Letter to the Editor: Read Coates again

Last week, Daily opinion contributor Jake Gordon wrote in his column referring to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent essay in The Atlantic: “The truth is many low-income whites in the United States do face struggles and Coates’ implicit denial of that was puzzling.” Huh? Nah, read it again. Coates didn’t deny that at all. He explicitly acknowledged it — writing about it extensively in the piece — while accurately pointing out that low-income African Americans face the same struggles (and worse) but did not vote for President Donald Trump. His point, as I took it, was that it wasn’t the working class struggles that were determinative in who got their votes. It was their race and, more specifically, entrenched white supremacy. Or, as Coates put it, “White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.”

I agree that it would be a form of soft bigotry to fail to critique Coates and his analysis simply because of his race. But it would also be a disservice to Coates and his argument to not read him more carefully … or to assume that an argument highlighting the primacy of racism in the 2016 election is an “implicit denial” of the economic struggles of some whites. It’s no such thing. Coates didn’t argue class struggles played no role at all. He argued they played a much smaller role than racism. And, he argued further that ignoring that reality is a form of white avoidance of the uncomfortable persistence of racism in this society. One might think that claiming Coates implicitly denied something he plainly did not might be an unconscious form of avoidance too, no?

Thanks for this piece. I hope you take my critique of it as a sign of respect for your effort.

John Crew
SESP ’79