The Birthmark of Damnation: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Black Body

From Harper’s Pic­to­r­i­al His­to­ry of the Civ­il War (Anno­tat­ed), Kara Walk­er.

Liza Bram­lett was a slave. She lived on a cot­ton plan­ta­tion in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta, dur­ing the 19th cen­tu­ry. White men raped her repeat­ed­ly through­out her life. They trad­ed her body amongst them­selves in exchange for calves and piglets. In the end, Liza gave birth to 23 chil­dren, 20 of whom were con­ceived by rape. One of Liza’s daugh­ters, Ella Townsend, was born after eman­ci­pa­tion, but remained in the bondage of share­crop­ping in rur­al Mis­sis­sip­pi. As an adult, she car­ried a pis­tol with her in the fields, deter­mined to pro­tect her­self and the sur­round­ing chil­dren. One day, a white man on horse­back rode into the fields. He had come to abduct a young Black girl. Ella, car­ry­ing her pis­tol in a lunch pail, inter­vened. “You don’t have no Black chil­dren and you’re not going to beat no Black chil­dren,” she told the intrud­er. “If you step down off that horse, I’ll go to Hell and back with you before Hell can scorch a feath­er.”

“I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ulti­mate­ly stop them­selves,” Ta-Nehisi Coates says of white racists in the final para­graph of his best­seller, Between the World and Me, writ­ten as an open let­ter to his son. Coates describes racism as galac­tic, a phys­i­cal law of the uni­verse, “a tena­cious grav­i­ty” and a “cos­mic injus­tice.” When a cop kills a Black man, the police offi­cer is “a force of nature, the help­less agent of our world’s phys­i­cal laws.” Soci­ety is equal­ly help­less against the nat­ur­al order. “The earth­quake can­not be sub­poe­naed,” says Coates.

In a wide­ly repli­cat­ed ges­ture, Coates locates the expe­ri­ence of racism in the body, in a racism that “dis­lodges brains, blocks air­ways, rips mus­cle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” In the slim vol­ume, few­er than 300 pages, the word “body” or “bod­ies” appears more than 300 times. “In Amer­i­ca,” he writes, “it is tra­di­tion­al to destroy the black body.” Anoth­er brood­ing pas­sage dwells on the inevitabil­i­ty of this vio­lence.

It had to be blood. It had to be nails dri­ven through a tongue and ears pruned away. It had to be the thrash­ing of a kitchen maid for the crime of churn­ing the but­ter at a leisure­ly clip. It could only be the employ­ment of car­riage whips, tongs, iron pok­ers, hand­saws, stones, paper­weights or what­ev­er might be handy to break the black body.

Yet Coates’s descrip­tive lan­guage and haunt­ing nar­ra­tive are not mere metaphors. They act as an onto­log­i­cal piv­ot, mys­ti­fy­ing racism even as it is anchored in its phys­i­cal effects.

Metaphor has long been used to cap­ture racism’s almost unimag­in­able bru­tal­i­ty. Lynch­ing became “strange fruit” in Abel Meerpool’s song, made famous by Bil­lie Hol­i­day. In a wry, trag­ic innu­en­do, rape was referred to in Black com­mu­ni­ties as “night­time inte­gra­tion.” The use of metaphor is not in itself an obfus­ca­tion. But Coates wields metaphor to obscure rather than illu­mi­nate the real­i­ty of racism. What we find all too often in Coates’s nar­ra­tive uni­verse are bod­ies with­out life and a racism with­out peo­ple. To imbue race with an onto­log­i­cal mean­ing, to make it a real­i­ty all its own, is to drain it of its place in his­to­ry and its indeli­ble roots in dis­crete human action. To deny the role of life and peo­ple — of pol­i­tics — is to also fore­close the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lib­er­a­tion.

***

Ella knew her moth­er Liza’s unimag­in­able suf­fer­ing, but her mem­o­ry was not a yoke on her shoul­ders. It pro­voked some­thing in Ella. As an adult, she did not see the white preda­tor stalk­ing the fields as some help­less agent. She took mat­ters into her own hands. There was no tena­cious grav­i­ty strong enough to break her will or loosen her grip on her pis­tol. Her efforts rip­pled beyond those cot­ton fields. Ella taught her own daugh­ter, Fan­nie Lou Hamer, not only to strug­gle, but to resist.

