A Nasty Piece of Cornbread: Chait, Coates, and White Progressivism

I once set out to write a book of southern aphorisms. It was going to be a serious treatment of (mostly) black (uniquely) southern “mother wit” as philosophy. Then, grad school and so on and so on.

If I were to undertake a project today I would start with a favorite handed down to me from my Aunt Jean. She is fond of saying that someone is a “nasty piece of cornbread.”

Cornbread, if made properly, is delicious. Even when it is made poorly it is hard to argue with the beautiful form and function of ground meal, fat, dairy and heat alchemy that sustains, fuels, and serves up sustenance, as well as culture and community. Cornbread is, in hip-hop parlance, that good-good.

When someone is being a nasty piece of cornbread they are combining the ingredients and process of a remarkable foodstuff in ways that poisons its inherent goodness. They are being nice-nasty. They are serving you cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.

I read Chait’s latest response to Ta-Nehisi Coates on shades of gray among liberal and conservative treatments of race and the cultural of poverty. I probably shouldn’t have. I had checked out of the public debate on this after the first round, and even then after barely skimming. I saw all the keywords for a battle about white guilt and structural racism that, frankly, is the story of my entire work life. I’d rather spend my few non-work hours watching The Golden Girls.

But sociologist and tweep, Dave Parcell put them all in one convenient package and I clicked. I am weak.

But not as weak as Chait’s argument.

Look, Coates doesn’t need anyone caping for him. He is formidable even when I disagree with him. Further, the gendered tone of the entire debate has too many javelins flying for me to expect a sister in a wonder woman outfit to be as welcome as, well, wonder woman rarely is when the real superhereos are about real superhero bizness.

I did want to point out a few things for my own intellectual satisfaction.

Love it or hate it, Coates lays out an empirical and theoretical argument. In response, Chait begins, continues and ends with a condescending dismissal of Coates, the person.

Wrapped in a nice-nasty package of platitudes about the former (ie younger, better, more idealistic) Coates, Chait bemoans the angry, cynical darkie Coates has become. I am not playing for dramatic effect here. I offer you:

What struck me, instead, is that Coates turns the question of Obama’s role as head of state into a profoundly pessimistic take on the character and future of that state:

America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis. …

I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.

I have never previously detected this level of pessimism in Coates’s thinking before.

Chait remembers a kinder, more empathetic Coates and he is not this fella writing about white liberal paternalism.

Except, he is.

This is a turn so common in the long history of black intellectuals and white publics as to be mundane. Black anger about white violence, white racism, and the veneer of white civility is acceptable to white liberals only when it is in service to their role as caretaker. It is a role that requires the illusion of hope. Without a hopeful angry ward, Mr. Drummond is just some weird dude keeping his black adopted sons in a gilded cage. Hope is what transforms the relationship into a cause, a movement, a penance.

Of course, requiring hope is not functionally different from requiring drug tests for public welfare (when you are one of the publics, no less) or requiring women wear long johns to be justifiably victimized by a rapist or being told to bide your time as the majority catches up to the idea of your humanity.

Hope only feels less intrusive, less violent and less damning than these arbitrary thresholds when you swallow the cornbread without chewing. Once ground in molars of empirics or human rights or morality or obligations of the State, the funkiness of the bread spews forth. It’s like cornbread but nasty. And black intellectuals have been remarkably consistent in finding what Coates finds: that nasty cornbread is no cornbread at all.

I said on Twitter that I cannot recall a single black intellectual that was not condemned by white liberals for their paucity of hope. DuBois was crazy for embracing communism when empirically it would be crazy to have embraced his America where Ida B Wells was documenting the regularity of black lynchings. Crazy, he was, for not having hope in the face of those empirics!

Paul Robeson was consistently the smartest person in any room he inhabited. When his nation recalled his citizenship he made a powerful case for the benefits of socialism. He may be remembered today as a black history month milestone in the sanitized march of America’s progress, but at the time his sanity was questioned. What could be wrong with that brilliant, ostracized, stifled black genius that a little hope wouldn’t cure?

