As I learn more about Critical Theory — in particular, its branches in education (Critical Pedagogy) and race (Critical Race Theory), I find myself thinking back to a guy who was once one of my favorite writers . . . but then wasn’t.
Specifically, I keep thinking back to the moment when I realized what I no longer liked or understood about his work. It’s only now, years later, that I realize it was because he had embraced Critical Race Theory.
I started reading Ta-Nehisi Coates when he was blogging for the Atlantic, back in 2007 or so. I read his blog for many years, enjoyed his first book, loved his second, most famous book, brought it into our school curriculum, and taught it for several years. I also bought his third book, a collection of his magazine essays, all of which I actually read when they appeared (typically in the Atlantic).
But toward the end of his run, particularly after Donald Trump became president, something in Coates’s writing seemed to change. What I had loved about his work was his understanding of history, particularly the way he used his own exploration into the history of race to illuminate America’s long-standing racial injustices and where they came from. I learned a great deal from his writing.
I don’t remember when the change started happening, but I remember the moment I knew there was something quite different about his writing that just no longer made sense to me. It was his article on how Donald Trump was “The First White President” — written in the Atlantic in 2017.
In this article, Coates read the main, central cause of Donald Trump’s election as racism (or, as Coates would put it, white supremacy — Coates was the first writer I read who used this phrase to describe a general system that included most white people, not just open white supremacists). In 2017 I hated Donald Trump and considered him a racist and I still do. I was deeply rattled by his election and what it said about our country, and I felt sure that a large part of his election was a racist reaction on the part of voters to eight years of a black president.
But even I was uncomfortable about Coates’s totalistic focus on race in the article. It was not so much that he identified race as an important factor, but that he identified it as the only factor worth considering. The picture he painted was of a United States in which the sole reason nearly half the country voted was basic racism and a wish to see one of their own racial tribe emerge victorious. It seemed so . . . reductive . . . cynical.
Ironically, it was what Coates himself had taught me through his earlier writings that made me question this article (and some of his work leading up to this, as I recall). He had once written a piece, perhaps a blog, that really resonated with me. It talked about how he felt that his job as a public intellectual was to consider important questions in all of their complexity, to resist easy answers, to ask probing questions, to strive for nuance at the same time as for clarity. I wish I could find it.
But with the Trump piece, as powerful as it was, it seemed that Coates was violating his own principles with his overwhelming focus on a single factor to the exclusion of all else. It was not as though he simply advanced a thesis that race was the important factor; he went out of his way to take others to task for what he felt was evading the supremacy of this sole, overarching cause. In the article, Coates criticized a variety of people on his own side — fellow writers and progressives — who he did not think had called out the racism of white Trump voters. Perhaps this was, Coates said rather explicitly, because these writers themselves were white and were protecting racist sentiments among their own kind.
The reason I am even remembering this whole affair is because of George Packer.
George Packer was then a journalist at the New Yorker and now is at the Atlantic. He has been a fairly outspoken progressive, but even that was not enough for Coates. “White tribalism haunts even more nuanced writers,” Coates writes of Packer. This in itself is quite an insinuation to make in the Atlantic. But Coates’s five-paragraph critique that follows is even more remarkable.
He first attacks Packer for what he considers faulty analysis of Trump’s voter support in 2016, but then acknowledges, “Packer’s essay was published before the election, and so the vote tally was not available.” Nevertheless, he explains why Packer should have known better, but offers no data to support his own claim. The problem isn’t that Packer doesn’t believe racism as a factor, but not enough of one. Coates complains, “Racism occupies a mostly passive place in [his] essay.” Coates then goes after Packer for being “gentle with his subjects” — insinuating that Packer should have jumped to call a woman in his article a racist because she told him, “I want to eat what I want to eat, and for them to tell me I can’t eat French fries or Coca-Cola—no way.” How is that racist? Because, to Coates, it’s clearly aimed at Michelle Obama — an African American woman. While Packer concludes she is rebelling against “the moral superiority of elites,” Coates steps in to helpfully remind us that “this elite conspiracy dates back to 1894, when the government first began advising Americans on their diets.” If only Packer had known! Surely then he’d have recognized the clear racism on display. Unfortunately, “Packer never allows himself to wonder whether the explosion he witnessed had anything to do with the fact that similar advice now came from the country’s first black first lady.” Perhaps Packer never allows himself to wonder this because it’s such a stretch.
Then Coates takes a cheap shot at Packer for including a line about how Obama left the country “more divided and angrier than most Americans can remember.” Packer’s line is just a simple descriptor, and it’s in the midst of a subtle point he is making about tribalism. But Coates jumps all over it, writing that this is “a statement that is likely true only because most Americans identify as white. Certainly the men and women forced to live in the wake of the beating of John Lewis, the lynching of Emmett Till, the firebombing of Percy Julian’s home, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers would disagree.” It’s hard not to feel as though Coates is really writing in bad faith here, teeing up on such a throwaway line.
The worst is at the end of the passage when Coates again tees up on a brief line by Packer and from this draws the conclusion that Packer somehow dismisses any concerns that African American voters have. Coates is very harsh, writing:
“That this suite of concerns, taken together, can be dismissed by both an elite economist like Summers and a brilliant journalist like Packer as ‘diversity’ simply reveals the safe space they enjoy. Because of their identity.”
