In an interview with his longtime friend Neil Drumming on National Public Radio’s “This American Life” last November, the celebrated Black American author Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about his new life in Paris, where he enjoys fine food and experiences personal training at “a really nice gym.” Coates described himself as “a snob,” someone for whom expensive things matter. At the same time he hastened to add that “I don’t think I’m bougie.” It was an interesting distinction. Coates expounded on the difference:
Neil Drumming: “OK. That’s like – I feel like for This American Life, you’re going to have to explain that.’
Ta-Nehisi Coates: “what bougie means? …So ‘bougie’ is a term that black people use – and I guess white people have used it now, ’cause I see white people using it – which I think people think is interchangeable with ‘snob.’ But I actually don’t think [that’s right]…a bougie’s a snob who looks down….bougie people want to be part of a crowd…they want to be part of the right crowd. So for instance, I don’t want to put my son in some exclusive club or something, literally like some sort of societal something or other. Do you know what I mean?”
Drumming: “So bougie is a status thing. It’s about … “
Coates: “Yeah, I don’t care about any of that. I actually don’t care about my status….I don’t go to a nice gym so that I can then tell you I go to a nice gym. I don’t have any concern about being seen with the right people. You know what I’m saying? Like, I don’t have that. I don’t need to be at the right parties….Like, I don’t need any of that…..Snobbery, to me, is about, like, things [laughter] And not about people at all. In fact, it’s much worse than bougie.”
As someone who loathes the bourgeoisie but cannot stand cheap wine or standard diner coffee (I guess I’m at least petit-“bougie” when it comes to food and drink), I take Coates at his word when he claims not to crave elite class identity and to be more concerned with things, not status. At the same time, I think there’s something else worse to be than “bougie”: bourgeois. And what makes one bourgeois is one’s material and social class position and one’s mental and ideological framework, things that go beyond one’s fondness (or lack thereof) for fine goods and service and one’s quest (or lack thereof) for station. Among other things, a bourgeois world view denies the central importance of class oppression and the need for working class unity and struggle across racial and other lines.
Seen this way, I sense that the word bourgeois applies fairly well to Ta-Nehisi Coates. The economic aspect is obvious. He’s moved his family to Paris, with help from a recent $625,000 no-strings-attached “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. His book royalties are no doubt impressive. No, he’s not remotely as rich as world’s 80 wealthiest people who together possess as much wealth as the planet’s 3.6 billion poorest people. He’s not some kind of elite financier. Still, the man is well off. He enjoys a financial foundation to go with “bougie” tastes, which cannot be indulged without membership in the club of the moneyed.
What about the ideological element? Let’s examine a pivotal paragraph that appears early in Coates’ recent New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me. The book is a long and eloquent, highly personal letter to his teenage son on the deep societal, institutional, and cultural racism that has marred the United States from its early republican origins through the present era of racially disparate mass arrest, police-shooting, incarceration, and criminal-marking. On the second page, Coates reflects on the skin color of American “democracy”:
“Americans deify democracy in a way the allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God…In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863 that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure ‘that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,’ he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the term ‘people’ to actually mean. In 1863, it did not mean your mother or your grandmother and it did not mean you and me. Thus, America’s problem is not its betrayal of the ‘government of the people’ but the means by which the people acquired their name” (emphasis added).
There is obvious truth in this historical statement. Coates is right, of course, to note the exclusion of Blacks and women – not to mention slaves and Native Americans – from the nation’s reigning racist and sexist definition of “We the People” and its intimately related circumscription of the officially qualified electorate in the first nine decades of the United States republic.
Still, as someone who has published a mountain of deeply researched literature on and against specifically racist anti-Black racism past and present , I must launch some harsh questions at Coates’ sophisticated passage. Do majority white-Americans really “deify democracy”? That’s not been my impression over nearly five decades (I started young) of paying attention to what my fellow Americans seem to value most. Money, consumption, status, and the quest for basic economic security seem to have a much greater hold over the populace than belief in the importance of popular sovereignty. And I’ve run across many more Americans who deify, well, God (with no small authoritarian impact) than those who worship the principle of one person, one vote and equal policymaking influence for all.
