My last two posts have been attempts to address matters of race in (largely progressive) public education advocacy circles. Michael Lopez had a very thoughtful response to my post and Sabrina Joy Stevens wrote a powerful post related to the topic.
In the meantime, I have been following the recent conversation between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates, especially the references to "middle class" norms. I had a brief blog-based conversation with Matt Ygelsias surrounding this topic about three years ago as it has to do with education reform. Though we only talked about poverty and not about race. I remember making a conscious choice not to refer to race in those posts. Yglesias hadn't mentioned race and I guess I felt that my criticisms of his point of view were strong enough without pointing to race. I also wasn't sure that I as a white woman in conversation with a white man should say, your argument is lacking because race. I didn't want to use race as a rhetorical device.
Then commenter @MDS said, "we can not continue this conversation without confronting race." I didn't disagree but I didn't utter any regrets about it either. Now in retrospect I wonder if I was cowardly to not bring up race or if I "failed" to bring up race. I am certain that it was a neglected and necessary part of the conversation.
In any case, I have been drinking up every post that Coates has written lately and especially the posts he has written in response to Jonathan Chait about culture, poverty, and race. I have been so disappointed with Chait's responses and with other posts from white men. But then again, I have always found Chait's writing, especially on education, to be disappointing, so much so that I can hardly stand to read him. Nor do I find that he is particularly progressive or liberal, though I am starting to grow tired of such labels and am finding them more and more to be of limited use. So I started out biased.
What I find especially irksome was the idea that Coates has somehow "given up" (presumably on America or on America for African-Americans) or that he has become "profoundly pessimistic." Another more conservative friend recently told me he found Coates to be increasingly "shrill."
I don't find that at all. While Coates' writing can be emotional, he's fair, and nuanced when it's called for. Coates is incredibly well read and informed on race and the history of race in America. Each piece he writes on race in America brings something new--a new intellectual, a new quote, a deeper look, even if the topic is the same. He never fails to acknowledge that human beings are complex; he never fails to acknowledge the humanity of all people, even slaveholders. This is not someone who has given up.
And just the very fact of his engaging in such conversations is hopeful. Just the act of putting pen to paper in search of truth is hopeful. Just the act of studying, the act of seeking to understand is hopeful. And the constant work of sharing his understanding is hopeful work. It's the people who don't feel it's worth it to engage, to seek to understand, to help others to understand, who have given up, who are hopeless.
Furthermore, when white people stop trying to listen and to understand why Coates and other African-Americans feel and think the way they do, then that is giving up. Time and time again, Coates and his brothers and sisters of color return to the table to talk, to learn, to share their perspectives and what is fundamental to their experiences. They have so much more to lose than to gain from this, especially when their time is wasted by those who can't seem to hear them because they are too busy, as Tressie McMillan Cottom masterfully says here, "requiring hope."
Speaking the truth, as Coates has done, even when it reveals dark or ugly aspects of our society, brings understanding and knowledge. There is light in that and in that light there is so much hope. It's the continuing to believe in a lie and expecting people like Ta-Nehisi Coates to do the same that is so damn depressing and not progressive at all.