No more fire, the water next time: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Global Warming and White Supremacy

In the very last pages of Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates registers his full and final distance from the world of James Baldwin. Where Baldwin had said, “We, with love, shall force our [white] brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it,” and where that assault by African America on white supremacy was the promissory note to a more fundamental transformation of the United States (“we can make America what America must become”), Coates makes explicit what has been implicit throughout his text: he does not believe black America can transform white America.

I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle….But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves,…

And what will force the Dreamers—white people—to learn to struggle for themselves? Global warming. Climate change.

The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.

This was, for me, perhaps the most poignant moment of the book. For Coates, global warming, the destruction of the earth’s delicate ecology and thereby the earth, is not merely an environmental fact; it is very much connected to the history of white supremacy in all its phases of modernity: from primitive accumulation through capitalist industrialization through suburbanization.

Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.

But lest black Americans think that they are exempt from this coming catastrophe, Coates is careful to insist that everyone, black and white, will be destroyed together.

I left The Mecca [Howard University]…knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction.

Despite Coates’s atheism and the science and secularism that underlies this vision of destruction, it’s hard to escape its theological resonance.

For starters, there is the clear rejection that the punishment of white America will come from black hands. From black political hands exacting punishment for the white man’s four centuries of welter and waste:

I had heard such predictions [of the destruction of white America by African America] all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat…

More important is the inversion of Baldwin. Baldwin derived the title of The Fire Next Time from the couplet of a black spiritual:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign.

No more water, the fire next time.

The couplet is a more ominous rendition of the story of Noah and the flood that we find in Genesis 9. Where God in the original promises Noah after the flood that he will never again destroy the earth or humanity, and that the rainbow will be a sign of God’s covenant with humanity, the spiritual warns of a different ending: this time, it was just the flood; do it again, and next time, it will be a fire.

It’s hard not to read the line, in Baldwin’s hands, as a kind of premonition (he’s writing in 1963) of Watts, Newark, and all the urban fire that would eventually consume postwar America. For Baldwin, the problem is not merely white supremacy, the racism America must abandon. It is also Christianity, which he thinks has created part of the predicament. In this, he shares something with Coates, who also has abandoned Christianity and religion.

But here we come to the ultimate—well, the penultimate—irony: Coates writes out of the atheist disposition that Baldwin helped pave the way for, yet he imagines a catastrophe far more biblical than anything Baldwin, the man reared and steeped in the teachings of the black church, might have conjured. Baldwin asked us to imagine not a flood, but a fire, a fire set by men against men. Coates says that the flames of Malcolm and Garvey have gone out; the justice of ancestors wronged will never come. No more fire, the water next time.

Here’s the ultimate irony. As Mychal Denzel Smith recently wrote in The Nation, Hurricane Katrina—the flood last time—may have been the moment that black rage, and all the political promise it contains, exploded onto the public square of 21st-century America. That was the moment when Kanye West said simply, to a scandalized nation, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

The generation that heard Kanye West say “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” then pushed the vote for the first black president, then watched America continue to not care about black people, simply has had enough. As the deaths of young, unarmed black people continue to become headlines, and social media holds more hashtag funerals, the hope has turned to despair, and the despair into rage. That rage consumed the streets of Ferguson when Michael Brown was killed; it set fire to the streets of Baltimore when Freddie Gray was killed; and it sent Bree Newsome up the flagpole at the South Carolina state Capitol to bring down the Confederate flag in the wake of nine people being killed in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Black rage is back, cutting to the core of white supremacy and demanding that America change.

An opportunity may have been missed in those post-Katrina days, when the words “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” still buzzed. But a decade later, the resurgence of black rage in the political sphere is finally ready to make America face its racist past and present. Or burn it down trying.

For all the sense we get of Coates as a man of his time (this is what I argued yesterday), perhaps he’s not. Perhaps we’re still with Baldwin: no more water, the fire next time.


  1. Bill Michtom August 22, 2015 at 5:59 pm | #

    I have been involved in politics my entire life: civil rights, peace/anti-nuclear, opposing the Vietnam War , feminism/reproductive rights, LGBT rights, anti-capitalism.

    In terms of feminism, civil rights and LGBT rights, especially, a significant motivation is being a straight, white male, because we are the people who are most responsible for oppression and the people that I always felt had the responsibility to overturn the oppression.

