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Debate: Can white people talk sensibly about race in America?

Protesters gathered to march in,

Protesters gathered to march in, "The peoples power strike against racism" in lower Manhattan on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has a new book out, "Between the World and Me," about race in America, that has been greeted rapturously. Even critics of Coates have acknowledged the book's power, though some - like conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks - have seemed befuddled how to respond: "Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree?" Brooks wrote. "Does a white person have standing to respond?" Brooks was roundly mocked and criticized for his response.

How can white people talk about race in a productive way? Should they just listen and stay quiet? Is it clueless to even ask this question? Two white guys, Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, wrestle with the issue.

JOEL MATHIS: Can white people talk sensibly about race? Sure. We just don't do it very often.

There are three reasons, generally, that we fail. We do a terrible job of listening. We do a terrible job of imagining. And we're just too darned defensive.

All three failures have routinely been on display during the discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, "Between the World and Me." Coates' thesis is provocative - that when it comes to race, the American Dream has been built, and continues to be built, with the theft of black labor and the crushing of black bodies. We've failed, miserably, to fulfill the promise that "all men are created equal." "I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard," Coates writes. "This is difficult because there still exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much." It's not an outlook designed to comfort us. A lot of conservative readers, particularly, are mad at what they read here.

What I don't see in their responses, though, is any bit of imaginative empathy. No hint that Coates's critics have asked themselves: "What would the world look like if I were a black man living in America?" Or, if they have, they seem to think it would be a lot like living their white lives in darker skin. That is surely a mistake.

This is a relentlessly political book - how could it not be? - and yet attempts to respond to the book from within the usual left-right Democratic-Republican construct of our debates seem insufficient. Let's try again. This is an American black man telling us how he perceives living as a black man in America today: It contains no policy prescriptions, no endorsement of party or candidate, no 10-point campaign for better living.

We haven't found the right way to talk about this book yet, but it probably needs to look more like a discussion, with real listening, and less like a debate.

BEN BOYCHUK: I read Ta-Nahesi Coates' book with patience and charity. I came away disappointed and frustrated. But maybe that was the point. You want "productive" dialogue about race? Coates is not your man.

Though Coates uses the literary device of addressing the book to his teenage son, his true intended audience seems to be a cohort of readers who "believe they are white" and feel just awful about it. These are the people who are constantly telling you to "check your privilege" and are ever mindful of the appearance of white supremacy, real or imagined.

"Between the World and Me" is a bleak book, written by a man who grew up under bleak circumstances - 1980s Baltimore, when crack cocaine ruled the ghetto and violence was everywhere, including Coates' home.

Coates came of age steeped in the ideology and literature of black power. His father was a Black Panther, and young Ta-Nehesi devoured the radical literature on his parents' shelves. Malcolm X was his hero.

In time, Coates outgrew his black nationalism, but you can never shake the images and words that bore into your brain when you're 13 or 14 years old. And so America is a nation built on the broken bodies of millions of black people. But black power "births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors." "Between the World and Me" is also a soulless book. His atheism is as central to his identity as his blackness. For Coates, "The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible - that is precisely why they are so precious." If this is all there is, then Coates' anger is understandable.

But for some of us who were born in the 1970s and came of age in the 1980s, our consciousness of race was shaped largely by the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. His dream of justice and racial equality, once so polarizing, became part of the American dream.

We took King seriously. But it didn't matter and, by Coates' lights, it could never matter. The American Dream is a just myth offering nothing but false hope. When you cannot even agree on the premise, productive talk is impossible.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (joelmmathis@gmail.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.

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