And do not even get me started on the women who are not only crazy for questioning the white man’s hope but who are crazy by function of their biological penchant for hysterics. The relatively privileged Mary Church Terrell had an education few blacks of any gender had at the time. But she had to fight first her father’s dismay at her wasting her lady breeding to pursue  formal education. She went on to do just that, making friends with powerful white women in the suffrage movement only to have them warn her to not make her speeches too “harsh”. Harsh isn’t hopeful.

And hope is integral to the greater project of white paternalism and black intellectual products. To be recognized, rewarded, disseminated, or sustainable black intellectualism must perpetuate the fervent epistemology of American progress. This epistemological frame is so rigid, so deeply rooted in the psyche of the majority culture that it turns good thinkers into circular logic jerks. It must be defended at all costs to reason or argument even when reasonable arguments are offered up in compliance with the rules set forth by the epistemology! I give you exhibit B.

I think I could go on and on about the arsenal of hope wielded against black thinkers, writers, and artists and people in the public domain. Chait’s final analysis is that Coates ignores evidence of progress in his myopic rejection of hope. Chait offers no theoretical link between evidence of progress as incompatible with Coates’ larger argument about the structural similarities of liberal and conservative arguments about blacks, culture and poverty. The mere suggestion that Coates has lost his moral center — his dark hope — is offered as sufficient evidence that the larger argument isn’t worthy of engaging. That is a fight to be had by hopeful black people, as determined by the solicitors of hopelessness.

It’s a proper sonning, complete with sports metaphors that reduce it all to (as someone on twitter pointedly said) a game of “whose…um, intellect is bigger”.

The whole thing is one big nasty piece of cornbread.

36 thoughts on “A Nasty Piece of Cornbread: Chait, Coates, and White Progressivism

  1. Okay, I’m confused. Is it not possible to believe that entrenched, systematic white supremacy can co-exist with the adoption (consciously or unconsciously) of behavioral actions by some people which undermines their success, even in the face of racist attitudes and actions? If culture is learned and transferred behaviors, cannot some people, so deeply entrenched in despair and disillusionment adopt a culture which is self-destructive? I don’t understand why these are mutually exclusive propositions?

    1. Exactly Chris, the blog author and Coates act as if the two are mutually exclusive. Anyone with eyes can see culture is a problem primarily among the black underclass, creeps into the working and even the middle class.

        1. Not sure if your response was directed at edtitan’s reply to my comment or to mine.
          But let me pose a non-basketball analogy (Mr. Chiat’s unfortunate choice). I believe that the root of all oppression and violence in our society is the economic practice of lethal capitalism. It encourages theft under the color of law, deprives people of their lives and liberty, and reifies social and economic hierarchies that deny mobility to the majority of the worlds’ citizens. In response to this entrenched unfairness many people choose to anesthetize their pain through drugs and alcohol. In my rural, white, farming community this has taken the form of heroin abuse in the adolescent community, one which fails to see a future for themselves.
          If this behavior becomes repetitive, predictable, and engrained would it not be correct to ascribe to it the label of “culture”? And would it not furthermore be right to make some attempt to help these kids abandon that culture while still recognizing that the choices they made were still in large part due to economic and social circumstances beyond their control?

    2. The behavioral actions are contextually appropriate to being systematically , violently, oppressed by racist institutions, laws, and people. an earlier quote of Coates sums up the argument he is making: “There is nothing wrong with black folks that the destruction of white supremacy wouldn’t fix.”
      To ask black people to change while refusing to address the root cause of the maladaptive behaviors is purposeful victim blaming.