    I have always felt that I must talk to other straight, white males because, on the face of it, I’m not arguing my own case (though that’s ONLY on the face), and they are the people who must change.

  2. jonnybutter August 22, 2015 at 7:37 pm | #

    Coates’ book just jumped to top of my stack. There’s too much to comment on, so I’m just going to save it. This is a very moving review.

  3. Lauren August 23, 2015 at 10:41 am | #

    And yet all this rightful black rage still supports Obama – or refuses to confront him. The problem I have with all this analysis & glowing narrative about Coates’ book – and by extension movements like Black Lives Matter – is their lack of class analysis, their implicit support of Obama or refusal to confront his complete collaboration with white supremacy (as well as climate change, Wall Street depredations, imperialism etc). Or at least their total indifference to such issues. I find the generations of MLK and Malcolm and Assata Shakur and SNCC far more revolutionary because they did not ignore imperialism and class. In fact, Coates and black liberals like him implicitly support the entire edifice of US militarism & imperialism. So all of this analysis is all very interesting but it doesn’t convince me much about the search for fundamental radical change.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 24, 2015 at 9:52 am | #

      To begin to answer your question, this from August 19, 2015 broadcast of “Democracy, Now!” in which two representatives of the BLM respond to questioning from Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez [transcript]:

      “JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how do you respond to folks who say that, well, the Black Lives Matter now has been confronting several Democratic candidates, but the Republican candidates, of which there are many more, have largely been so far unscathed on the question of answering their policy issues in terms of the black community and of police violence and on mass incarceration?

      “DAUNASIA YANCEY [from BLM]: Yeah. But, well, every presidential candidate should expect to hear from us and expect to be held accountable. It’s actually a practice called “power mapping,” where it’s similar to lobbying, where you actually map who’s closest to you on the issue and go to those folks first in order to force them to articulate their stance and then hold them accountable to it. So this movement is very strategic, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

      The point is pretty clear. You go where your message is most likely to find sympathy first, so that you come away with a strengthened position when you finally visit those venues where such sympathy may be lacking. To go the other way around is to court defeat out of the gate, and then be dismissed as inconsequential when you do finally visit and disrupt those whose sympathies may very well be in line with yours.

      I have seen your species of concern trolling before, pretending to revolutionary values while dissing a genuine progressive movement because it does not serve your supposed pet interests. Lemme be blunt: those of us whose sympathize with BLM don’t give a crap about what you see as lacking, and we don’t give a crap about what you wish we would do or say. This movement “ain’t for you” as a rap artist once replied to a white journalist regarding his music. You give yourself away by suggesting that Coates is a supporter of Obama (a right wing trope) because Coates and black liberals like him (like BLM? Really?) somehow support imperialism and militarism.

      Frankly, that is just looney-talk: Coates betrays no imperialist/militarist sympathies anywhere in his writings or speeches (unless I missed something somewhere…) and neither does BLM. Your demand that BLM address class issues is a smokescreen. Others are too nice, but I admit that I am unworthy scum so I will impugn your motive, openly, by saying it directly: you are asking that BLM fall on the sword of “class” so that it dies in a pool of blood about “race”. What better way to dilute and then shut down a progressive movement that focuses on race than by demanding that it make class its central issue, or at least talk about it more? It is worth noting that other progressive movements are not as subject to this demand: feminism, LGBTQ rights, immigration, the environment, foreign policy, and so on. The demand for a “class” emphasis seems to fall most squarely upon BLACKS!

      Now, why the hell is that?

      • jonnybutter August 24, 2015 at 12:37 pm | #

        I mostly agree with you DP, but there’s more to it, IMO. First of all, the controversy which brought out the Rigid Doctrinaire Leftist response was not about BLM confronting Democrats. It was about their (apparent) focus on Sanders (who isn’t a Democrat) rather than on establishment Dems who have done so much to contribute to black misery in the last 25 years. I think this kerfuffle is probably a smaller thing than others may, but it was still a little bit..improvised.

        I want BLM to continue to succeed for at least 2 reasons: for the sake of AA people themselves first and foremost, but also for the sake of the physical and mental health of the entire country. Therefore, I cringe a little at mistakes and rationalizations after the fact that don’t really make sense. For example, Power Mapping is not confronting your potentially closest ally and then moving ‘up the food chain’ so to speak. It’s targeting all the people who have influence with the person(s) who’s mind you want to change or influence. And what BLM did with ‘Bow Down Bernie’ was sort of a converse Power Mapping – it targeted one person to influence many others.

