If a person can tick off more boxes than you on the intersectional checklist, you must ‘just listen’ and morally defer to them. It seems to me that just this sort of thing is increasingly occurring in certain sections of Christianity and even evangelicalism, where people are elevated, deferred to, shielded from criticism, or otherwise treated as morally superior in no small measure because they belong to some historically oppressed class.
The politics of deference, by elevating victim classes beyond such things, and by constantly performing its ‘genuflections’ towards writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, can end up implicitly demeaning the agency and the thought of people of those classes. People and ideas emanating from that class are deemed morally superior and held to be immune to robust challenge, which patronizes members of those groups who want their agency to be taken seriously, rather than merely pandered to. John McWhorter discusses this dynamic in the clip below:
There's a forty-minute discussion between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter about Coates (you know the one) that is part of the larger post. I won't quote much from that or the post itself. As someone of mixed lineage, both white and Native American, I've found Coates' popularity and acclaim a bit puzzling. He's a talented stylist and I frankly loved "The Insufferable Spider-man". He's great fun to read on superheroes and pop culture. His writings about racist seem, well, kinda racist, but racist in a kind of way that is venerated by those who believe that the only conversation we can have about race or should be having in the United States must be along the most literal as well as metaphorical black and white categories of thought.
When I read "The Case for Reparations" I thought it was a powerfully worded emotional appeal but that I have enough of a Native American lineage that my first thought was, "Hey, if this kind of stunt was going to work at all could we do it for the American Indians first?" Because in order to make room for whites who owned blacks as slaves some natives had to be displaced, or isn't that a fairly standard understanding of how the history of the United States gets presented? While blacks were enslaved and slave owners resorted to enforced breeding efforts the aim with American Indians was to simply exterminate them. There aren't as many Native Americans around as there are African Americans so why couldn't they be the first beneficiaries of Coates' proposed reparations case?
Or does Coates even care about the plight of Native Americans at all? I've read his stuff at The Atlantic but not his books, so I don't know if in any of his books Native Americans even matter enough to get mentioned in a single paragraph. I got the impression that for a writer like Coates the subject of race is so literally as well as metaphorically black and white the racist narrative (depending on which race we're told to prefer) pretty much ignores the Native American populace as if there might as well have never been Native Americans living on this continent to encounter white people or to, say, own blacks as slaves, too. While I like reading Coates essays from time to time I consider him more a master of emotionally charged rhetoric than a careful thinker. Now if Coates has mentioned Native Americans someone can correct me if I have made an inaccurate guess. I would think that at some point a case for reparations for blacks would have to consider the deals the United States made with Native American tribes. Even if the federal government promises to do X for group Y how certain can you be that they will do it?
The case for reparations, assuming there's a case to be made, has to be based not merely on an invocation of sins past but on the hope that the reparations will actually work. If Coates regards the pervasiveness of white supremacist ideology as being as entrenched as he seems to think it is then there are two ways reparations, if ever even implemented, can boomerang. On the one hand, if reparations don't work (and Obama, by Coates own account, seemed dubious that the kinds of reparations Coates has called for have ever worked anywhere in the history of humanity), Coates could say the reparations weren't good enough. But if the reparations were effective to some degree couldn't a writer like Coates eventually conclude that if reparations by the United States under, say, a white president, worked that this somehow could be construed as a kind of blood money apologetic for the system? Coates' case for reparations can contain within it the kind of double bind that is heads he wins tails you lose. If the situation is as bereft of real hope as Coates sometimes seems to think it is then asking for reparations seems to depend on the kind of hope that Coates would seem to believe doesn't really exist, in which case why did he make a case for reparations to begin with?
To put it another way, why note make a case for reparations for the Native Americans first and get to the African American experience later? There's a sense in which a person could say that Coates' plea for reparations would have been more potent and powerful if he had made it on behalf of a group of peoples whose skin color doesn't even correspond to his. For as much as he has written about black bodies red bodies might be worth thinking about, too. Depending on what statistics you consult, though African Americans are most likely to be shot by law enforcement the people most likely to be killed by law enforcement relative to the size of their respective populations can be Native Americans.
If there's a case to be made for reparations based on sheer guilt about mistreatment the nearly massacred Native American population could deserve cuts in line for what Coates proposes even if we accept without any potential counterargument that the case for reparations is unassailable. As bad as things have been for people of color Coates' case seems narrow in its sight. For instance, as bad as things often were for African Americans how old is jazz as a musical form? To put it another way, let's look at Native Americans to see if they have anyone like the great writers and musicians in the African American tradition. Who's the Stevie Wonder of Native Americans? Who's the Native American Duke Ellington? Who's the Native American Douglass, duBois, Ellison or King Jr? Who is the Native American Langston Hughes? Sherman Alexie? Eh ... a fine storyteller but not the greatest poet. There's never going to be a Spokane Renaissance the way there was a Harlem Renaissance to go by cultural activity over the last century.
