The problem with Thomas Chatterton Williams’ article in the New York Times last week (October 6 2017) on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ conception of whiteness is there in the opening paragraphs: he equates Coates’ focus on American whiteness to German Sonderweg, using in particular Coates’ language in “The First White President” (October 2017, Atlantic) as evidence.
The problem is this, but let me explain first this:
(I should state here that I haven’t yet finished reading Coates’ new book and much of what I outline below is what I have gathered from sources here and there, which I will not cite at this time, and certainly not through focused or comprehensive readings. I have never studied of American History formally. So, bear with me. This is the gist of what I’m beginning to understand about racism in American History.)
Whiteness in America is legislated. You can actually trace whiteness back to the beginning of the American economy in its very early days of colonization when they tried to kick start the economy with cheap labor or indentured servitude. There was a lot of abuses of contract these indentured servants entered into. Owners of the contracts would sell indentured servants, extend their contracts willy nilly. They were beaten and raped and abused and murdered. All this was legislated. Indentured servants had no rights. All the rights were held by the owners of the contracts. These practices of treating poor people like property extended to and became more inhumane and terrible to those bodies they bought from Africa. Indentured servitude was the genesis of what American slavery became.
From what I understand, indentured servants and slaves protested their treatment since the the 17th century. The owners of these bodies realized that if the indentured servants and the slaves joined forces, the owners would be outnumbered and outrun. So, one of the things those who had power did was to make laws that divided the indentured servants from the slaves by declaring into law that paler colored people, who were more often than not indentured, no matter their class, were part of the greater category of people, white people, who were meant to to rise above and to achieve freedom and prosperity. Eventually. Someday. But the darker people, the black ones even, they would have to continue to be slaves, because they were inherently inferior.
Those poor pale pitiful people wanted so desperately to not be indentured anymore. It was a matter of better you than me. They went along with it. They were motivated by self-preservation to go along with it. Who could blame them?
Psychologically, though, this didn’t sit right with anyone. Spend enough time with slaves and they could see clear as day that these darker people were human beings like you and me. And so emerged the need to create racism, where an obvious and manufactured phenotype (race) was coupled with human vices. Vices like criminality, laziness, stupidity, ignorance, dependency, irresponsibility, insensitivity to both physical and emotional pain, lack of parental instincts, and gross sexual appetite were attributed to the slaves’, well, melanin. Such a specious and sketchy-as-fuck claim. But people needed to not feel like shit about what they were doing and, let’s face it, wanting. They needed the lie. So they lied to themselves, lied to everyone who would listen to them, including the slaves, to dehumanize the Africans, attribute all manner of human vices to, well, melanin.
By doing this, slave owners were able to live with themselves for owning and treating human beings as slaves. They could tell themselves that these creature were only good for free labor. They were animals, really. Right? They were not human beings like them. Oh no…. And they passed laws to make official that these darker people, let’s call them Negros, were viewed by the state as animals, as property, as creatures that could never afford independence and freedom.
By dehumanizing black people, by putting upon them all the facets of humanity that white people deemed as unsavory, undesirable, all that they couldn’t stand about themselves, they could then define whiteness as the photo negative of black people, all the things and the only things they wished they were. They are only what black people are not.
All human frailty or failure became housed in the phenotype assigned to those from Africa. The creation of race, or a reductive phenotype, stemmed from the need to assign values to this phenotype, also known as racism. Thus the idea that racism is the mother of race, rather than the other way around. Race was constructed out of the need for racism.
So here’s the problem with Williams’ argument:
There is a clear history, which I believe Coates outlines in his new book, of manufacturing whiteness in America through legislation. It’s not mythological. It’s only mythological seeming or magical, like some floating glowing unknowable amulet of evil, if you don’t know the history. But Coates knows the history. He’s got the receipts, as he says. There is no mystery to whiteness as far as Coates understands it. He knows where it comes from and why and he understands how and why it manifests the way it does in modern time. He describes it as a magical disembodied mythic status in his recent essay because so much of our history has been whitewashed and thus the whiteness is rendered mystical rather than a result of America’s earliest economic concerns. When he used the language of magic and sorcery to describe whiteness in his latest Atlantic essay, he was describing, not his perspective of whiteness, but how the White Supremacists in the US wield whiteness, as a magical charm, something special and mystical given on to them for being born with paler skin.
Williams’ assertion that Coates himself views whiteness the same way Spencer or Duke views whiteness, therefore, is false. His conclusion comes from a misreading and a crude interpretation of Coates’ essay and his new book.
Coates’ focus on the creation of race is for the purpose of dismantling it. Only by understanding its manufactured nature can one understand American history and only by understanding American history can we start to think about how to correct the trajectory of this history.
Sonderweg and the neo-Nazi obsession with it is a mythic ideology based on whiteness. It embraces the violence that whiteness has some cosmic and genetic right to inflict on the world. As it is wielded by people like Spencer and Duke, its raison d’être is to exert power over everyone, the ultimate power being the power to take life.
Coates focuses on whiteness is in order to dismantle it by understanding its origins. It’s a made thing, he says. It’s fiction. There’s nothing mystical or magical about whiteness. He takes all the power away from whiteness. Sonderweg depends on whiteness being mystical and magical. Thus, equating Coates’ conception of whiteness to White Supremacists’ conception of whiteness is, to put it mildly, a false equivalence.
Williams’ argument may appear sound because it is logical given its premises. However, his premises are flawed. He detached Coates’ focus on race from history, history which Coates well understands and describes, and then it was but a small step to claim that Coates has a mystical view of whiteness, taking Coates’ words about amulet of whiteness out of context, and further accuses Coates of offering something less than a solution to the problem of whiteness, that rather he empowers it. When William’s thesis is held up to the context of Coates’ work, it blanches.
Now, the accusation that Coates offers no solution to racism may well be true up to a point. I would argue that at the very least Coates offers understanding the problem of racism. And that is the first step to any solution.