More importantly and far more significantly for the purposes of this essay, why does Coates devalue the “the question [of] whether Lincoln truly meant government of the people?” And why does an official, foundation-certified genius who writes with elegance and knowledge about the American historical experience think that the U.S. has not regularly and consistently betrayed the democratic ideal – this even if we were to limit our definition of “the people” to white males?
The problem here is Coates’ remarkably class-blind, overly identity-politicized bourgeois thinking and his related ignorance of the history of class relations and their centrality to the crucial problem that quite understandably concerns him: racial oppression. Democracy, it should be recalled, was the U.S. Founding Fathers’ ultimate nightmare. Their republican-bourgeois ideology and the U.S. Constitution were monuments to the determination of propertied elites to keep the horror of popular sovereignty at bay. One need only peruse the Federalist Papers to see that fundamentally authoritarian, “small r republican” world view in play. Drawn from the elite propertied segments of late British colonial North America, the delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention shared their compatriot John Jay’s view that “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” For the nation’s top owners and architects, the term conferred “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.” And by “masses,” no small point, they meant primarily property-less and property-poor whites. It was a sentiment shared by the nation’s ruling class into and across the 19th century.
It is true that “white manhood suffrage” became universal, or close to it, by the end of the Antebellum era, as the capitalist Democrats and capitalist Whigs (the latter was displaced by the Republicans in the late 1850s) competed for an expanding base of voters to dazzle with “common man” campaigning (early experiments in “the manipulation of populism by elitism” that a still left Christopher Hitchens identified as “the essence of American politics”). But, well…so what? It’s not just that Blacks (most of whom were slaves), women, and Native Americans were savagely excluded from “the people” understood as the electorate. It’s also that the vote didn’t go very far in granting anything like a real voice to the white working classes in 19th century America. The currency of electoral politics could be safely given to white proletarians, artisans, and small farmers because it was badly devalued. “The more that active participation in government was opened to the property-less strata in society,” the great left U.S. historian David Montgomery once noted, “the less capacity elected officials seemed to have to shape the basic contours of social life” – a reflection of the fact that “the economy was effectively insulated from democratic control” through the development of vast, ever-expanding slave plantations across the South and large factories and other giant, top-down capitalist enterprises well protected from, and beyond the scope of, popular rule in the North. Meanwhile, American government remained firmly in the hands of the nation’s mercantile and developing industrial bourgeoisie. It increasingly turned to policing democracy-disabling “free market” relations on behalf of moneyed elites in both the slave South and the “free labor” North. The 1830s and 1840s saw the development of urban police forces deployed to break strikes and discipline union formed by white artisans and wage-earners who objected to the rise of the new mass labor-commodifying capitalist age.
The contradiction between bourgeois class rule on one hand and formal democracy defined and sold largely as universal suffrage – the vote – continues into the present day. In a major study released in 2014, the leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported that U.S. democracy no longer exists (that assumes that it ever did). Over the past few decades, Gilens and Page determined that the U.S. political system became “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule,” wielding wildly disproportionate power over national policy. Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steered the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” The thesis holds, the leading academics noted, regardless of which of the two dominant political parties holds nominal power in Washington. Such is the harsh class-rule reality of the U.S. “existing capitalist democracy”— what Noam Chomsky calls “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’”
What’s all this “class stuff” got to do with the vital topic on which the award-winning writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates focus – racial oppression and racist violence in America? Quite a bit, to say the least. From the nation’s colonial origins through the present day, the North American masters’ ability to rule over the nation’s multiracial but still predominantly white working, lower, and middle classes has always relied fundamentally on the special super-exploitation, oppression, segregation, and abuse of Black people and bodies. As the historian Edmund S. Morgan showed in his brilliant study American Slavery, American Freedom (1976) Black chattel slavery and the harsh racial codes that went with it emerged in 17th century Virginia as the ruling white tobacco planter class’s solution to its labor and class problem: the resistance of mostly (though not exclusively) white servants and small property holders to the inequality and misery imposed on them by the white propertied elite.