Fan­nie Lou was born into a share­crop­ping fam­i­ly in rur­al Mis­sis­sip­pi, but would go on to become a bea­con of the Civ­il Rights move­ment. She is best known for her tire­less work reg­is­ter­ing Black vot­ers in Mis­sis­sip­pi, most famous­ly dur­ing 1964’s Free­dom Sum­mer, at great per­son­al risk. Police arrest­ed and beat her. White racists shot at her. Lyn­don John­son dis­missed her as an illit­er­ate. In 1973, an inter­view­er asked her, “Do you have faith that the sys­tem will ever work prop­er­ly?” By then, Fan­nie Lou had seen a decade of set­backs and false dawns since first walk­ing off her plan­ta­tion in 1962 to fight for Civ­il Rights. She respond­ed,

We have to make it work. Ain’t noth­ing going to be hand­ed to you on a sil­ver plat­ter. That’s not just black peo­ple, that’s peo­ple in gen­er­al, mass­es. See, I’m with the mass­es… You’ve got to fight. Every step of the way you’ve got to fight.

She marched. She sang free­dom songs. She tes­ti­fied. She co-found­ed the Mis­sis­sip­pi Free­dom Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. For her, the log­i­cal solu­tion was polit­i­cal: unit­ing a pow­er­less many against a pow­er­ful few. White racists could be stopped. Black peo­ple could resist, and Fan­nie Lou and so many oth­ers did just that.

Fan­nie Lou knew that the wages of racism were mea­sured on the body. “A Black woman’s body was nev­er hers alone,” she once remarked. White doc­tors ster­il­ized her with­out her con­sent dur­ing a minor surgery, a bar­bar­ic intru­sion so com­mon she called it a “Mis­sis­sip­pi appen­dec­to­my.” How­ev­er, though she knew racism’s phys­i­cal toll, she drew inspi­ra­tion from sto­ries of Black resis­tance passed down oral­ly across the gen­er­a­tions. She recalled her grandmother’s will to sur­vive and her mother’s weapon of pro­tec­tion. These inter­gen­er­a­tional resis­tance nar­ra­tives, accord­ing to Charles Cobb in his book This Non­vi­o­lent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, “under­lay a deep and pow­er­ful col­lec­tive mem­o­ry that was invis­i­ble to whites but great­ly affect­ed the shape and course of the mod­ern Free­dom Move­ment.” As a result, Fan­nie Lou and so many oth­ers pos­sessed an inti­mate knowl­edge not only of their own human dig­ni­ty, despite the racist bru­tal­i­ty they endured, but also of the very real human frailty inher­ent to their racial oppres­sors.

In the years before Fan­nie Lou’s polit­i­cal strug­gle began, whole com­mu­ni­ties, Black women and men, rose up against the vio­lence that was forced on Black women’s bod­ies. Fem­i­nist his­to­ri­an Danielle McGuire argues this anti-rape com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing in Alaba­ma laid the foun­da­tion for what even­tu­al­ly became the Mont­gomery Bus Boy­cott. She observes, “The major­i­ty of lead­ers active in the Mont­gomery Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion in 1955 cut their polit­i­cal teeth demand­ing jus­tice for black women who were raped in the 1940s and ear­ly 1950s.” Despite being a poor, Black share­crop­per drown­ing in the pover­ty and racial ter­ror endem­ic to rur­al Mis­sis­sip­pi, Fan­nie Lou held fast to her fore­bear­ers’ sto­ries of resis­tance. She did not resign her­self to fatal­ism, as Coates does.

***

Coates too takes a multi­gen­er­a­tional view. Between the World and Me is framed as a let­ter to his son. How­ev­er, rather than see­ing a lega­cy of resis­tance, he finds a lin­eage of Black­ness defined by fear and dys­func­tion. “When I was your age the only peo­ple I knew were black, and all of them were pow­er­ful­ly, adamant­ly, dan­ger­ous­ly afraid,” he writes. “I felt the fear in the vis­its to my Nana’s home in Philadel­phia,” Coates con­tin­ues. “And I saw it in my own father.”

My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anx­i­ety than anger, my father who beat me as if some­one might steal me away, because that is exact­ly what was hap­pen­ing all around us.

Coates describes his con­di­tion, and that of all Black peo­ple, as a “birth­mark of damna­tion.”  The resis­tance sto­ries passed down to Fan­nie Lou and so many oth­ers spurred them to march. Coates’s nar­ra­tive, rid­dled with fear and futil­i­ty, begs us to retreat.