  2. Quick note: There’s another thing wrong with Chait’s argument. Even if you only read Coates from time to time, it’s clear that he is engaging the world in ever broader ways (and this, in my mind, is what makes him a public intellectual–moving beyond his block, his corner, and his world and **wrestling** with big ideas and doing that work in full view of everyone). His choice to dig deep into history and language strikes me as a profoundly optimistic act! I suspect that all that has changed is that his argument is getting sharper and sharper (and so is his writing) and that Chait is unable to understand that black people can be proud to have a black president and still feel deep disappointment in his (willful) blindness about the underlying problems that disrupt the lives of black folks.

    1. I want to thank you for writing this because it crystalized something that has been nagging at me. I haven’t seen his writing recently as dark in the slightest. Vast, curious, searching, moral, courageous, stern. And I read hope too, but not about what Chait is hopeful about. Coates is writing about a world so much bigger than this simple little children’s story about progress. Your comment made me see this: what Chait means when he says “hope” is belief in an America that redeems itself inside a storyline that white privilege envisions for itself. Coates is beyond that, and that, for me, is profoundly hopeful. This is not a religious exercise, it is a nation, a nation that fails many of its citizens and lies about it to itself. There is a bigger world than the one created inside and by those lies, and that is where true demand for change is possible. That is what IO mean by hope: the integrity to see how things are, and the backbone to see what else is possible, and the endurance and compassion to see it done.

  3. There are so many wonderful things in this essay, and wonderful doesn’t mean “Things that make me feel good,” but “Things that are profound and true and challenging, but I especially loved this: “Black anger about white violence, white racism, and the veneer of white civility is acceptable to white liberals only when it is in service to their role as caretaker. “

  4. I haven’t read that exchange, but just from the quotes you post here, Chait’s tone sounds like the tone often used by white bloggers when talking to other white bloggers. It’s that condescending, I’m-disappointed-in-you tone that’s very common in blog exchanges.

    So, this exchange seems to fit into two types: white liberals’ historical condescension to black intellectuals (as you describe), and white bloggers’ condescension to their colleagues. If that’s true, I don’t think you can just lump it in with one or the other, as you do here, without knowing more. Like, does Chait talk this way to his white colleagues? Maybe he does, I don’t know.

    1. Is there a reason why you would admittedly don’t know but would assume I would need to know before making this argument? One wouldn’t invalidate the other except to say that I should consider white people as an object in lieu of, or at least in conjunction with, black people. I am never of the understanding that I have to do that to talk about the specificity of blackness as a social location.

      1. Yes, there’s a reason. It’s the same as if the situation were reversed: if someone said, “Chait’s condescending to Coates, that’s how bloggers are,” without considering their race or the racial history in the background. The person telling the “that’s how bloggers are” story could ask, “Why do you assume I need to know about the history of white liberal condescension to blacks before making my `that’s how bloggers are’ argument? I’m locating this in the social sphere of blogging.”

        Just by telling a story, you’re suggesting that it’s the causal explanation, or at least a significant causal explanation. That’s implicit, whether you want to convey that message or not. So if there are quite plausibly two different stories, then telling one and not the other leads the reader to believe in the story that you did choose to tell as a causal explanation.

        By the way, Coates does this selective story-telling all the time, more than any other blogger I’ve read. When there are lots of different plausible stories that could be told, he chooses to tell the one that serves his rhetorical purpose. That’s one of the main reasons I’ve stopped reading him.

          1. That’s right, I’m more interested in your take on it than in the exchange itself, so I’m just taking your description at face value.

            My own point was pretty banal, so it might be a silly waste of time even to clarify it, but I’ll try anyway, again just going by your description.

            Fact: Chait related to Coates in a condescending, ad hominem way.

            Story 1: There’s a long history of white liberal condescension and ad hominem towards black intellectuals – the story you told.

            Story 2: There’s a widespread practice of white bloggers relating to other white bloggers in a condescending, ad hominem way, often as if they were talking to children. Just a few minutes ago I read a post by a white pundit approvingly referencing a “scolding” (his word) given by a second white blogger to a third white blogger.

