Ta-Nehisi Coates, Race Relations, Post-Charlottesville, and the Jews

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long essay in the “Atlantic”—“The First White President: The Foundation of Donald Trump’s Presidency is the Negation of Barack Obama’s Legacy” (October, 2017), —is in my view the most revealing about the current state of race relations, in the U.S. but with global implications, since James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” was published in the New Yorker in 1963. In Coates’ view, Trump’s “post-modern presidency” and anti-black racism in the White House are synonymous. Jews reading it are asking themselves the question: Which Side Am I On?

It has taken a long time for African American writers to achieve what political scientists call “agency”—the ability to shape proactively their careers. Born in poor Baltimore, Coates is the son of a self-empowered father—a Vietnam veteran and Black Panther who started his own “black-oriented” publishing company. Coates emphasizes that he grew up in his father’s, not his school teacher mother’s, immediate household, learning an ethic of black masculine pride, although not graduating college. Coates faced some criticism in 2016 about the purchase of a $2.1 million Brooklyn Brownstone. Yet nobody doubts that he calls his own shots professionally. Both empowered and self-empowered, Coates is a beneficiary, albeit ambivalent, of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

James Baldwin, on the other hand, was a child of the Harlem Ghetto. His stepfather was a harsh Baptist minister; young James really did not find room to express fully his gay identity or his literary gift until he journeyed to Europe. Arguably, Baldwin was model and template for new generations of fearless African American writers and social critics culminating in Coates. Baldwin’s own history was profoundly implicated with American Jews and their complicated alliances with African Americans. In 1948, his first published essay, “The Harlem Ghetto,” explored African American anti-Semitism in “Commentary.” Yet by 1963, he was in a position to shine on “Commentary”’s editor Norman Podhoretz, who deserves some credit for encouraging Baldwin to write “The Fire Next Time,” in favor of the much better-paying, the “New Yorker.” It may not be easy, but capitalism can be made to work by courageous, creative African Americans like Baldwin and now Coates.

Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” derived its title from a black spiritual’s couplet, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time.” Baldwin’s essay and book were written when the African American-Jewish civil rights alliance—culminating in the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking side-by-side at 1965’s Selma Voting Rights March—was on the rise. By 1968, when Rev. King was assassinated in Memphis, both the Black-Jewish alliance and Baldwin’s vision of trans-racial brotherhood were on the wane: victims of race riots, white backlash, Black Power Nationalism, and Jewish resentment at African American criticism of Israel in the wake of 1967’s Six Day War. Of course, Rev. King ultimately repudiated the Vietnam War, and certainly sympathized with Palestinians. Yet to the day he died, he never retreated from his “Zionist” commitment to the Jewish people as friends and allies.

A remarkable thing, at least to me, about Coates’ almost biblical Jeremiad against Donald Trump is that—despite the white racist anti-Semitic chants in Charlottesville that “The Jews won’t replace us”—the words “Jew” and “anti-Semitism” as well as “Israel” do not appear in Coates’ essay. His books and blog posts do talk about Jews, but almost perfunctorily; what a contrast with James Baldwin! The words “immigrant” and “immigrants” appear but rarely in Coates’ essay, but more often in relation to post-1965 newcomers from Latin America and Asia—not European immigrants pre-1920. The story of the U.S. as “A Land of Immigrants” that partly lifted John F. Kennedy into the presidency in 1960 is largely absent here. Sometimes, absences speak volumes.

The same speaking by silence is true of Jonathan Capehart’s recent “Washington Post” essay—“‘The First White President’ is a ‘Bad Dude’” (January 18)—announcing his reluctant, lockstep conversion to Coates’ view of President Donald Trump as the personification of the “white supremacy” that, according to Coates, is America’s “bloody heir,” “ancestral talisman,” and “awful inheritance” since before 1776 up to 2017. Coates even quotes James Baldwin that white America has “brought humanity to the edge of oblivion” not only on these shores but planet-wide.

This is quite an argument to swallow, but it is made brilliantly—I can only wonder at Coates’ rhetorical and polemical skills—nor does he sugar coat it. His condemnation of Trump-voting White Americans—from “Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker”—even extends to “escapist” white leftists, parodied as practitioners of a sort of color-blind, but morally-blind Marxism. Leftists’ “escapism” from racist realities and their felt need to ennoble to downtrodden white working class results in “a raceless anti-racism” that woefully fails to explain why “an opioid epidemic among mostly white people is greeted with calls for compassion and treatment, as all epidemics should be, while a crack epidemic among mostly black people is greeted with scorn and mandatory minimums.”

Coates wrote a book critical of “Barack Obama: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” (2017). The only white politician here for whom he shows a grudging sympathy here is Hillary Clinton, whose honest speech on the danger of “the alt-right” was ignored or derided even by the left, and whose critique of “institutional racism” was too little, too late in the eyes of her young radical detractors.