Though Coates has nev­er explic­it­ly cit­ed it as his the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work, the dour out­look of his work evokes the themes of Afro-Pes­simism. The piv­ot to the onto­log­i­cal that is appar­ent in Coates’s rhetoric is a hall­mark of Afro-Pes­simism. “Ontol­ogy by def­i­n­i­tion is the study of being, and to speak of Black­ness as an onto­log­i­cal con­di­tion means ana­lyz­ing the state of Black bod­ies through the lens of slav­ery,” Afro-Pes­simist schol­ar Michael Bar­low Jr. writes in the aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal Inquiries. How­ev­er, for Bar­low, the rela­tion of slav­ery that onto­log­i­cal­ly defines black­ness is not a mat­ter of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, but rather a “libid­i­nal econ­o­my.” In this onto­log­i­cal piv­ot, labor and own­er­ship — that is, polit­i­cal econ­o­my — are mere­ly inci­den­tal to racial slav­ery. Instead, it’s the white imag­i­na­tion and its depraved “meta­phys­i­cal desires for Black flesh” that both pre­dat­ed and cat­alyzed racial­ized chat­tel slav­ery. Racism is reduced to the spir­i­tu­al, more a mat­ter of a sin­ful nature than a polit­i­cal strug­gle. Coates has echoed this retreat to inte­ri­or­i­ty, to the spir­i­tu­al, to con­scious­ness.

It’s the onto­log­i­cal piv­ot that leads Frank Wilder­son, per­haps the world’s fore­most Afro-Pes­simist, to declare in his foun­da­tion­al text “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whith­er the Slave in Civ­il Soci­ety?” that Black peo­ple are no more than cows in a slaugh­ter­house. Wilder­son posits that “death of the black body is foun­da­tion­al to the life of Amer­i­can civ­il soci­ety,” just as a cow’s death is essen­tial to the slaugh­ter­house. Flip­pant­ly, Wilder­son asks, “how would the cows fare under a dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tari­at?” Coates adopts a sim­i­lar impo­tence. He char­ac­ter­izes strug­gle as aim­less toil — an apo­lit­i­cal end to itself. “The strug­gle is real­ly all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only por­tion of this world under your con­trol.” Yet, how are we to strug­gle against earth­quakes and phys­i­cal laws? How can we fight grav­i­ty?

Both Coates and Wilder­son speak of pow­er in terms of dreams. Coates writes of mono­lith­ic white “Dream­ers,” those whose invest­ment in the Amer­i­can Dream requires a faith in their own white­ness. Sim­i­lar­ly, Wilder­son sees Amer­i­ca as enact­ing two dis­tinct dreams. For Wilder­son, “the dream of black accu­mu­la­tion and death” is sep­a­rate from “the dream of work­er exploita­tion.” Ulti­mate­ly, in both Coates’s and Wilderson’s respec­tive frame­works, sol­i­dar­i­ty is unimag­in­able and class strug­gle is ren­dered futile. Though Coates does not go to the lengths Wilder­son does to posi­tion him­self in oppo­si­tion to mate­ri­al­ist pol­i­tics, the result is effec­tive­ly equiv­a­lent: a sep­a­ra­tion of race and class com­bined with a deep skep­ti­cism of class-based sol­i­dar­i­ty, reforms, or even rev­o­lu­tion. This is a devi­a­tion from the Free­dom Tra­di­tion embod­ied by Fan­nie Lou Hamer. For her, the prob­lem of racism wasn’t cos­mol­o­gy or ontol­ogy, it was an expres­sion of pol­i­tics impli­cat­ed in class antag­o­nism. Fan­nie Lou Hamer stood “with the mass­es,” both white and black. Sol­i­dar­i­ty through strug­gle from below — class strug­gle — formed her path to vic­to­ry.

Coates’s onto­log­i­cal piv­ot is more mud­dled than Wilderson’s. Fleet­ing­ly pep­pered through­out his work are allu­sions to mate­r­i­al real­i­ty, betray­ing the super­im­po­si­tion of meta­phys­i­cal abstrac­tion that ulti­mate­ly dri­ves his per­spec­tive. “We did not choose our fences,” he writes. “They were imposed on us by Vir­ginia planters obsessed with enslav­ing as many Amer­i­cans as pos­si­ble.” Coates knows that Vir­ginia planters did not invent grav­i­ty or earth­quakes. Yet this his­tori­ciz­ing impulse does not pre­vent him from essen­tial­iz­ing racism when he con­fronts it head on.

