Must be more. Recently, I was reading an essay by Kwame Anthony Appiah, about the Algerian writer, Frantz Fanon, the author of The Wretched Of The Earth, Black Skin, White Masks, and other such books. And there was just a passage in Anthony’s essay that really caught my attention that I wanted to ask you about. He writes that “Fanon was a writer who needed not to know many things he knew perfectly well.” I repeat: “He was a writer who needed not to know many things he knew perfectly well.” And I thought, well, doesn’t that, in fact, describe most of us, many of us, in a variety of ways? And isn’t it a sort of thing that most of us as writers hope, at least, not to fall into? Don’t we want, as writers, to be able to own up to what we know to be true, to call things by their rightful names? And yet, don’t we fear that often this is not so? I wanted to ask you about—what to call it?—this problem we have, which is an aspect of the difficulty many of us confront in trying to talk and think and write about race and identity. Is it not the case that, in reading the works of various people, white and black, who write about race and identity, our impression is too often that they know things that they refuse to acknowledge or mention?
JM: What an interesting question.
TCW: Yeah, I think that there is a way of writing about race and discussing race publicly that incentivizes or almost necessitates people to deny much of the complexity and ambiguity that they know exists in their own lived reality, but isn’t convenient for their own discursive community, things that readers can’t be trusted to figure out for themselves. Often people—even writers you may sort of respect—want things to be, you know, simplified, because, well, we know what we’re supposed to think and say, and you sure don’t want to get into points that will muddy things up. There’s something deep in what Appiah is saying in that passage you read out, Bob. When I relate it to my own work, especially my two memoirs, I think that it was the act of writing through which I came to know what I thought and felt. The process of writing, throughout, was focused on a search for the right language. And when the books were finished I could say, with conviction, that I now know something that I didn’t know when I started writing them. Sure, everyone knows that there is, as a part of the process, the research, the revising, the gesturing towards things not fully clear, the reaching for something that might resonate with strangers across time and space. Part of what makes this important is that you don’t sit down with all the answers at first. There are always so many things that you don’t know, and then it’s the act of trying to know that becomes the knowing. Not sure that Appiah had that exactly in mind when he wrote about Fanon in that passage, but it sure takes me to that process I believe in.
RB: That’s a great, I would say writerly, answer to that question. In asking it, I was thinking about my friend Orlando Patterson, who was also part of our conference a few years ago. Orlando, as you both know very well, is a writer who spent a lot of time talking about things like the structure of the family—the relationship between the two-parent family and the one-parent family and so on. Very often, in conferences, not just Salmagundi conferences, but conferences at other universities, when Orlando goes there, he finds that lots of people are not only uncomfortable about his going there, very uncomfortable, but that they actually suggest, declare, insist that this is a place we ought not to be going to. And that’s one sort of thing I had in mind when I read out that passage.
JM: One of the hardest things to talk about is something that pretty much anybody actually looking at the situation of black America knows very well. They know it. They know that many black people are not being driven primarily by white attitudes towards black people, or by the GNP, or even by something called structural racism. They know that, and they know also that there are cultural legacies of the overtly racist past, along with other factors, which together have created a sense of norms in particular sectors of the black community that are at least a part of the reality that needs to be understood and addressed. Everybody knows that now. Even I have to tiptoe around that and to be very careful when I say, yes, I mean yes, there are some cultural issues we need to be discussing. And that language of “cultural issues” doesn’t mean that we’re talking about anything remotely like congenital problems. But, you know, cultural issues are real, and they’re caused by a cocktail of factors and legacies. Everybody knows that. Everybody knows. And so the question is just whether or not you’re going to talk about it. And there is a certain kind of person who has convinced themselves, in ways I’ll never fully understand, that really, it’s all about the GNP and structural racism, and that anybody who mentions cultural factors, or norms, well, they’ve just fallen for what THE MAN tells them. And so there’s an awful lot of that. And you know, if you get any number of people like that in the right mood—give them a glass of red wine—they’ll tell you that of course culture matters to an extent. One of the reasons I so much enjoyed my time at the Salmagundi conference a few years back was that with you two, and Orlando, and the other speakers, we found that we could talk about that. About what we know.
TCW : I just thought about another time the three of us were together, at the Hannah Arendt Center conference at Bard, maybe a year later.
JM: But it was at Skidmore, you remember, that an audience member worked herself up to rip into you, Thomas, in a way I won’t soon forget. That woman, I’m sure, understood exactly where you were coming from, but she felt it as her duty to, in a way, pretend she didn’t. And I consider her an innocent, because she’s part of a zeitgeist that has existed for a very long time. But that kind of thing is very hard to deal with, because there are things such a person knows, really does know, that she will tell her grandson, that she will say to her family when white people aren’t around, but will not attest to in the public square. It can be frustrating.
