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Gordon: Give writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates respect they deserve, critique their work

Jake Gordon, Op-Ed Contributor

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This January, my friends flocked to Pick-Staiger Concert Hall with an uncanny energy. Ta-Nehisi Coates was speaking on campus and no one concerned with politics, race or social change, even only peripherally, dared to miss him.

I’m sure Coates would agree his message challenges readers — his work is bold. His “The Case for Reparations,” one would think, should provoke impassioned dialogue. And his central theme — that racism is more deeply ingrained in this country than nearly any other value — wouldn’t be an easy idea to grasp, even if true. But at NU, Coates was greeted more like an unassuming celebrity than a no-punches-pulled social critic. My friends flocked to see him and applauded his speech, without so much as acknowledging the boldness of his content. Why was he shielded from criticism that even Samantha Bee, another left-leaning speaker hosted on campus last year, was not?

It goes without saying, Coates is a brilliant writer, his words are strong and touching. But his work can be as challenging as his words are rhythmic. Coates’ most recent essay, “The First White President,” critiques the narrative of the white working class’ decline, boldly calling journalism focused on white America’s struggles a manifestation of “white tribalism.” The growing body of work shedding light on the real challenges that Coates overlooks can be found in novels like “White Trash” and “Hillbilly Elegy,” as well as in numerous academic journals. The truth is many low-income whites in the U.S. do face struggles and Coates’ implicit denial of that was puzzling. At the very least, it provoked thought.

Many of my primarily white peers, in my opinion, showered Coates with a praise that drew from their low expectations — below their awe of Coates lay an assumption that a black man’s eloquence is so rare as to be laudable, that criticizing Coates’ content would disrespect what they viewed as the rarity of black brilliance. Below their awe lay a soft bigotry.

I’ve heard arguments that Coates’ work shouldn’t be critiqued by those who can’t fully understand his perspective — there are indeed experiences related to being black in the U.S. that my white peers and I cannot understand. But Coates ventures beyond the subjective, and granting his work immunity from criticism belittles its depth. As Coates initiates a dialogue about the state of race and politics in this country, he deserves the respect of critical analysis, a respect many whites have denied him in their attempt to “stay woke.”

It’s profoundly ironic that many of Coates’ fans so blindly exemplify the modern racism his work seeks to highlight — it might even convince me what he’s saying is right.

Jake Gordon is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at jacobgordon2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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