In string of tweets from Decem­ber 2016, Coates con­ced­ed that racism is not tran­scen­den­tal, not­ing that “at its very root it was always eco­nom­ic.” But acknowl­edg­ing racism’s eco­nom­ic impact has not led him to embrace class strug­gle. Even Frank Wilder­son can acknowl­edge that racism has an eco­nom­ic impact, but he still believes that class strug­gle and racism exist on dis­tinct planes. Coates holds a sim­i­lar belief; that racism is whol­ly dif­fer­ent in kind from class. In the same series of tweets, he con­clud­ed that “in Amer­i­ca, ‘class’ isn’t the only kind of class.”

Just as he mys­ti­fies racism, even while locat­ing its impact in the bod­ies of Black peo­ple, here he once again per­forms a mud­dled onto­log­i­cal piv­ot. Coates can­not address mate­r­i­al pol­i­tics on its own terms, pre­fer­ring instead to retreat to a con­trived mys­ti­fi­ca­tion. He replaces action with inte­ri­or­i­ty. As he recent­ly told an audi­to­ri­um of eager North­west­ern stu­dents, “The process should not be… peo­ple look­ing out at the world and say­ing, ‘I would like for there to be change in the world, how do I do that?’” Instead, he implored the crowd to engage from the “inside-out, not out­side-in… because if you are in the busi­ness of jus­tice, and mak­ing this soci­ety more demo­c­ra­t­ic, you might get a lot of dis­ap­point­ment.”

Con­scious­ness mat­ters, of course. “Baby you just got to love ’em,” Fan­nie Lou Hamer would say of the white seg­re­ga­tion­ists who rou­tine­ly threat­ened her life. “Hat­ing just makes you sick and weak.” This was Hamer in a reflex­ive moment, but it was no retreat. In the very next breath, she warned, “I keep a shot­gun in every cor­ner of my bed­room and the first crack­er even look like he wants to throw some dyna­mite on my porch won’t write his mama again.” Fan­nie Lou tru­ly was her mother’s daugh­ter. Reflec­tion, whether through inter­gen­er­a­tional sto­ry or her own thoughts, enhanced her resis­tance. The same can­not be said of Coates.

Instead of in polit­i­cal action, Coates finds relief in a cook­out at Howard’s home­com­ing, sur­round­ed by Black­ness. He fan­ta­sizes that he is “dis­ap­pear­ing into all of their bod­ies,” as the music and danc­ing, the Black cul­tur­al zeit­geist of the moment, cure him of the “birth­mark of damna­tion.” The curse is lift­ed. Black­ness is trans­fig­ured, becom­ing a space “beyond the Dream.” It’s anoth­er onto­log­i­cal piv­ot, this time allow­ing Coates to con­clude that The Mecca’s cook­out has a “pow­er more gor­geous than any vot­ing rights bill.” It’s a fan­ta­sy of retreat, as if Black cul­ture were beyond the machi­na­tions of cap­i­tal­ism, as though Black cul­tur­al expres­sion exist­ed in the world but was not of it.

Between the World and Me con­cludes with Coates con­sid­er­ing cli­mate change. He sees cli­mate change as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of a pol­lut­ed white con­scious­ness, rather than the unfet­tered excess of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism. It is a “noose around the neck of the earth,” alleged­ly result­ing in large part from white flight, the mid-cen­tu­ry exo­dus of negro­pho­bic white fam­i­lies to the sub­urbs and the pol­lu­tion caused by the cars that took them there. Coates’s words here are poet­ic, but gross­ly inac­cu­rate. They mim­ic Afro-Pessimism’s empha­sis on the white libido, rel­e­gat­ing his rhetoric to the realm of inte­ri­or life, the souls of white folks, and stop­ping well short of the polit­i­cal domain. To Coates, cli­mate change is “more fierce than Mar­cus Gar­vey” — a reflec­tion of Coates’s pes­simism. For Coates, the Civ­il Rights move­ment was not a strug­gle to alter a mate­r­i­al world; rather the “hope of the move­ment” was mere­ly to “awak­en the Dream­ers.” Black pol­i­tics is only rel­e­vant as far as it can arouse white con­scious­ness, which he sees as a large­ly futile exer­cise, due to “the small chance of the Dream­ers com­ing into con­scious­ness.”