When my Native American relatives described the American Civil War to me they said the white racists assholes in the North fought the white racist assholes in the South about how to treat black people and once that was sorta settled everyone agreed it was time to kill off the Indians. Technically Charley Patton is considered by blues historians to be black but also at least part Native American so, hey, if we abandon the notion of racial purity across black and white lines than American Indians played a role in bringing the blues tradition to life. But the larger point still stands, a writer like Coates can look at the rich intellectual, cultural, literary and musical tradition of African Americans in the United States and by contrast, what exactly comes close to that legacy of achievement in the Native American scene?
If you grew up with a Native American account of the American Civil War that I summarized in the last paragraph, it raises a question that Coates' case for reparations didn't address in his published article. It has to do with how seriously he really takes his idea about white supremacy defining American society. If you grew up being taught there was no good guy team in the American Civil War then part of the foundation to which Coates must appeal for reparations dissolves. If there's no good guy white team to appeal to in terms of white guilt because they were all guilty then why even make the case for reparations at all? Either white America is so racist there's no point in even making the case for reparations to begin with, or it's not so racist that an appeal for reparations cannot be made. To go by what Coates has written and what people say about what he's written he's accused of having the former view despite the impossibility of avoiding the implication that his real view in practice has to be the latter since he went to the trouble of writing and publishing "The Case for Reparations."
Loury and McWhorter seem to stop just short of proposing that for a man like Coates to argue for reparations as he has while having the view of the white establishment that he does could only be made in bad faith, but it's simmering as a concept to consider in their differences with Coates and his ideas. Everybody's in process and discovering things so, of course, Coates doesn't have to be thought of as having thought through this kind of stuff to the degree that he's going to just start writing about this kind of thing in The Atlantic next week, or maybe ever. Who knows?
Now I think that in a sense Roberts missed something about the recent election and Moore. Yes, victimology is kind of a thing but I would suggest that the quest for representation seems more salient within the United States and I think it's possible, admittedly at an abstract level, that what is being sought in representation and intersectionality is a common goal, one in which the popularity of a writer like Coates may be relevant but first .... let's get to Girard and something Roberts wrote:
But, in fact, the real reason for this blog post has to do with Girard.
Alastair Roberts says:
As soon as I saw this I was reminded that over at The American Conservative Noah Millman stated that his difference with Girardian notions of the scapegoat had to do with how that conception of the scapegoat has little to do with Judaism. Millman's post gets literal about things in the very title "You Don't Kill the Scapegoat."
I haven’t read any Réne Girard since college, but I remember the experience, and so I was interested to hear that my colleague Rod Dreher has been reading him lately. Among other things, it provides me an opportunity to trot out an old hobby horse of mine: our common misunderstanding of the scapegoat ritual.
In common parlance, a “scapegoat” is an entity that takes the blame for problems that are not truly of their making. By giving the community a target on which to vent its rage and violence, the scapegoat unites the remainder of the community and makes it possible to endure through whatever problems the scapegoat was blamed for.
But as the name clearly implies, the scapegoat isn’t destroyed — it escapes. [bold emphasis added, italics original] And, indeed, in the original Israelite ritual from which we get the concept, there are two goats chosen: one for the Lord and one for Azazel. But it’s the Lord’s goat that is killed. The scapegoat is sent off into the wilderness.
Leviticus 16:7. Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the LORD at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting;The scapegoat is not the object of communal violence, so that violence cannot be providing a kind of redemptive communal release of tension. [emphasis added]
16:8. and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the LORD and the other marked for Azazel.
16:9. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the LORD, which he is to offer as a sin offering;
16:10. while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the LORD, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.
16:11. Aaron shall then offer his bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and his household. He shall slaughter his bull of sin offering,
16:12. and he shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of finely ground aromatic incense, and bring this behind the curtain.
16:13. He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, lest he die.
16:14. He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the cover on the east side; and in front of the cover he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
16:15. He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the curtain, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the cover and in front of the cover.
16:16. Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness.
16:17. When he goes in to make expiation in the Shrine, nobody else shall be in the Tent of Meeting until he comes out.
When he has made expiation for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel,
16:18. he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and purge it: he shall take some of
the blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar;
16:19. and the rest of the blood he shall sprinkle on it with his finger seven times. Thus he shall cleanse it of the uncleanness of the Israelites and consecrate it.
16:20. When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward.
16:21. Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.
16:22. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
Moreover, if sacrifice is about the release of these communal tensions, then how does one explain thanksgiving sacrifices, which are also blood offerings? The most extensive sacrifices outlined in the biblical text are those for Pentecost, a harvest festival of thanksgiving.