Again, after reading Packer’s article, which is a really subtle, well-researched, fair-minded look at why a certain group votes for Trump, I am left feeling that Coates was really, really uncharitable and off-base in his reading of Packer. Basically, he thinks Packer is evading the real issue at the heart of why Trump voters voted the way they did, which was because of racism. In failing to focus his article solely on this factor, Packer is motivated by white tribalism and possibly a racist dismissal of the real issue. It’s pretty remarkable.
But now I know what’s going on because now I know that Coates — and this is why his work started to seem so off to me — had come under the sway of Critical Race Theory.
Critical Race Theory, as I have begun to learn, starts with the belief that racism underlies absolutely everything in our society — every disparity of outcome, every interaction, nearly every decision we make. CRT is the marriage of neo-Marxism — with its focus on conflict theory, the warring for power in a zero-sum game between oppressor groups and oppressed — with Freudian psychology that seeks to explain the false consciousness of the participants — the cultural hegemony that the oppressors use to keep the oppressed content and believing in the validity of the system, and the internalized ignorance and dominance of the oppressor that allows them to believe they are not acting in evil ways.
This critique of Packer is coming straight out of CRT. It sees race as the sole, singular, almost-mystical cause — and any evasion of that is proof of further racism.
I remember this whole affair not because of Coates’s article, but because Packer responded in the Atlantic. His response, which wasn’t even that long, stands out to me from three years ago because it dared to come out and say something that I very much felt needed to be said — and which I now realize is perhaps even more important to say. It’s not just that he was talking back to Coates, who’d become by then almost a god on the progressive left. It was that — even though Packer didn’t say this — he wasn’t just criticizing Coates, he was criticizing Critical Race Theory itself.
The part of Packer’s response that I remember best was this sentence: “I don’t ask Coates to read everything I’ve written, but I’ll ask him to stop thinking he can see into my soul and find the true source of my ideas in my white privilege.”
For me, that hit the nail on the head. Coates’s essay — and much of the writing on race from Critical Theorists that I have read since — has this element of trying to see into people’s souls. This view says that because of their positionality in the hierarchical matrix of oppression, they are incapable of realizing the truth, which is the all-consuming nature of racial oppression and bigotry.
The most revealing part of Coates’s whole article to me was his central critique of Packer. Packer, in his earlier article that Coates takes such issue with, has dared to write that a particular rightward political shift, “couldn’t be attributed just to the politics of race.”
Again, Coates jumps on a single line and extrapolates — via CRT — something far more sinister than a fair reading of Packer’s work would warrant. And in fact what he writes really sums up CRT in a nutshell. Coates writes:
This is likely true—the politics of race are, themselves, never attributable ‘just to the politics of race.’ The history of slavery is also about the growth of international capitalism; the history of lynching must be seen in light of anxiety over the growing independence of women; the civil-rights movement can’t be disentangled from the Cold War. Thus, to say that the rise of Donald Trump is about more than race is to make an empty statement, one that is small comfort to the people—black, Muslim, immigrant—who live under racism’s boot.
What an odd statement, but it makes sense in the logic of CRT because for CRT, any explanation other than racism is an evasion and leads back to racism. For Coates, saying that Trump’s rise “is about more than race” is an “empty statement” — because it all comes back to racism. It’s remarkable how Coates reads such an informed, nuanced essay as Packer’s as a simple evasion. Again, it’s worth remembering that Coates’s thesis about Trump voters is purely a projection. He has not interviewed or spoken to any Trump voters for his piece, while Packer interviewed, spent time with, and quoted a number of them in his.
CRT sees race everywhere — and we live in a time when I think most people are starting to realize that race lurks in a lot more places than we imagined. But at the same time, once you start looking for a single cause everywhere, you’re going to find it — including in places it may not exist, or may only partially explain what’s going on. Again, I am not trying to downplay the role of racism in the United States or suggesting that we aren’t much better off searching harder for its existence. I am only suggesting that CRT, in its single-minded pursuit of racism, can become a far less effective way to learn about reality than a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Packer writes: “When you construct an entire teleology on one cause—even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism—you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis.”
I mean, you don’t have to think hard about alternate causes for voting Republican in 2016. Packer throws out a few of the obvious ones — sexism toward Hillary Clinton, xenophobia, urban-rural divide. He doesn’t even mention ones like the hope that Trump will fill the Supreme Court with conservatives. Packer writes, “But we live in a time of total vindication, when complication and concession are considered weaknesses, and counter examples are proof of false consciousness. This spirit has taken over Coates’s writing.” It was remarkable to hear someone on the cultural left say this out loud in 2017, but I think it fit perfectly.
The responses to Packer’s essay were harsh. People really took him to task for “whitesplaining” Coates and even apologizing for racism. It was an interesting, somewhat disturbing tactic that I had not seen often at the time but have seen more and more since. It can be expected that criticizing Coates, who was and is a progressive icon, would incur blowback. But it struck me that Packer was not allowed to debate the source of his own motives. Critical Race Theory had psychologized him; his consciousness was false, and any evasion of admitting the deep, dark truth was tantamount to defending the very worst accusations leveled against him.
To me, Packer’s short response still stands as an act of bravery in confronting Critical Race Theory’s singular, obsessive focus on race, its psychologizing of anyone and everyone, its view of the world as inherently black-and-white and tribal, its belief that ultimately race is what lurks in every decision, its disregard for nuance, and its turning over every stone and obsessively finding just what it is looking for.
To see a nuanced thinker like Coates go there was disappointing. But right now it sure seems like a lot more people have followed.