        On that same Wilmore show I referenced above, when asked about the Sanders stuff, the activists first started to answer in unison (on message!), then the guy delivered the line about friends needing to criticize friends. I thought that was a BS talking point. It’s not that big a deal either way, but…come on. Nobody bothered to differentiate Sanders from mainstream Dem liberalism at all except for the vague term ‘progressive’ -which is, in a sense, more wrong than ‘liberal’. Those BLM activists were angry at white ‘progressive’ hipster-ish types who are oblivious to black lives and deaths. I get that. But that is a mistake vis a vis Sanders the candidate and Sanders the socialist – IOW, ‘all you white liberal politicians are essentially the same’. It’s not any kind of friendship if you can’t be bothered to differentiate between at least a kind of socialist, and cheesy Democrats who say things like ‘ALL lives matter’ (and run the Baltimore PD….). ‘Bow Down Bernie’ was minor, but kind of dumb and feckless. It’s also dumb to say that I’m not allowed to make that observation because I’m white.

        Friends indeed *must* criticize friends – and it has to go both ways – because true friends tend to be the only ones who will do it honestly. But I trust that as BLM continues to gel into something more coherent and powerful, to the extent it hasn’t already, there will be a little more consideration about how to be strategic with allies. Rage is understandable, but pure rage is poison in the end.

        To the rigid ideologues on the left. I’d remove the stick from your nether regions and consider what’s right in front of your noses: something very like a genocide committed on your AA brothers and sisters. Guess what? Class analysis may not be the first thing that comes to mind in that situation.

        • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 24, 2015 at 1:27 pm | #

          Hey, nobody’s perfect!

          Even Malcolm made some missteps early in his activist public life when he debated Baldwin on how to understand the sit-ins. But BLM got their groove on pretty fast, I’d say. For that reason, I am inclined to foresee a more sophisticated public strategy, looking less like the 1960’s Civil Rights/Black Power Movements, and more like ACT/UP.

          As for Larry Whitmore, I missed the last few episodes since The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart retired. I need to re-program my DVR. However, I also think that The Nightly Show needs a quite a few tweaks. It’s ok, but it needs a lot of work. I guess I am spoiled after Daily and the Repor’.

          • jonnybutter August 24, 2015 at 7:12 pm | #

            I would say some of those movements in the 60s were pretty sophisticated, but why quibble? Yeah, BLM is getting it together I think.

            I think Wilmore is very funny. I actually prefered him to TDS lately. Strokes; different.

          • jonnybutter September 1, 2015 at 5:52 pm | #

            If I may, I thought this from Touré Reed was pretty good, reprinted at this link in TNR, but originally at Jacobin (can’t find the Jacobin link or I would put it here instead).

          • Bill Michtom September 1, 2015 at 6:31 pm | #
        • Bill Michtom August 28, 2015 at 4:58 pm | #

          As to those like Lauren, while they are harping on class analysis, etc., black people are dying right now. It seems to me that’s why it’s called Black Lives Matter.

          One’s class analysis means bupkis when your dead, Lauren. First, people need to put pressure on folks making it clear this is an IMMEDIATE LIFE & DEATH MATTER (pardon my yelling).

          Granted I’m a white guy, but that seems kinda important.

  4. jonnybutter August 23, 2015 at 1:35 pm | #

    …by extension movements like Black Lives Matter….Coates and black liberals like him implicitly support the entire edifice of US militarism & imperialism.

    That’s a pretty broad brush you’re painting with there, no? I haven’t read this book yet, but that sounds unfair to Coates at the very least.

    Yes, we all bemoan lack of class consciousness in BLM. MLK was, even Jesse Jackson (in ’88) was, more radical, or at least more focused, than BLM seems to be so far. Ironic that the only candidate remotely similar to Jackson is Sanders, who seemed to have been singled out in a bad way for a while. I guess when you are full of rightful rage you don’t always do your class analysis, eh? I don’t think sophisticated political theory is what this is about at the moment – it *is* about ramming home the simple idea that BLACK LIVES MATTER. Not in a theoretical sense. In a ‘stop killing black people’ sense.

