Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic and Jonathan Chait of New York have, over the past week, been engaged in something equal parts duel and duet in the pixels of their respective magazine's websites. Their debate has plumbed the depths of race and racism in America, working out the questions of civic and historical responsibility in a public forum with respect and grace. As readers and citizens we are privileged to bear witness to this dialogue. They've also thrown some damn good shade at each other, so let's look at that.
The exchange begins with Chait's response to Coates on "The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males." Chait's opens his essay—the rather poorly-titled, in comparison, "Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Poverty, and Culture"—with praise for Coates, because this is how civilized beings address each other.
"Coates, who is one of my favorite writers, advocates what used to be the standard liberal view."
"Ultimately, Coates is circling back to an argument that prevailed among liberals in the 1970s and 1980s, and which Democrats abandoned, correctly."
(Chait goes on, but it's all very substantial and dense and thoughtful and that's not really what we're here for, is it?)
Coates replies in kind, with a strong essay and an even stronger title: "Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind"—an allusion to Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind." (Allusions are always good, Jonathan. Keep this in mind in the future.)
"Among opinion writers," Coates begins, "Jonathan Chait is outranked in my esteem only by Hendrik Hertzberg. This lovely takedown of Robert Johnson is a classic of the genre, one I studied incessantly when I was sharpening my own sword. The sharpening never ends. With that in mind, it is a pleasure to engage Chait in the discussion over President Obama, racism, culture, and personal responsibility. It's good to debate a writer of such clarity—even when that clarity has failed him." High praise indeed!
But then, the next paragraph: "On y va." That's it. THAT'S IT. It's French.
Again, Coates offers lots of substantive arguments and evidence. His writing is like the ringing of a bell. But whatever, because he also gets in some sick burns:
"Chait's theory of independent black cultural pathologies sounds reasonable. But it can't actually be demonstrated in the American record, and thus has no applicability."
"What about the idea that white supremacy necessarily 'bred a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success'? Chait believes that it's 'bizarre' to think otherwise. I think it's bizarre that he doesn't bother to see if his argument is actually true."
"There is no need for theorizing. The answers are knowable."
Chait published his response this morning. It also has a weak title—"Barack Obama vs. the Culture of Poverty"—but it throws the gauntlet. Essentially, he argues that Coates has come to contradict his original position: "Four years ago, Ta Nehisi-Coates wrote one of the most important and memorable essays I've ever read," Chait writes, linking to Coates' excellent "Culture of Poverty."
"More recently, Coates has been engaging in a back-and-forth with me on this same subject," Chait continues. "We have several points of disagreement, the most important of which is that Coates now maintains that there is no such thing as a culture of poverty." (Yeah. He went there.)
Chait goes on:
"It is one thing to notice the persistence of racism, quite another to interpret the history of black America as mainly one of continuity rather than mainly one of progress."
"Given the vast gulf between the historical optimism shared by the president and his most loyal constituents, on the one hand, and the grim fatalism to which Coates is now turning, I can't imagine what representation Obama could possibly offer that would not disturb him."
This is a pretty incredible thing for the readership of both writers—for all readers, really.
A hundred Two hundred years ago this kind of debate likely would have taken place privately, in letters or parlor rooms or whatever. (Actually, a hundred years ago this debate—between a black intellectual and a white intellectual—likely wouldn't have taken place at all.) The fact that it is taking place online, in full view of anyone who might find herself on one website or the other is somewhat remarkable. Here's hoping Coates is working on a response..