Beginning in the early 19th century, Black chattel cotton slavery provided critical material underpinning for the emergence of labor-exploiting industrial capitalism in the U.S. By the 1840s, historian Edward Baptist shows, U.S. capitalism had “built a complex industrialized economy on the backs of enslaved people and their highly profitable cotton labor.” The mostly white and oppressed, economically and (for all intents and purpose) politically disenfranchised working class of the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction and Gilded Age era – comprised of people who routinely and understandably called themselves “wage slaves” – owed its exploited, and not-so “free labor” existence to capitalism’s murderous, super-exploitation of Black slaves in the South.
All through American history, moreover – from the early republic through the current neoliberal age of racist mass incarceration and felony branding (what law professor Michelle Alexander has called “the New Jim Crow”) – the nation’s capitalist elites have played the Machiavellian game of racial divide and rule to keep the nation’s working class majority down. In the current savagely class-hierarchical New Gilded Age, the nation’s top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% while half the population is officially poor or near poor and white male middle aged mortality has increased dramatically in accord with the sinister, soul-crushing disappearance of economic opportunity for working class men of all colors. White working class people appear to be unlikely recruits for the cause of Black reparations that Coates claims to advocate. It’s a cause that I have long embraced with little confidence that it has any viability with white working people who are struggling to keep their heads above water in the neoliberal era.
Which brings us to “the wages of whiteness” – U.S. historian David Roediger’s phrase – in the age of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Why hasn’t the majority white U.S. working class risen up to destroy the socio-pathological profits system and the pitiless capitalist masters who have treated the laboring masses, the common good, and the global environment we all share with murderous contempt? Part of the answer lay in the way that American capitalism has encouraged the white majority of workers to, in Roediger’s words, “define and accept their class position by fashioning identities as ‘not slaves’ and ‘not black,’” By W.E.B. DuBois’ account in 1935, anti-black racism grants lower and working-class whites a perverse kind of “public and psychological wage” – a false and dysfunctional measure of status used to “compensate” for alienating and exploitative class relationships. As Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1968, racialized U.S. capitalism gave its Caucasian proletarian prey the “satisfaction of…thinking you are somebody big because you are white.” A long continental racial division and shame rooted in the profit calculations and class needs of colonial and early national slave-owners – and their mercantile, industrial and political allies – continues to this day to obstruct working class unity to overthrow the absurdly unequal and authoritarian regime of capital, which now poses an ever more imminently catastrophic threat to livable ecology. (It does so along with what I would call the related psychological “wages of maleness” and “wages of Empire”: the sense that one is a big shot because one is male and because one lives in the world’s military superpower).
The “satisfaction of thinking you are somebody because you are white” has always been a terrible lie. It has helped cloak white workers’ subordinate and expendable status, which never disappeared despite the very real if limited advantages white skin privilege has conferred them relative to non-whites. It has injured those workers’ material status by undermining their capacity to enhance their economic and political power by joining in solidarity with nonwhite workers. It has too often joined them in allegiance to rich fellow whites who couldn’t care less about working class people of any color. It has focused white workers’ ire on the wrong enemies – those with the least power (non-white workers and the poor) instead of the moneyed elite, which wields its wealth and power to cripple and destroy lives and the common good. And it has (along with numerous other the related reactionary messages in the reigning American ideology) encouraged white workers to blame themselves as well as even less privileged people of color for their own difficult circumstances under the remorseless reign of capital. “Privileged” people are supposed to be doing well, after all. If they’re not, it must be their own fault. Hence the rising death rates of working class white males, driven largely by alcoholism, drug abuse, and gun suicide. Hence also the popularity of “The [white racist-sexist-nationalist] Donald” with millions of angry and marginalized white male “Trumpenproletarians.”
Coates almost seems to be an advocate of the Roediger thesis. Here is a curious passage near the end of Between the World and Me:
“For the men who believed themselves white, [Black] bodies were key to a social club and the right to break the bodies was a mark of civilization. ‘The two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black,’ said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. ‘And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.’ And there it is – the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below…You and I, my son, are that ‘below.’ That was true in 1776. It’s true today. There is no them without you and without the right to break you they must necessarily from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream….”
