Letters | Debating Ta-Nehisi Coates & Racism



As a white Catholic whose eyes were further opened to the reality of racism in the United States after recently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, I was shocked and dismayed at Margaret O’Brien Steinfels’s arrogant and shallow dismissal of this extremely important work. Steinfels repeatedly accuses Coates of “downplaying” reasons other than racism for Trump’s election, and completely ignores the overwhelming evidence Coates offers to back up his argument. Throughout the book, Coates presents an extremely coherent and damning picture of white supremacy as not only alive and well in America, but at the very foundation of this nation. Steinfels chooses to disregard Coates’s well-researched theory, and instead chalks up his whole argument to his being an “angry” man (she twice uses this unfortunate adjective—a common one for white people to use against any black person who dares to be honest about his own experience—and juxtaposes him with a more pleasant Obama, to whom she twice refers as “not angry”). Steinfels is another white person who falls into the trap of accusing Coates of focusing too much on racism. As she has never experienced anti-black racism herself, I would have hoped that she would have been at least willing to listen to somebody who has. As for Steinfels’s disappointment in Coates’s atheism, as a white Catholic she should instead feel convicted of our failure time and time again to listen to—let alone believe and stand with—our sisters and brothers of color. (For instance, no Catholics were present in the large group of clergy who showed up to oppose the neo-Nazi gathering in Charlottesville.)

At first I was only mildly offended at Commonweal’s irresponsibility in printing such a poorly done review. (Steinfels’s inability to deal thoroughly with any of Coates’s contentions leads me to believe she merely skimmed the book.) However, after noticing that not only is Commonweal’s editorial board all-white (with no apparent attempt at becoming accountable to Catholics of color), but also that in this same issue these editors roundly dismissed a black Catholic’s compelling letter to the editor, I am beginning to wonder whether Commonweal is completely committed to a policy of white denial, and white comfort, in the face of racism.

Brenna Cussen Anglada
Cuba City, Wisc.


Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays, each one preceded by second thoughts and meta-analyses that offer a look into a rich and complicated mind. Coates’s own family story, Between the World and Me, is also complicated. The fact that he should enter into conversation about race in America with no less than the first black President of the United States, another man with a complicated family story, is intriguing. That encounter and Coates’s reaction to Trump’s election, “The First White President” (reprinted as an Epilogue in Eight Years) drew me to write “Nope to Hope” (a column, not a review).

Good that Anglada’s reading of Eight Years in Power “further opened” her eyes to racism in America. Regrettable that this valuable experience leads her to conclude that my different reading is an “arrogant and shallow dismissal” —one due to my white racist insensitivity, and probably Commonweal’s as well. 

Readers who have previously encountered Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Malcolm X, William Julius Wilson, Maya Angelou, and a host of other African-American poets, playwrights, and public intellectuals, and those who grew up during the civil rights era in cities with large black populations and rampant racism, may very well appreciate Coates’s insights without finding them quite so original and well-researched as Anglada does.

In fact, my column used adjectives like “instructive,” “reflective,” and “right” to describe his positions and warned against ignoring “his anguish at the threat of reinvigorated racism.” But I also criticized some of his views as “short-sighted” and “wrong,” in particular his “default view of racism as all-explanatory”—this Anglada finds intolerable. Only my stereotypical view of Coates as angry, it seems, could account for my skepticism of the “overwhelming evidence Coates offers to back up his argument.” (You cannot read Coates’s earlier Between the World and Me without recognizing “anger” as its emotional propellant. That he felt compelled to ask President Obama if he was angry, was revealing and poignant. Obama said he was not).

Sorry to disappoint, and possibly further infuriate, Anglada; but the evidence that racism was the main cause of Trump’s victory is not “overwhelming.” The election data has been sliced, diced, and examined like sheep entrails; no such overriding explanation has emerged. Was racism a factor in Trump’s victory? Yes. Is racism the critical factor explaining, for one instance, why 206 counties that voted twice for Obama voted for Trump in 2016? Not obviously. (Anglada writes from a Catholic Worker farm in one of those counties. Perhaps she could spend some time chatting with her neighbors about this data.)

Anglada hails Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “damning picture” of white supremacy “at the very foundation of this nation.” Is this news? My grade and high school exposed me and many Catholics to the catalytic role of slavery in the colonial and post-revolutionary American economy, to the three-fifths clause in the Constitution, and to the abolitionist crusade against slavery.

Yet if white supremacy is at the nation’s “very foundation,” the question for Coates and for all of us is, what else is there? Is the acknowledgment of multiple motives at work in American history—religious convictions, Enlightenment principles, frontier egalitarianism, regional and class interests, instinctive compassion, and so on—merely a distraction from white racism? Or is such an awareness of multiple, mixed, and contending factors the best basis we have for restitution, resolution, and hope? Does examining conflicting impulses among 2016 voters (regional, class, gender, ethnicity, education, and Hillary-hatred) dilute our moral outrage? That seems a counsel of despair: if racism is so persistent and pervasive, so unyielding to decades of reforms and efforts, then there can be no remedy. I do not accept that logic, and I doubt that Coates does.

Published in the January 26, 2018 issue: 
Also by this author
An Added Dimension

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads