The Daily Northwestern

Letter to the Editor: Give writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates respect they deserve, don’t miss the point of their work

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Recently, The Daily published an op-ed by Jake Gordon about how people should criticize Ta-Nehisi Coates more. Looking at a variety of prominent black intellectual writers, NONE of them, including Coates, go unchallenged. If anything, they are the most heavily criticized by white people. When a black person comments on race, they are often accused of pulling the race card or looking for a handout. In contrast, white authors are often viewed as more credible because they seem to be more unbiased. Coates is criticized constantly by people to the left and right of him. If you are looking for critiques of Coates, all it takes is a simple Google search. For instance, Britni Danielle, someone who appears to be farther left on the political spectrum than Coates, criticized his famous book “Between the World and Me” for not including black women in his analysis of racial oppression in the United States. I specifically remember students asking Coates critical questions about why not all African Americans (women, for example) couldn’t relate to his book during the Q&A portion of his event on campus.

Another more conservative writer, David French, criticizes the exact same essay Gordon cites in his op-ed, “Donald Trump is the First White President,” for not addressing the alleged role Hillary Clinton played in electing President Donald Trump. Antonio Moore criticizes Coates’ claim in the same piece that labeling Trump the first white president erases a long history of racism in the White House. You can find an amalgam of other critiques from various publications. Clearly, critiquing Coates is not untrodden ground.

Perhaps Gordon is specifically speaking to his “white peers” at Northwestern. He claims that his white classmates are hesitant to critique Coates because their “assumption that a black man’s eloquence is so rare as to be laudable.” But is this not also a ridiculous assumption on behalf of Gordon? Behind this claim lurks the assumption that people who appreciate Coates do not think for themselves. After reading Coates’ ideas, they only superficially like them. It implies that the majority of Coates’ fans thoughtlessly applaud him simply because he is black and not for his talent.

Gordon also acknowledges that, as a white person, his experiences are limited, and so is his understanding of black life in America. Yet, he still assumes that he correctly interprets Coates’ pieces and that his analysis of them is not underdeveloped. Gordon argues that not critiquing Coates disrespects the depth of the author’s writing. Yet when Gordon tries to offer his critical commentary on Coates, he bases it on paraphrased chunks taken out of context. As a result, when referencing Coates’ points about the white working class, Gordon makes a straw man argument and completely misses the point.

According to Gordon, Coates implicitly denies that low-income whites in the U.S. do face struggles in “Trump is the First White President.” By centering whiteness in his argument, Gordon reinforces Coates’ point that the election was less about economic struggle and more about how whiteness in turmoil clings to racism and bigotry. Gordon seems to believe Coates argues that white poor people do not struggle, but rather he argues white economic stress acted as a convenient cover for electing a white supremacist.

Looking at actual poll data, it is clear that Trump’s base was not predominantly poor. According to analysis by The Washington Post, only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. These are middle-income earnings. A third made between $50,000 and $100,000, while another third made more than $100,000. This does not definitively mean that his voters weren’t motivated by economic struggles. But it’s worth asking, why didn’t low-income black and brown people overwhelmingly vote for Trump when they have faced both racial and economic subjugation throughout this country’s history? Are people of color excluded from the working class narrative in the Trump era because of their race?

If the election was primarily about broad economic stress, poor people of color would have also voted for Trump. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013 the net worth of white households was roughly 13 times that of black households. According to the same Pew report, in 2014, about a quarter of black people were poor compared to 10 percent of white people. Data consistently show that black people are less likely to own homes and be employed than white people. Black college students are as likely to be unemployed as white high school dropouts. In other words, black and white poverty are incomparable. This is the point Coates has made in “The Case for Reparations” and “Trump is the First White President.” Gordon’s implicit denial that white and black poverty are different is puzzling.

We should definitely challenge writers and critique their ideas. But criticism is only valuable when it comes from a well-supported perspective and offers a nuanced view. A critique of a piece should consider the context it was written in. Additionally, it is not prudent to make assumptions about Coates’ readers. When Gordon assumes that people avoid criticizing Coates — which they don’t — simply because they are scared of being called racist, he downplays the fact that many readers admire his intelligence. A soft bigotry may lie beneath the assumption that the only reason a black intellectual can receive praise is because of the writer’s race. Furthermore, it is possible for readers to think critically about an author’s ideas while still showing excitement when that author visits campus.

Sky Patterson, SESP junior

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