    BLM, such as it is, have also painted with a broad brush. On Larry Wilmore’s show Daunasia Yancey said (re: Obama): “No president of the United States [including Obama] has ever stood up for black lives in a significant and a real and effective way..” I’m not sure that is a very useful statement because it’s so qualified, but she didn’t sound besotted with Obama.

    • Roqeuntin August 23, 2015 at 9:39 pm | #

      I’d have to go digging for it, but Zizek had this really great point that in a certain way making very minor requests for change in the system can have revolutionary potential. He was making it about healthcare, as in “please provide us with the same level of care Western Europe already has,” but it applies to Black Lives Matter as well. The police, legal system, and prisons are so hopelessly corrupt and cruel that even asking them to simply admit that black lives matter is a bridge too far. Even acknowledging this is already a crisis for the current ideology. Because the simple truth is that they currently don’t and everyone knows it, but isn’t prepared to admit it.

      Also, it is very telling is that no one seems to counter the black lives matter movement by saying, “Black lives actually do matter, I have no idea what you are talking about.” At least I haven’t heard it. Even in their own arguments they implicitly accept the premise. The counter is instead to just invert it and say “cop lives matter” or some other nonsense. They already know that the current legal system places little to know value on black lives, it’s so self-evident that they don’t even bother to dispute it.

  5. Bill Michtom August 24, 2015 at 1:21 am | #

    Unequivocally, Coates should not be included in the critique of BLM’s support for Obama or for not understanding class.

    That BLM has been focusing so much on Sanders can be interpreted as wrongly going after an ally or going after the person most likely to explicitly include BLM’s views. I tend to go with the latter.

    I do think that there is a major problem with BLM seeming to lack understanding that Obama is an enemy.

  6. Aron August 24, 2015 at 11:23 am | #

    This is a response to your post only. I have not yet read Coates’s book.

    I wonder if you’re missing part of the point of Baldwin’s quote. Suppose that “the fire next time” were a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). Then the spiritual would mean that God will never again destroy all humanity, but he will severely punish specific wrongdoers. Baldwin was advancing a version of that, that white America would have to learn not to be racist or suffer for it. Coates has given up on that vision and says instead that if white people are to learn at all, we will have to learn from the universal disaster that is threatening us too. Both disasters are biblical; the question is which kind of biblical disaster we will respond to. Coates is working with the biblical metaphor, not discarding it.

    Coates fails to be a man of his time only if the fire of BLM is effective against white opinion. Thus far, it doesn’t seem to be. BLM hasn’t on average shifted white opinion at all, although it may have polarized it.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 24, 2015 at 12:36 pm | #

      “Coates fails to be a man of his time only if the fire of BLM is effective against white opinion. Thus far, it doesn’t seem to be. BLM hasn’t on average shifted white opinion at all, although it may have polarized it.”

      If BLM changes White minds, then Coates in his critique has truly mischaracterized what he sees as the deep resilience of American racism and thus “fails to be a man of his time”. On the other hand however, Whites’ opinion has only “polarized” thanks to BLM. Thus, Coates’ critique remains largely intact, at least for now.

      So there you have it folks. BLM should really just shut up since it only hurts Whites’ tender fee-fees, only making a lot of them even madder at Negroes than they already are — and Coates’ own place in history as a forceful presence in American letters hangs in the balance depending, again, on how Whites respond to BLM.

      White Opinion: The Negro’s Perpetual Burden.

      Tested by BLM White Opinion, it seems, can make or break… Coates.

      Angry White Opinion versus the Possible Downgrading of Coates’ Literary and Critical Stock.


      One may be forgiven for guessing that this is what Baldwin meant when he coined the expression “the price of the ticket”. The only question that remains is which Negroes are going to “pay”, it seems, and in exchange for what, exactly.

      • Aron August 24, 2015 at 8:08 pm | #

        This is indented as if it’s a response to my comment. With that in mind, I just want to say that “BLM should really just shut up” has nothing to do with anything I said. I was responding to Corey’s response to Coates. My claim is that Coates appears to have a pretty good understanding of his time. What BLM should do is another matter altogether.

  7. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 28, 2015 at 4:39 pm | #

    I have wanted to mention this, but I am only now getting around to it.