            Then there’s also the question of Chait’s own history and how it fits into stories (1) and (2).

            By telling only story (1) or only story (2) without even referencing the other, you’re implying a causal explanation, whether you’re trying to or not. If you or I knew more about Chait’s history (say that he only talked that way to black bloggers), then one of the two stories (in this case the first) would be the more relevant one. But if you don’t know that, then I don’t think it’s justified to tell just one story and ignore the other.

            Like I said, this is a banal observation, I’m not claiming any insight or anything.

          2. translation: “oh tressie, dear. why must you bring race into this? maybe chait is condescending toward everyone? meanwhile, i have the room to comment upon and nitpick at your motivations, centering the defense of white people, while simultaneously ignoring the meat of the conversation – a series of articles I HAVEN’T EVEN READ.”

            whitesplaining to the hilt.

        1. Even if we restrict ourselves to only stories we all believe are physically possible, there are basically endless stories that can explain any event. Maybe Chait is deeply upset about a wager he made with Coates and lost and is acting out of spite. Maybe Chait is suffering from the early stages of a neurological disorder that causes him to react strangely (I certainly hope not). Maybe Chait and Coates are actually passing subtle coded messages in their columns and the nature of the messages being sent require Chait to take a condescending tone as part of the code.

          I don’t think any of these stories are very likely, but there’s no reason I know of that they COULDN’T be true.

          There are reasons people pick the stories they do tell.

  5. Is it useful at all for this discussion to flip it: ie, if white supremacy were to magically disappear would white people still be mostly awful? Seems to me the answer would be yes. We can work to dismantle power structures while also addressing the culture of whiteness, which no one calls it, but it is. No one would claim it developed independently of the power and privilege of being white, but certainly there are behaviors that belong to the group that form what you’d call a culture.

  6. My apologies for using the term but I “hope” you write the book of southern aphorisms. Bringing forth and recording the culture of black mothers in the face of white supremacy or institutionalized and unavoidable racism sounds important. Thanks for teaching me about some “bad cornbread”.

  7. Coincidentally, just saw this quote posted by Corey Robin. Michael Novak on Thomas Sowell’s Race and Economics in the 1970s: “Thomas Sowell…owns one of the coolest and most honest minds in America.”

  8. Can I ask, where is the role of activism in all of this?

    I am a black person who, if you take America’s very surface level of success, has “made it”. I am married to a loving and supportive black man and, combined with my partner, am earning in the realm of the 1% for black folk (over $300,000 a year). As I read the dialogue — on this wonderful site, on the Son of Baldwin Facebook page, on The Atlantic from Coates — I struggle to see a reflection of myself — which perhaps is fair because rates of poverty are high in the black community. But I also begin to feel that my optimism is naive, ignorant and misplaced.

    My parents represent the type of story that Republicans like to trot out in their “why can’t all black people do this??” speeches. They were both raised in intense poverty, and used education as a tool to get out. Now, 2 of their 4 children are financially in the 1%, the other two are respectable, upwardly mobile black folk. And I feel so alone. The work I do is with black women, building self esteem in black girls and providing resources to black mothers. I love love LOVE my work. And it makes me feel hopeful. But, when I read the work of black intellectuals, I am quickly reminded that perhaps this progress — the progress I see daily in the black girls who are learning to love their hair and their skin, or black mothers who are learning how to educate their children outside of a Eurocentric/institutionally racist public/private school system — is neutralized by the fact that the game is “rigged” somehow by white supremacy.

    So is my activism naive? What do I do?

    I wish I could talk to Coates, or even you Tressie, about what you feel are appropriate courses of activism. For those of us who are NOT in the hood, who are financially well off, who want to help but feel awkward here on the sidelines. What can we do?

    What does activism that is NOT naive look like? What is the end goal? More political power for black folks? To dismantle the prison industrial complex? To dismantle capitalism? To promote environmentalism in urban communities? To provide education resources to inner city communities?