But note the difference between Coates on one hand and DuBois on the other. Coates doesn’t bother or perhaps care to subject Calhoun’s preposterous notion that rich white and poor white folks in the Antebellum era were both in the “upper class” to any basic Marxian or elementary Bernie Sanders-like critique. He just quotes the “great” (a curious word choice for the vicious South Carolina fire-eater) Calhoun from the 1830s and says “there it is”…nothing more to remark. The DuBois-Roediger thesis may lurk silently and ironically behind his judgement. Ot it may not. Who knows? Coates shows none of DuBois’ or King’s sense of how the Great Lies (indeed) of race and whiteness have been a cancer not only for America’s claim to democracy and (most obviously) for Blacks but also (if less obviously) for a white working class that is also very much (and today increasingly) “below” even if it is less further down than the hyper-segregated and mass incarcerated Black ghettoized poor (and the all too rarely mentioned Native American poor).
Coates demonstrates no concern for an essential point: the white working class majority has paid a terrible price for American racism. The wages of whiteness have been very low indeed. And that makes his reflections on contemporary U.S. racial oppression racism and what might be done about it miserably partial and inadequate. He does not see or, perhaps, care that reparations of a kind are due to most of the populace and will have to be pursed through democratic-socialist transformation: “the radical reconstruction of society itself” that Dr. King called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced.” And this despite having read (so he claims in Between the World and Me) the great Black Marxists DuBois and CLR James (what about Oliver Cox?) at Howard University.
Does the jet-setting American writer in Paris Ta Nahesi Coates really believe that he is further “below” in the American System than half-illiterate white people without high school degrees and struggling to get by on Wal-Mart or Tyson slaughterhouse wages and living in a dingy trailer park in semirural downstate Illinois or the hills of eastern Tennessee? Seriously? It’s not often that you find the neoliberal president Obama and the present Marxist writer (one of Obama’s earliest and most consistent critics) on the same page, but here I think the chief executive and I agree: Coates is absurdly wrong about that. His class blindness extends to himself, apparently.
Class and race cannot be meaningfully understood in isolation from each other in U.S history past and present. They are dialectically bound up one with the other, inseparably linked on numerous levels in the American historical experience. But all of this is likely lost on “bougie” Ta Nehisi Coates. As the Left commentator John Halle recently wrote me:
“’bougie’ is a contraction of ‘bourgeoisie’…Coates doesn’t mention its origin and seems to be clueless what that means: i.e. a specific class defined by its relationship to labor and capital. (You don’t need to be a Marxist to know this.) Ignoring all this Coates construes the word purely with respect to its social connotations-as if it’s some kind of idiotic fashion statement. The only interesting question is whether Coates is being cynical – he knows the real meaning of bourgeois as denoting a specific economic class and deliberately chooses not to mention it, or that his education is so impoverished – which is to say, neoliberalism has become so entrenched, that the most basic facts about class are not even recognized, let alone understood” (emphasis added).
I do not claim know which is the truer culprit in Coates’ case, cynicism or intellectual impoverishment. If I had to guess, I’d pick the first (cynicism). Same with the even more bourgeois (but actually less class-blind) Obama, by the way. Though here I would add a vital qualification: outward class blindness is a mark of educational refinement and elite schooling in the capitalist world.
Truth be told, and speaking of Obama. I am not sure how well Coates understands contemporary racism even on his own cynical and/or impoverished class-blind terms. I recently found the following exchange in an interview Coates gave to Slate last July:
Slate: “How else do you think black Americans will react to Obama leaving office?”
Coates: “I think black folks know what this was. A painful, lovely, beautiful, once in a lifetime thing.”
Interesting. Obama’s time in the White House has overlapped with astonishing drops in Black net-worth and home-ownership and an ongoing epidemic of police murders of young Black men. Black mass incarceration and criminal supervision remain deeply entrenched. And what has the president (who Coates once preposterously identified with Malcolm X) brought Black America in the way of a response to its deepening crisis but repeated bourgeois lectures on poor Blacks’ supposed personal and cultural responsibility for their own worsening plight – a nasty Obama habit that Coates has (to his credit) himself criticized – and the potent symbolism of a Black family entering the White House in the land of slavery? (Imagine, the contempt Malcolm X would have for the nation’s first technically Black president!) Sadly but predictably, the bourgeois-representational victory (a first technically Black president)  has reinforced white America’s false majority belief that racism no longer poses a significant barrier to black advancement and equality.
Fleshing this negative racial assessment out for the full run of the Obama administration is a project for another time. (Obama still has a year’s worth of further damage to do.) It’s nice that Coates has irritated Obama (in print and in person) by criticizing the president’s ugly practice of blaming the poor Black victims of American racism and for failing to take positive and targeted action on key Black grievances. But it seems safe to say that Coates’ emphasis on the racial positive (“lovely, beautiful” and “once in a lifetime” certainly outweigh “painful”) of the disastrous (racially, socio-economically, imperially, and otherwise) neoliberal Obama experience at the end of the day is related to his bourgeois position and bubble, which situates him in fancy Parisian restaurants and health clubs, not to mention the corporate media, including a regular literary pulpit at the conservative and neoliberal Atlantic. His bourgeois experience and mindset can’t help but bias him towards a positive judgement on the racial meaning of the Obama years.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)
1) Leaving out dozens of political commentaries in Left magazines and zines over many years, this “mountain” includes “The ‘Best Union Members’: Race, Class, Culture, and Black Worker Militancy in Chicago’s Meatpacking Industry, 1920-1940,” Journal of American Ethnic History (Fall 2000): 18-49; “The ‘Backbone of the Union’: Black Worker Militancy in Chicago’s Stockyards During the Great Depression,” Chicago History (Summer 2000): 4-21; “The Logic and Limits of Plant Loyalty: Black Workers, White Labor, and Corporate Racial Paternalism in Chicago’s Meatpacking Industry, 1916-1940,” Journal of Social History, volume 29, no.3 (Spring 1996): 661-683; “Packinghouse Blues: Chicago’s Black Packinghouse Workers, 1916-1930,” Chicago History, (Fall 1989): 63-86; “Prosecuting Jim Crow’s Ghosts,” Tinabantu: Journal of African National Affairs (Cape Town, South Africa: Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society, 2007): 7-12; “Promoting Marriage Would Not Reduce Poverty: The Real White House Agenda,” in Mary E. Williams, ed., Poverty and the Homeless (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2004), pp. 144-152; “Color Bind: Prisons and the New American Racism,” in Tera Herivel and Paul Wright eds., Prison Nation: the Warehousing of America’s Poor (Routledge, 2002), 30-40; Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago Urban League, 2005); The Color of Opportunity: Race, Place, Policy and Labor Market Inequality in the Chicago Metropolitan Area (Chicago Urban League, 2003); Racial Preferences and Suburban Employment Opportunities (Chicago Urban League, 2003); The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago Urban League, 2002); The Color of Power: African-American Representation in Decision-Making Positions in Chicago (Chicago Urban League, March 2002); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman-Littlefield, 2007). I paste all these in from my vita to head off any notion that I am some sort of clumsy white progressive “class, not race” thinker. The last book listed above delves in some parts into critical race theory and could even be accused of privileging race over class
2) My 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm 2008) was written mostly in late 2007 and published in the spring of 2008 largely on the premise that Obama would be elected to the White House and as a critical Left warning (based on a rigorous interrogation of Obama’s career, writings, affiliations, and speeches) that an Obama presidency would serve each of what Dr. King called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic injustice, and militarism-imperialism. It viewed racism in the white electorate as barrier, but not an insurmountable one, for Obama’s election and raised concerns about how a “color-blind” and “post-racial” neoliberal Obama presidency could prove a disaster for the cause of racial justice and Black equality. Coates, by contrast, initially thought that Obama’s election was impossible because of his skin color. After Obama won the January 3rd 2008 Iowa Caucus, Coates recalled after the 2008 election in the Washington Post, Coates “not only drank the [Obama] Kool Aid, I brewed it.” Recently, Coates has had some critical things to say about the color-blind Obama presidency whose eventuality and nature I predicted. Can I have a MacArthur Genius Award?