My read on the meaning of biblical blood sacrifice is different from Girard’s. Blood, as the carrier of life, is a powerful substance. That power can be harnessed — to transfer the residue of transgression from one entity to another, for example — but it needs to be treated with the proper respect, particularly respect for its origins: with God. This is explicitly laid out in Genesis 9:4-5.
In the earlier stages of Israelite religion, all killing of animals took the form of a sacrifice — without performing a sacrifice, you couldn’t eat meat. (This is the subtext of Saul’s transgression in 1 Samuel 13.) Sacrifice was a way of making the killing ok — because it meant returning the life to God. In other words, sacrifice wasn’t something you resorted to when the prohibitions failed — it was part of the system of prohibitions: a way of saying, you can only kill if you follow the prescribed rituals.
This is why, once ritual sacrifice was centralized, such that it was no longer practical to say that you can only eat meat after performing a sacrifice, the law had to change. In Deuteronomy, it says that if you slaughter an animal, you have to pour the blood on the ground and declare its return to God. Because you could no longer perform the sacrifice at home anymore, you couldn’t use the power of the blood. But you still needed to remove the blood in a ritualistic manner that made it clear that you respected the life that was being taken, and returned that life to its source.
Moreover, this prohibition was sufficiently strong that it even lasted into the early years of Christianity, vis Acts 15:20. The gentiles didn’t need to take on the bulk of the food-related prohibitions of Judaism when they converted — but they did need to abstain from blood.
So what’s the scapegoat about?
The scapegoat ritual is about cleaning the filter. The scapegoat is indeed removed from the community, but it doesn’t take the blame for transgressions — it takes the toxicity that transgressions leave behind. This is not a ritual act of violence, any more than trash pickup is a ritual act of theft. It’s more comparable to cleansing the house of chametz during Passover than it is to “The Wicker Man.”
Next week maybe I’ll explain how everybody misunderstands Genesis 22:13.
Not too surprised Alastair had a comment early in the comment section for this one. None of this is to suggest there's nothing useful or insightful about Girard, whose work I haven't read so I'm not going to claim there's something bad about his concept of the scapegoat just because an author points out that a Girardian conception of the scapegoat is not necessarily a Jewish one. It might be possible for Christ to fulfill a scapegoat role by taking on our sins, for instance, despite the fact that Christ was crucified on the cross. In a sense someone might propose, and this seems to be what people on the alt right have proposed, is that within the realm of intersectionality the white establishment is supposed to admit to the sin of being white and let those with intersectionally greater righteousness contribute and play roles in the foundations of power. White nationalists don't want this to happen while advocates for intersectionality do want it to happen but what neither team seems particularly interested in debating or exploring is whether the power they all seem to want part in is actually all that legitimate. This is perhaps most germane to Coates and his case for reparations because of the nature of the "ask" and the significance of what the reparations are supposed to be reparations for and ultimately "who" he wants the reparations to be made by.
Whether Roberts blogs more about his ambivalence about Girardian categories in the future remains to be seen. But since he mentioned Girard recently, it reminded me of something Millman blogged.
Now, back to the matter of what representation, intersectionality and the popularity of a writer like Coates may be pointing to.
Intersectionality is not quite like the old political correctness from twenty years ago. There's a new element in which variants of minority demographics have additive or multiplicative dynamics. So if you're black you're not white and are not part of the hegemony of the white patriarchal cisgender establishment if only by dint of the not being white part. But if you're a cisgender male who's a dudely dude, well, within intersectionality terms you're not "that" special. You may be able to work out where the demographic "math" goes at this point.
What this has to do with representation is an observation that in the priestcraft of academia and entertainment it would be better if more of these demographics who have historically not been given the power to get things done in those industries (let's just call academia an industry the way entertainment is an industry).
Where this has the potential to go that I think someone like Roberts can appreciate, and certainly commenter cal here at this blog, is that all this adds up to a set of ideologies that implicitly or even explicitly propose that the establishment would be just fine as long as it had more diversity and representation of historically marginalized groups.
Anyone who actually thinks that is or will be or should be the case is a moron. It gets to one of the reasons I find Coates' case for reparations weak sauce, the aforementioned double bind of either being not enough or being blood money. Even if reparations were doled out and they "worked" (however anyone wants to define that) they would still be able to be dismissed as blood money on the general principle that what may get done in this century "could" have been done centuries earlier but wasn't because of racism. Someone could take Coates' approach about white and black and point out that even if reparations worked that could still be the white establishment having bought off its own blood guilt with reparations. You can't un-kill people, after all, and in that sense Coates' case for reparations might even have to assume that, at some level, that there's a price tag or a level of reparations to pay out that would somehow balance the scale.