    What is the way forward.

    In Coates response to Chait he did mention at some point that his writing, in his opinion, wouldn’t change much. And I would agree — to a point. Yes, writing does illuminate. It shows us how to frame the world in which we live. But then, where does action come in.

    I DO hope. It’s not the stale and patronizing hope of white liberals. And I’ve never thought it was “news” that white conservative and white liberals both have a thinly veiled disdain for black folks that they express in different ways.

    But as a black woman who saw my parents make it. I hope.
    As a black woman who understand that my parents’ story CANNOT be easily replicated unless there is more structural support for African Americans. I hope.
    As a black woman who is an isolationist, and believes that we as blacks have to do for ourselves, and cannot rely on a white supremacist government and culture to do it for us. I hope.

    But is this naive?

    And if so, what else should I do?

  9. Discovered your blog a couple of days ago. LOVE IT!!!

    By the way, I came to your conclusion on the matter of “hope” when I read Derrick Bell’s “Faces At The Bottom of The Well” back in the ’90’s. He pointed out that racism is a permanent feature of the American political landscape and it ain’t goin’ nowhere. It is here to stay. Forever. What we do about it is another story, Bell averred, and that is the point.

    So when I finish the book I tell my White Female Friend (with whom I am still close) Bell’s thesis, and she replies, “Thank you for taking away my daughter’s hope for the future.” Her daughter was too young for school. Now she is in college. My friend has come around to my way of thinking (including my pointing to her out that Obama — her then hero — was no progressive, but a Republican lite).

    And yet I don’t despair. Because the fight goes on. We Negroes and the people who luv us, will get our butts kicked, repeatedly. But we won’t go away.

    I don’t turn to hope. I turn to power through activism. Little as it is, it is the only thing we have.

    An Irish musician/Marxist (I don’t remember his name, but he was interviewed on Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News”) once said that the people could accomplish quite a lot once they give up hope.

    True, dat.

  10. Reading this blog post makes me want to be the daddy of all your babies, tressiemc22. This is such a nice, and quickly digestible piece of writing about what went on between Chait and TNC. The dark take of hope out of Pandora’s box probably always had been the sensible one, but people have always needed hope at least to anaethetize the pain of living through today. That it is pain for gain, and not entirely senseless. Today, a few hours before reading this post, I had took it on myself to read Dr B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, and it’s conclusion–that there isn’t any hope for true justice (because the price is so outrageous to many), but I see that he wrote out his thesis, and his prescription anyways, just to allow for possibility of something better.

    That make me wonder if it’s possible to nothope-hope. Real hopelessness in action seems to be something on the order of John Brown’s kind of crazy. As a kind of profoundly unsocial sense of righteousness backed with maximalist prioritization of hardcore agency. Batman. Vanhelsing. I have trouble seeing TNC in that light.

    1. I will happily outsource my baby-making to you. LOL Thank you for reading.

      And I have had some of the best off-record talks about John Brown and “crazy” in an oppressive structure. If we ever cross paths we should hash that out some more.

  11. I haven’t eaten cornbread for twenty years because of a bad allergy to corn. But if I were going to use a cornbread analogy to Chait’s part in the debate, I would refer to it as “soggy cornbread.” The initial thrust of Chait’s argument in his first installment is to seek to preserve a respect for the moral integrity for the Republican Party and conservatives like Paul Ryan. He’s worried that the progressive critique of conservative racism will expel conservatives from the “American Project” or something like that. Chait states this through a number of aggressive poses, but the core argument is still pretty soggy stuff. I read his statements about the purported pessimism of Coates in the same way. Chait wants a narrative of American progress that includes conservatives and he wants blacks like Coates to agree. But from my perspective, Chait’s position seems like a weak kind of “don’t give up on us” special pleading. I’m a white progressive and I recognize the “progress” priority in myself, but you have to be pretty naive to not see white supremacy as fundamental to life in the United States past and present.

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