Coates’ essay is indeed a Jeremiad indeed that may be worthy of a Hebrew Prophet. The only glimmer of hope offered is not the Judeo-Christian God—long ago angrily abandoned by James Baldwin—but what to me is Coates’ ambiguous affirmation of his idiosyncratic “identity politics” inclusive enough to bridge the gap between classes and cultures in America.

I view Coates in a great tradition of African American prophetic voices, once primarily from the pulpit but now prominent in all forms of media. He evokes a terrifying vision of our racial misrule which all Americans—including Jews, whether white or nonwhite—should take very seriously.

But I must offer serious reservations as an historian, for over forty years of African American-Jewish relations, who was a teenager when James Baldwin addressed the first part of “The Fire Next Time” to his teenage nephew. I cut my own historiographical teeth in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the scintillating comparative scholarship on slavery and racism of Eugene Genovese and the recently-deceased David Brion Davis, one of two Pulitzer Prize winning mentors of mine. The other is historian of the Whig Party and Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Walker Howe.

Here are a few of the problems I see with Coates’ remarkable essay.

First, Coates is a prolific, fearless journalist—nobody’s “house servant,” not even when Obama was in the White House. But Coates’ trends not only toward the melodramatic but the apocalyptic in analyzing American race relations. On the one hand, he cuttingly exposes the increasing dangers of our racist peril, post-Charlottesville. On the other hand, he paints a despairing picture demonizing not only President Trump but a huge chunk of voters who pulled the lever for Trump in November 2016. Contrary to Coates’ protesting too much, I am convinced that they voted for Trump predominately out of “anti-elite” populist class-and-cultural resentment, no reflex white racism.

Second, around 75 percent of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton; under 25 percent for Donald Trump. I am also convinced that a large majority of secular Jewish Trumpites voted not out of white racism, but because they were concerned (rightly or wrongly) that the Obama Administration’s foreign policy had imperiled both Israel and the U.S. Most Orthodox Jewish Trump voters liked The Donald for reasons of their own distinctive version of class-and-cultural populism, not simple racism.

In today’s America, a small dose of Ta-Nehisi Coates—and Malcolm X—is tonic. But what we need is a renewed fearless mega dose of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who walked side-by-side—“praying with their feet” (in Heschel’s words)—in 1965’s Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march for American equality for all and against racism and discrimination in any form. King (1929) and Heschel (1907) were born a generation apart, but only a few days apart in the month of January, the same month that the historic Selma March began.

Coates paints virtually all white Americans with a white racist brush as “soul brothers” of John C. Calhoun, godfather of 1861’s Secession Movement, and George F. Fitzhugh, the arch-reactionary white racist theoretician whose views found echoes in 2017 in Charlottesville.

Yet America also gave us Abraham Lincoln. In the racist maelstrom of Illinois politics, Lincoln had the courage to tell white male voters regarding any “black woman” that—though though he might not “want her for a wife”—she “in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else, . . . is my equal, and the equal of all others.”

Lincoln—also “a white president”—was a Republican of a special kind. The Question is: can there be another?

Lincoln the Great Emancipator—who revoked General Grant’s notorious General Order No. 11 of December 17, 1862, that had ordered the expulsion of all Jews in the Tennessee military district—was a friend of the Jews.

American school kids know—or used to—which side won the Civil War. Game of Thrones producers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, seem not so sure. Might they hire Coates to salvage, by injecting a Black Panther-style story line, their troubled HBO alternative history series, Confederate? I hope not.

Charlottesville’s synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, after police no-shows, had to hire its own armed guards for self-protection from Neo-Nazi thugs, while St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation upset the police—and Twitterstormers demanding “#GasTheSynagogue”—by opening its door to protesters against the acquittal of a white officer for killing a black suspect. What lies ahead for synagogues on new firing lines?

There is this glimmer of hope for today’s new civil rights protesters, again “praying with their feet,” who take Lincoln’s—and Steven Spielberg’s—side in the Civil War. In January, 2017, a national poll showed that Barack Obama—with 51 percent vs. 35 percent support—was still far-and-away the most popular politician in America.

As the Jewish New Year approaches, the perennial question—“Is It Good For the Jews?”—takes on a new urgency and in a new form. What exactly at this crisis, post-Charlottesville point in American history is good for Jews and in particular their historic alliance with African Americans for racial and religious justice for all Americans? My answer is that giving up on America’s future, black and white inclusive, would NOT be good for the Jews.

About the Author
Born in the shadow of the old Yankee Stadium, I grew up in Los Angeles where I did my undergraduate and graduate work at UCLA. I spent 10 years teaching at American universities before joining the Wiesenthal Center. I've published widely, both in journalism and in scholarship. My new book, coauthored with Ephraim Isaac, "From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans," will be published next month by Africa World Press.
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