Now Coates is an atheist so he's probably not going to agree with or follow that this doesn't exactly fit with what Christians have called sin. The effects of a sin never end, even if the sin itself seems to be a small one. It might really be a small one but a small failure at the level of one or two O-rings can lead to an exploding space shuttle, right? Think of all the lives of the black men and women whose lives and bodies and hearts and minds were destroyed by the effects of institutional racism and slavery? Has Coates stopped to think about how his case for reparations has to, in the end, argue that the United States government can really put a price tag on that? If he has I'm not really sure how he could then proceed with a case for reparations and it's got nothing to do with the nature of the moral appeal based on how evil the treatment of black people was.
This may seem like a tangent but it has a point. Christians understand that our sin and its effects are so ghastly in scope and eternal in never-ending consequences that Christ died for our sins; furthermore, in the age to come Christians believe there will be a new heaven and a new earth--too many arguments against Hell focus and fixate on objections to the eternal punishment part as if that was the primary message of Revelation for systematics, the promise is of a new heaven and earth, a whole new cosmos in which sin and sinners have no place and what is colloquially known as "Hell" or the lake of fire can be thought of as where those go who want no part of eternal life with Christ in the new Jerusalem. But the key here is that in Revelation we are told that Christ returns and God in some sense reformats and reboots the entire cosmos.
For someone like Coates life is precious because it isn't forever and because this life is the only one we have, but even so ... a case for reparations of the sort Coates has made at some point tacitly admits that there's a limit, and if there's a limit then a price can be put on something because it's not priceless. Sure, Coates might deny this is an implication of his argumentation if directly pressed on the matter, but it seems impossible to evade. The kind of price tag we would have to put on black bodies and souls for any reparations of the kind Coates wants to be made to get paid would seem to trivialize the horror of what was done to so many men, women and children over centuries.
By Coates' account, Obama told him that there's no evidence reparations would work and that whatever we do to remedy race relations in the United States has to set out on a different path and a different praxis. Meanwhile the dead are still dead, and that Coates' appeal for reparations has to put a price tag on the souls of those who died (not that Coates necessarily believes in souls) might make it seem to those who believe that humans have dignity and bear the image of God that what Coates is making a case for is, in terms of human dignity, weirdly trivial. The loss was terrible and in principle incalculable but a case for reparations has to concede that, well, there is nonetheless a measurable price tag. That seems to soft-pedal the magnitude of the sin committed against blacks by what I, as a Christian, regard as a literally eternal magnitude. It's not that there's no case to be made for reparations, really, it's that Coates' particular formulation of his particular case seems sketchy if you start to think about it some more. It has to do with a double bind that is imposed against his own case by his own reading of American history and the role of the white establishment as its understood power base.
If white racists destroyed black bodies through their actions and defended those actions by ideologies what does Coates' case for reparations have to appeal to? Guilt, real guilt, but reparations as a solution become a hand-out based on established guilt about things done in the past given to people who are alive now. If this is formulated in terms of an appeal to give to Americans what is promised in principle through the founding documents and the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution then, fine, I could agree with that even if I have doubts that reparations will "work" in addressing that.
But that's precisely where Coates' survey of white racism suggests that he can get stuck, because if the aforementioned is not the real idea of the Constitution or the Amendments and so on, then attempting to appeal for reparations comes back to making that appeal to a group Coates could seem to have described as predicated in racism. If he really thinks white America is that racist why did he bother making a case for reparations to begin with? The case only makes any sense even on its own terms if Coates can assume, at base, that white America and/or the power of the United States of America is both able and willing to make good on a case he's made for reparations, otherwise the whole stunt is made in bad faith or at least astonishingly sloppy thinking. Either he in some way agrees with Dr. King about the arc of history/the universe tending toward justice, however long, at least enough to bother making a case for reparations to begin with or he doesn't believe this and he can ultimately look like an idiot for, nonetheless, insisting on making a case for reparations anyway.
But Dr. King had some comments about the United States and Vietnam, didn't he? That gets to something else that seems to be a fracture point in a Coates case for reparations. Where's this wealth really coming from? Consider how much our wealth has come from warfare, mineral extraction, resource exploitation and so many other things, too. Coates' case for reparations has to assume that the United States is an empire that will be better if it just pays out reparations but where does this wealth come from? Who in some other country may end up dead because the American empire decides to finally dole out reparations because Coates made a case for them?
Just because the United States at some point may pay reparations wouldn't make it a more just empire just because Coates got what he wanted. But that's a risk Coates has to take in the formulation of his case for reparations, that if the United States did this thing he wants done that that could be a significant step toward establishing that this current empire is okay, after all. Someone who's read even a little of Augustine could say that this is just another iteration of the City of Man, a new iteration of Babylon the Great.
As Loury and McWhorter put it in their clip, Coates is a gifted, talented writer but not a particularly deep or clear thinker. I'd say I agree with that.