RB: And yes, that’s an essential aspect of the thing Anthony Appiah was getting at.And how I wish he was the writer dominating the conversations we have about race and identity.
TCW: A major voice, obviously, but not, as you say, the one most people caught up in the really fierce debates will turn to.
RB: It’s not always the case that one book or writer will dominate the conversation, and not always the case that we want that to happen. But in some degree it did happen some years ago with the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between The World And Me. I first became acquainted with your work, Thomas– I emailed you about this years ago, when I read in the London Review of Books a long review you wrote, one of the only critical review-essays directed at the Coates book. Thinking back to that time for a moment or two, I wondered whether you would, both of you, be willing to speak a bit about why that book so dominated the conversation on race for a few years and managed, with very few exceptions, not to draw criticism, even for its most improbable assertions. Assertions that seem not only problematic to me, but to numbers of people that I know personally who reviewed the book favorably, and stayed away, very, very assiduously, from those problematic issues. Anyhow, that’s a question.
TCW: I thought about this quite a lot, and I thought about that book in relation to where we are now, more and more over the past couple of years, and it’s made me appreciate that book more, and miss it in certain ways. Coates wrote some things about the black experience that I thought were very limiting, myopic, in fact, his observations clearly based on his own inner-city experience. But he did have the kind of curiosity that John rightly says doesn’t usually exist in some of the more prominent voices out there now. He made his observations with a kind of humility and, obviously, a writerly talent that’s just lacking in what I read out there, and so his absence from the current scene is something to miss. And yet, as you say, Bob, there were things he said in the first book, and then in the second, that were astonishing, things that no one would touch: He said, for example, that on September 11th he rooted not for just the police officers, the white police officers, to be harmed, but even for the firefighters to be harmed. That was something that only certain right-wingers on Fox News would mention. And everybody else just kind of politely ignored things like that, as though Coates’s sentiment was the natural reaction for anybody growing up black in America. In a way it’s similar to a notion that many so-called anti-racists in France have when a Muslim man decapitates somebody for showing images of the prophet Muhammad: What do you expect, they say, when Muslims are bound to be angry about the situation there, and you can’t really expect them to understand things like free speech. With Coates the notion is that you can’t rightly expect black people to feel patriotic or to not be angry. They’re bound to just think differently than others would want them to.
In this way, I thought Coates contributed to a kind of othering of blackness that was not always helpful, and certainly contributed to a discourse that I rejected in my review of his book, where I objected especially to what he implied about agency, and the lack thereof in the black American experience. You read Coates and you get the idea that everything that happens to black people is kind of coming from the white world. Of course you know, as a black person, that very bad things can happen to you. Yes, you might get lucky, as he admits he has, but basically none of it is through your own effort or your own will or your own resilience. There’s a kind of fatal determinism in Coates’s vision, and that’s why the piece I wrote was titled “Loaded Dice,” because he used that term to suggest that in the universe he knows you’re always playing with loaded dice. I felt that was an extraordinarily dehumanizing kind of concept for him to feature in what was, after all, a letter to his son, who was fifteen at the time, with Coates telling him that the world he’s coming into, even though his father is a millionaire, writing Marvel Comics, making movies and such, well, will be controlled by a system that guarantees he’ll always be playing with loaded dice. That was something I couldn’t not respond to.
And why, you ask, did the Coates become a generational book, and why was there such a dearth of serious reaction? For one thing, the publication coincided with several horrific events, from the Dylan Roof massacre, to Eric Garner and several other pre-George Floyd events that concentrated public attention in a way that we hadn’t seen before. But maybe even more important was the fact—I think it is a fact—that the book came on the heels of what is one of the really impressive pieces of journalism of the past decade and a half, which was “The Case For Reparations.” I don’t think you would have the success of Between The World And Me without that long piece that Coates published in the Atlantic, where he revisited a concept that had been dismissed and that no one took seriously for a long time, until Coates made people take it seriously again, or maybe for the first time. Remember that you had mainstream politicians in the Democratic Party all of a sudden talking about it, so that in 2016 every single democratic candidate cited the case for reparations as something that had influenced their thinking. So it was a combination of factors that allowed a uniquely gifted and forceful writer to break through. But I’m not sure, John, that you think about this in the same way, and I wonder what you make of Bob’s question about why some books or writers come to define a moment.
JM: Coates has been a very interesting phenomenon, in many ways. I think that definitely “The Case For Reparations” paved the way for Between The World And Me, but what I found interesting was the reception of “The Case For Reparations.” Yes, it was an excellent article, but it was received as if it was a biblical tome. I mean, I was perplexed by the reception. And it wasn’t jealousy or anything, I was just thinking, people are talking about this as if, frankly, it’s one of the most astonishing things ever written, though the reparations topic was not new. I see Coates as a product of social media. Social media, by the early teens, had created a situation where what happened to Trayvon Martin, and what happened to Michael Brown, could be a nationwide and even a world-wide cause celebre. Coates emerged at a time when there was a particular kind of new (what we now call woke) energy which had taken on what I called, back in 2015, the qualities of a religion. No doubt about it: Between The World And Me ended up becoming one of the biblical testaments. And what disturbed me about it was that this testament included some of the passages you cited– the firefighter one was probably the worst–, and a good many comparable others, like the one where he’s watching his kid playing with white kids on the Upper West Side and thinks, ‘oh you don’t know what they’re capable of,’ so that as a reader you might well think it’s as if he’s writing in 1937.
And yes, as Bob says in his question to us, the white punditocracy let him by with this, and frankly I saw it as condescension. I saw it as pretending that a black person can’t be expected to have the basic moral fiber to be able to feel the tragedy of a white firefighter dying, and his kids at home never seeing him again. To not be able to understand that, because of structural racism in America, or even what happened to George Floyd, no—to just let that go is patting Coates on the head. And what’s also interesting about Coates is his role in the future. I mean, it does seem that he has completely stepped away. It’s astonishing how little he has participated in the ongoing conversation during, say, the racial reckoning on Twitter. He pulled off Twitter, as if he really can’t be bothered. And what I see in that is something that worries me about post-civil rights black writers. Again, not to repeat myself, he has an extremely pessimistic message. You’re right, Thomas, that looking back on him now I see the admirable curiosity, and the gift….
TCW: You don’t know what you got until it’s gone.
JM: Laughs. Exactly. I mean he, at least, well , I’ll just leave it there, but yes. I would not have said the kinds of things I said about Kendi about Coates. And then I’m still struck by the way he’s just kind of pulled away. And I can’t help feeling—I hate how this is going to sound—he does seem to me to pretend he thinks that everything is about structural racism. There’s that laser focus, as if there were nothing more to the problem. And you know, frankly, it gets to the point where, if you’ve been saying nothing but that in the Atlantic for over ten years, and then you write some books that say nothing but that, after a while, you might well discover you don’t have anything left to say. And so there’s a kind of writer who says that same thing over and over again for thirty or forty years, who has a big influential moment for maybe ten years at most, and then finds that he’s no longer as important. Look, Coates could apply his mind to so many other things, and not just the Civil War—he used to do that in the Atlantic. Of course he was only interested in the Civil War because of the race angle. But how about turning that good mind to something entirely different, to breeding aquarium fish…something like that. But that’s not what he’s doing. And I regret that in a way. He and I are not friends, and we never will be, but I miss his voice, as you do, Thomas. But he’s not inclined to branch out, and that’s because of his limited sense of what a race writer is.
TCW: Coates wouldn’t consider me a friend either, and that’s fine. In a way he rejected right from the start the expectation that he would have answers, that it was his job to provide them. He didn’t want to be called a public intellectual, and he knew that in some way he had what a mutual acquaintance of ours called “a catastrophic success.” Catastrophic in what sense? In that he was expected everywhere he went to have the answers, answers that an especially earnest white person really wanted from him. Maybe it was to his credit that he decided to step back. He knew that he could just get $50,000 a night going anywhere and opining on any number of topics people would allow him to speak on. That’s a dangerous place to be if you have a certain amount of humility. And so he said I don’t want to do that, and the thing that he likes that isn’t completely racialized is this kind of world of comics. It shocked me, honestly, that he would reject, walk away from the platform that pretty much every single writer of his generation and younger would be dying for. I’ve never seen something like that in my career. And, you know, he got into this argument with Cornel West, and he just walked away from 1.2 million followers on Twitter. Which you never see. People are addicted to growing followers. It’s interesting, especially when you compare him to someone like Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is just enamored with hearing herself think out loud, and will talk on any number of subjects that she will then have to walk back and correct herself on.
JM: She enjoys her pulpit, yeah.
TCW: Yeah. There’s a kind of carefulness there in Coates—not sure that’s the word– that struck me as interesting. But again, his book was the first huge text of wokeness. Maybe Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow…
JM: That’s the proto-text.
TCW: You’re right, that’s the first real woke text. And that ushered in a moment, and it really channeled the energy of Trayvon, and Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, into the thing that became this huge, huge thing with George Floyd.
JM: White Fragility and How To Be An Anti-Racist followed in the wake of Coates’s book.
TCW: Well, those titles were resurrected, actually, and became bestsellers.
JM: You’re right. They had already been around.
RB: I wanted to ask another question, inspired by my reading of one of John’s pieces in today’s New York Times.