    In the 1990s, your humble servant was a graduate student in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Cinema Studies Department. As part of my work-studies labor to help defray the cost of my education, I was employed in the NYU Law School’s basement in the copy room, and there I was lucky enough to discover a lot interesting reading material destined for the shredder due to over-copying requests by the law professors of that institution. I also read a lot of the law journals and even got to read some of the old law books archived in Law School’s library. I even read the Mississippi legal codes on the “proper” treatment of slaves in that state. That was like reading Hegel crossed with Stephen King.

    So one day, I bumped into Professor Derrick Bell in the elevator at the Law School and could only manage a “good morning” and a nod to him. I knew then of his celebrity, based on his public battle against Harvard Law School’s sexist/racist hiring practices and the resulting move by Professor Bell to the NYU Law School. He had just published a popular book of essays, titled “Faces At the Bottom of the Well”. This book was known for proposing a notorious thesis: that racism in United States is a permanent feature of the American political landscape, and that while it may undergo transformations, it will absolutely never be removed and it will forever impact negatively and greatly the lives of American Blacks as long as the United States of America itself exists. The strength of Bell’s thesis lies rooted in his observation that too many American Whites cannot and will not identify with Blacks (or other non-Whites, for that matter) as fellow human beings with common interests, and that Whiteness itself is largely defined as/in opposition to Blackness. What Bell described then, as suggested by another essay which happens to be the one that appears as the book’s title, is what some economists have very recently labeled “last-place aversion”.

    Reading his book was a life-changing experience, and it sustains a permanent impact on how I view American racism: it will never be defeated. It is permanent. Even Dinesh D’Sousa’s scabrous “The End of Racism” agrees with that idea (to which D’Sousa replied in his book: yeah, so what?) Anti-Black racism in America is forever. It will end here when America itself ends.

    When Coates comes to a similar understanding, folks are shocked, shocked! Lemme be the first to state here that I was introduced to that idea during the last decade of the last century. So why do people insist on being surprised given that a best-selling book by a famous legal scholar both floated and explored that notion around two decades ago?

    An excerpt from Bell’s essay The Permanence of Racism, from the above named book: “To initiate the reconsideration, I want to set forth this proposition, which will be easier to reject than refute: Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.”

    A few sentences later, Bell writes: “…blacks are and remain this country’s designated scapegoats.”

    If you doubt this, go and visit the archives of those news outlets that reported early on the economic meltdown and the right-wing punditry that commented upon it. It was all the fault of the Blacks and their CRA [the Community Reinvestment Act of the 1970’s] that forced innocent widdle bankers to lend to un-credit-worthy Blacks who then defaulted on their unaffordable mortgages.

    Y’all remember that? I won’t go into the universe of wrong that this thesis sustains, but that was the first explanation out of the gate until some journalists finally did some push-back six months into the crisis. Sub-prime mortgages’ victims were blamed for the crisis that stole their American Dream of home ownership.

    Bell closes his essay: “I realize that even with the challenge to rethinking these stories pose, many people will find it difficult to embrace my assumption that racism is a permanent component of American life. Mesmerized by the racial equality syndrome, they are too easily reassured by simple admonitions to ‘stay on course,’ which come far too easily from those — black and white — who are not on the deprived end of the economic chasm between blacks and whites.

    “The goal of racial equality is, while comforting to many whites, more illusory than real for blacks. For too long, we have worked for substantive reform, then settled for weakly worded and poorly enforced legislation, indeterminate judicial decisions, token government positions, even holidays. I repeat. If we are to seek new goals for our struggles, we must first reassess the worth of the racial assumptions on which, without careful thought, we have presumed too much and relied on too long.

    “Let’s begin.”

    As Hegel also said.

    Me, I will start by getting my own copy of Coates’ book and possibly putting it in dialogue with Bell’s.

    It is worth noting that no one (as far as I can tell) has seen fit to credit Professor Bell with an idea that certainly predates Coates’ articulation of it. Maybe Coates himself has already done it and no one has commented on it?

    It is also worth noting that both Bell and Coates put struggle (as opposed to “victory”) as the best response to this condition. In public, respondents have asked variations of “if racism is permanent, then what is the purpose of struggle if ultimately winning over and against it is not to be had in this or in any life at all?”

    I can answer that one, and it is a practical and not hypothetical answer. Struggle is the ONLY thing that has bettered the lives of an oppressed and marginalized group. Doing nothing, out of some species of despair because “Hope” is not offered upon a diagnosis of the present political malady, does not work if a better existence is to be obtained. It really is that simple. The cost of oppression (or certain manifestations of it) must be raised so that to continue to sustain it becomes untenable. In other words, the betterment of all Americans depends on the willingness of some of its cohort to refuse to cooperate with enduring continued abuse, and not with an “overcoming” of it because, let us face it, there will be more coming up fast behind it.

