We think it is rape culture or gun violence that will define us as a fallen civilization. But it’s the indifference that will do us in. It’s our fierce commitment to independence — emotional, cultural, financial, spiritual — as our most prized and noble value that dooms us.
We are nothing without each other, nothing if all we can manage is protecting our own children, nursing our individual grief, urging others to be more like someone else who was “independent” enough to “move on” and “dust herself off” and “get over it.”
The tendency, in selective recollections of history, is to choose the version that looks most like an alibi—and it is for this reason that the conversation Coates has restarted is not really about reparations. It is, more fundamentally, about acknowledging the bastard history that would warrant reparations in the first place.
The unspoken divide between black people and white people—whether over reparations, affirmative action, or the question of paying N.C.A.A. athletes—comes down to a question of history. In one version, that history appears as an incremental movement toward equality after a long night of discrimination; in the other, history looks like a balance sheet, and the cumulative debits of sanctioned theft, enforced poverty, and scant opportunity far outweigh the inconsistent credits of good will. Few whites recall, for instance, that General William Sherman, during his March to the Sea, issued orders mandating the redistribution of land seized from Confederates, in forty-acre parcels, to newly emancipated black families. But within black America, that fact—and the fact that the orders were revoked following Lincoln’s assassination—is common knowledge, recalled with the bitterness of an outstanding debt.
Absent an understanding of this past, it’s possible—even entirely reasonable—to conclude that affirmative action represents a full recompense for the social engineering that produced a disproportionately black underclass in the United States. To the extent that the history remains obscured, the narrative looks like a lineage of failed handouts to a feckless and troublesome population, never quite capable of pulling themselves up, and mired in their own self-defeating ways.
Thanks, Beyoncé, but if we’re verbing, I think you meant ‘Bill Clinton’d all on my gown,’ not ‘Monica Lewinsky’d.’
Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.