JM: What’d I do today? I’m already on to the next one.
RB: Glad you’re on to the next one. But I’m thinking just for this moment about your Herschel Walker column.
JM: Yes, got it.
RB: In which you talk about the totally unqualified, intellectually deficient candidate for Georgia senator, named Herschel Walker, a former football star who seems clueless about everything, except the support he received in the battle for Trump’s approval. And what we’re looking at here, you tell us, is not a mere matter of verbal dexterity that’s deficient in Herschel Walker, nor the fact that the guy is “fact challenged.” It’s more than that. What we have in Walker’s candidacy, you write, is “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” A phrase you quote, which I’d very much like you to run with if you would. It’s related—this seems to me exactly right–to a kind of pragmatism forged in condescension. It’s hard, you say, to imagine Republicans backing a white candidate so profoundly and shamelessly unsuited for the role. So I thought to ask you, both of you, but John first, about this notion that pragmatism can be forged in condescension, and entail, then, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
JM: It’s very simple. You have a problem. You see that Black kids tend not to do as well on standardized tests as white and Asian kids. Now, in an alternate universe—which existed until about sixty years ago– what everybody would be thinking is: how do we get Black kids to be better at the tests. That’s what you would think if you were a civil rights leader. You’d think: Let’s get out the word about what needs to be done. But post-1966, the idea becomes, there’s something wrong with the test. Let’s get rid of the test, possibly for everybody, because black kids not doing well on it must mean that the test is racist. Now the 1.0 version of that until, about 1990, is to pretend that the tests are replete with questions about things like asparagus, and cucumber sandwiches, and which wine goes best with chicken. And, frankly, those questions were never there, or virtually not there at all. Anything remotely like that was purged way back when Reagan was still president. So then, 2.0 becomes, well there’s just something racist about imposing boring, dry, tests on black kids, who won’t like them and won’t do well on them. And so, what everybody does—everybody in a position of responsibility, especially in large cities these days—, is just to eliminate the test and shake their jowls, and call themselves being anti-racist. This is the Bill de Blasio version of things. That’s the soft bigotry of low expectations, because it’s clear that de Blasio, even with his black wife and kids, thinks deep down that there’s just no way that black kids can be made to be good on tests. He thinks that being black is to be not like Bill de Blasio. Bigotry is a mean word for it, and in that piece I pull back on the word a bit. Just a bit. But I do mean that, if you think there’s no way to make black kids perform well on tests, well, sorry, that’s racist.
RB: I know it costs you something to say that, John. And of course you know that many people won’t like you to say it. And you, Thomas? Do you want to come in there?
TCW: I’ll say that the soft bigotry of low expectations is the best thing that George W. Bush ever said. It was just like the perfect phrase for identifying something so very real. Although, you know, I would say that there’s just nothing that can shock me anymore. I mean, Herschel Walker! But then a white man named Donald Trump set the bar so low that you can’t do anything but conclude that the culture as a whole has become debased, which does complicate anything you can say about where exactly the racial line is in all this. I don’t know as much about Herschel Walker as I know about Trump, and so I wonder, is there something that differentiates the one from the other in a way that would prevent us from putting them together when we talk about low expectations?
JM: If I had had another, say, 600 words for the piece I wrote for the Times I would have said that Donald Trump was an accident. After a while everyone gathered around him, but no one could have expected him to be what he was. But you can’t say that about Walker. That he was completely unsuited for any position of responsibility was clear, just as it was clear that he might well win the office he was chosen for. So that’s one big difference.
TCW: That makes a lot of sense to me, yeah.
JM: And they are equally, equally, troglodytic, the two of them.
TCW: There’s kind of a recurring character you find in the procession of black candidates put out there on the political right. Trump is a sort of one-off, with very unique qualities, but guys like Walker keep on showing up. You see that with Herman Cain, and lots of others.
JM: Even there you have a slight difference. As much as a goofball as Cain could be, he had been doing a radio show for some time, and though his grasp of the issues wasn’t exactly scholarly, he had followed the news, and was what you might call a card-carrying Republican thinker. Whereas with Herschel Walker, well, it might as well have been your five-year-old nephew you were putting up for the job. He has no idea what the real issues are, or how to talk about them. We might have made fun of Herman Cain ten years ago, but with Walker, well, he’s made us miss a guy like Herman Cain.
TCW: Oh man, and so on that happy note…
RB: On that happy note, yes, and alas, we must end, much though we’d like to continue. No doubt John is with me when I say that we’d all be more than happy to have Thomas stay up for the rest of the night. Thank you both, and let’s promise to do this again next summer, live, on the Skidmore College campus, and the next year, and the next.
JM: Agreed. Always good to speak with both of you.