    In this wise one is reminded of the justly famous soliloquy in “Hamlet”. With a few light and relevant tweaks, that speech could easily apply to the present debates around Coates’ book now, and Bell’s own book at the time of its release.

    To struggle is “to be”, and “not to be” is to just give up and endure, with “the sleep of death” (mindless entertainment, booze/drugs, becoming a Black conservative) as our only (pseudo-) respite from such endurances.

    Aye, and there’s the rub.

    For, there is no real respite.

    There is only struggle.


    Yea, verily.

  8. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant September 10, 2015 at 9:28 am | #

    I finally had a chance to read the Toure Reed article.

    This is just a general comment on it and on political advice-giving as a literary sub-genre of political punditry.

    I would request that anyone reading it should also read the comments’ section in The New Republic’s posting of the essay. Even though Jacobin also published the essay, very revealingly the racist commenters over at TNR have come out in “reply” to attack Blacks as a biologically inferior racial group too lazy and stupid to take advantage of all that America has to offer, commenting on nothing in the essay at all.

    It is also worth noting that the progressives who tangle with the racists in the comments don’t spend much time at all in defending (or critiquing) the essay or even trying to explain it to the racists who seem to think that they have something to offer to the discussion. Of course one could note that given TNR’s history, this is understandable; TNR online has been a haven for concern-trolling racists in the comments section. That this essay was even taken up by TNR at all (again, given TNR’s history, this is understandable) should give everyone pause. That racist commenters there should use it as an opportunity to do some old-school hatin’ is an eye-opener. Given his focus on “class” as revealingly absent from the Black Lives Matter activism and critique, why have they not attacked the author as a “commie”?

    Or at all?

    Reed has written some very worthwhile analyses prior to this essay. Given that TNR has not been a source of progressive analysis in decades, the editors there may have felt that a seemingly anti-BLM piece would not be out of place on its site, and thus may be little aware of his previous writings or at least did not find them offensive to the kind of people Marty Paretz would have liked to cultivate as the Republic’s preferred readership. What confuses one is any effort to intuit what this piece was doing over at Jacobin before making its trek over to The New Republic.

    For now, just some random thoughts on the Reed piece.

    Starting any-ol’-where, I am dismayed by the dismissive, condescending, and superior tone of the article and its elder’s-finger-wagging-at-the-younger-activist project. While the vast majority of us Blacks love and respect our activist elders, it is clear that some who purport to speak to the yung’uns seem unable to avoid the impulse to deploy contemptuous language – as this article clearly does. Phrases like “arrogant”, “youthful hubris”, and “easily dismissed” speak only of the arrogance and hubris of its author and thereby merely risks his own easy dismissal by those who simply want the murdering of us Blacks by the cops to end.

    Jumping to another spot. No anti-racist activist regards “race as unchanging and permanent”; I would ask that Reed cite ONE activist who makes such an absurd claim. Rather the issue is that, adaptive changes in response to historical and economic conditionalities notwithstanding, “race” remains a political consistent whose impoverishing and violent aggressions impact unceasingly upon the lives and bodies of persons of African descent in the United States. And as for that violence, its official deployment has come at the hands of an agent of the state: the police. Reed has said NOTHING about that.

    More leapfrogging. Reed references something he calls “New Deal era black politics”, as if the Black politics of that era are implicated in the creation of the New Deal (a role often attributed to The Depression and to a very restive labor movement of that time AND to the official fear that capital was in some serious-ass trouble) or that such politics’ simultaneity with the New Deal says something about such politics. Do I have to remind Reed, a historian, that the New Deal itself only passed the Congress when the Roosevelt administration promised to allow the States to deny New Deal benefits to Blacks of any “class”? Furthermore, the New Deal backed post-war boom in private home ownership was predicated on an explicitly racist denial of such access to Blacks for the purpose of perpetuating segregation as official policy all across the nation and not just in the South. How is “class” primary in any reading of that phenomenon?

    One last jump to yet another point, again at random. The reason BLM is not doing political economy (for now) is because BLM is trying to the get the cops to stop shooting at us, to stop tasering us, to stop brutalizing us, and to start treating us as they would treat the citizens they think they are charged with serving. Why is THIS so hard for Reed to understand?

    What Reed and others see as a mere “narrow focus” is us trying to stop the EFF-ing state and its EFF-ing cops from EFF-ing killing us. Experience taught us that being lucky enough to find gainful employment is little deterrent to a criminally racist police department, or to a municipality venal enough to use its Black population as a revenue resource through illegal and unconstitutional policing practices. In his essay Reed is silent about that, too.

    There is so much more to unpack with that essay but it’s too long so, I’ll sum up with this.

    Reed, dude! If you got a problem with BLM you ain’t gonna win over any readers comin’ outcha-face with some superior-ass-toned stuff like that. Instead of saying to us, “You people don’t know what you are doing, and what you are doing you’re doing WRONG, and WE will tell you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it”, try a little tenderness instead, whydon’tcha?

    How about this? “Hey, BLM, s’up? I see you are concerned with police brutality. While I know that ‘class’ is not a direct focus of your critique and activism, I would like to volunteer an analysis that suggests that it is at least partially implicated in the tendency to Black vulnerability to the state’s violence against Black bodies. Here’s a copy of a draft I wrote up. We can talk about whatever merits you may find useful in it for your activism. Also, here’s my card.”

    In other words, talk to BLM with respect. From what I have been reading of the interviews with their representatives, that would appear to be their first demand.

    I have to say that there are a lot of folks out there who seem to have sage advice for BLM. Some of these people have some interesting and worthwhile ideas to offer to BLM that could indeed serve the purpose of allowing BLM to make the issues they appear to address move from “#hashtag” and “national conversation” to a genuine participatory agency by the disempowered and thus most directly affected interests (and to avoid the creation of a new and “acceptable” black leadership class). Therefore, the second bit of advice I would offer to this new class of advice-givers is that maybe, just maybe, they should join BLM and offer their insights as part of the movement. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz offers one model of such participatory contribution:

    This does not mean that Stiglitz had no critical review of Occupy Wall Street (check out “Democracy Now!” and let him tell you) but it does mean that he felt the activism of that movement and its moment was worthy of more than just an essay delivered from afar.

    Let us grant that many of these advice-givers may already have their hands full with other progressive-Black related issues, and it is also true that just because you have an idea as to what someone else oughtta do it don’t necessarily mean you are obligated to join ranks with that someone else. So if you advice-givers don’t wanna join BLM (I haven’t yet, but I am sorely tempted – in case anyone is wondering) that is ok. But it is worth pointing out that the advice-givers don’t seem to be reaching those whom they believe to be most in need of their advice. I have read many advice-givers and I have yet to see a BLMer respond by saying, “thanks, and we hear you.” (Reed’s email is likely NOT overflowing with BLM gratitude for his review of them – assuming they read him at all, an assumption that I am disinclined to make) Instead, it is when BLMers are interviewed that they also get to hear the “critiques” of their activism, and certainly in the mainstream press these “critiques” are often submitted in bad faith.

    I think people who are unwilling to get involved should therefore just let BLM evolve on its own terms, and if you think those terms could use an adjustment then the best way to insure that really is to join up. Said unwilling are perfectly free to publish their two-cents, but they should note that BLM is not going to respond to essays that its activists probably are not reading anyway and which are written by professors or others who, frankly, talk down to them. Again, look at the TNR comments section: the racists did “respond” and the progressives are spending their time arguing with THEM. I suspect that this is the way it is going to continue with many of the advice-givers whose pieces appear in the mainstream outlets.

    How many of us have yelled at the teevee to give advice to this or that person or group with real power but did so with absolutely no intention to get involved – more out of resignation and despair and of a sense of our own powerlessness, rather than laziness? Ever think that the powers that be don’t hear your legitimate complaints? Has it occurred to you that you are more than right?

    They rule; you got nothing to say that they think they even need to hear. Their actions make that clear enough.

    So, if some of us think that advising the un-hearing powerful won’t work – why is it that some of us also think they can do the same with the weak who dare to publicly fight back (or those who purport to speak/act on their behalf) but yet expect them to heed? Is respect for THEM so low that such heeding goes without saying? Or are we supposed to read their unheeding of the advice-givers as yet more evidence of their need to heed the advice-givers?

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