Coates sees com­mon inter­est between the Black elite and the Black poor, as he mar­vels at “the entire dias­po­ra,” from lawyers to street hus­tlers, present at Howard’s home­com­ing. Yet he can­not con­ceive of anti-cap­i­tal­ist class sol­i­dar­i­ty across racial iden­ti­ty. He has a dark­er vision, of a kind that Corey Robin has described as “apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism.” Coates’s ulti­mate hope is not in col­lec­tive human action, but rather the total anni­hi­la­tion of the world and all those liv­ing in it— anoth­er fea­ture that unites him with Afro-pes­simism, which calls explic­it­ly for the “end of the world.” As he says of the Dream­ers, “the field for their Dream, the stage where they have paint­ed them­selves white, is the deathbed of us all.” Para­dox­i­cal­ly, though he can see a col­lec­tive fate in apoc­a­lypse, he rejects shared strug­gle for lib­er­a­tion. “The Dream­ers will have to learn to strug­gle them­selves,” he declares.

The prob­lem is, the whole of cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise, both past and present, can­not be reduced to race as Orig­i­nal Sin, and its poi­son­ing of all exis­tence. Left out of Coates’s mythol­o­gy is the fact that colo­nial enter­prise, in what would become the Unit­ed States, relied first on Euro­pean inden­tured ser­vants, most of whom died with­in a hand­ful of years after arriv­ing on the con­ti­nent. It’s Coates’s read­ing of race as sin that push­es him to imag­ine qua­si-sal­va­tion in the fan­ta­sy of apoc­a­lypse. In this racial fatal­ism, repa­ra­tions for slav­ery emerges as the antic­i­pa­tion of the inevitable Judge­ment Day. It is there­fore no sur­prise that Coates has tak­en up racial repa­ra­tions as his cross to bear, not to change the world, but to con­demn it.

***

For the bet­ter part of two years, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been the most vis­i­ble and com­bat­ive sup­port­er of repa­ra­tions in pol­i­tics. Coates calls repa­ra­tions “the indis­pens­able tool against white suprema­cy.” In 2016’s “My Pres­i­dent Was Black” and “Bet­ter Is Good,” Coates refers to the “moral log­ic” of repa­ra­tions. They are a mea­sure that could atone for what he called in 2014’s “The Case for Repa­ra­tions,” the “sin of nation­al plun­der.” There he claimed that the nation owes a “moral debt” that must be reme­died by the “spir­i­tu­al renew­al” that repa­ra­tions would facil­i­tate. Repa­ra­tions for slav­ery is Coates’s onto­log­i­cal piv­ot ful­ly real­ized.

These days, we find Coates tour­ing pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties and mak­ing his case for repa­ra­tions in keynote address­es to packed audi­to­ri­ums. “I think every sin­gle one of these uni­ver­si­ties needs to make repa­ra­tions,” Coates said to thun­der­ous applause at a March 3 con­fer­ence at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. The day-long con­fer­ence, “Uni­ver­si­ties and Slav­ery: Bound By His­to­ry,” began with Harvard’s pres­i­dent admit­ting that the uni­ver­si­ty “was direct­ly com­plic­it in slav­ery from the college’s ear­li­est days in the 17th cen­tu­ry.” Coates pushed the uni­ver­si­ty to “use the lan­guage of repa­ra­tion,” as a mea­sure that would “acknowl­edge that some­thing was done.” Though Har­vard acknowl­edged its his­to­ry, no race-spe­cif­ic rem­e­dy was forth­com­ing.

Last fall, George­town did Har­vard one bet­ter. They not only used the lan­guage of repa­ra­tions, the school also put for­ward a pro­gram of finan­cial and sym­bol­ic atone­ment. The uni­ver­si­ty admit­ted to sell­ing slaves in 1838, “a trans­ac­tion that helped save George­town from finan­cial ruin.” In 2015 George­town con­vened a com­mis­sion to “reflect upon our University’s his­to­ry and involve­ment in the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery.” The com­mis­sion rec­om­mend­ed grant­i­ng pref­er­en­tial admis­sion for descen­dants of the 272 slaves the uni­ver­si­ty sold two cen­turies ago, in addi­tion to ges­tures like chang­ing the names of cam­pus build­ings from those of slave­mas­ters to those of slaves and free peo­ple of col­or.

Georgetown’s exam­ple is the clos­est actu­al­iza­tion of repa­ra­tions pol­i­cy that has tak­en place dur­ing Coates’s three years of evan­ge­liz­ing. Coates said of the plan, “folks may not like the word ‘repa­ra­tions,’ but it’s what George­town did. Scope is debat­able. But it’s repa­ra­tions.” Coates wants “spe­cial acknowl­edg­ment” from above, in the ser­vice of spir­i­tu­al renew­al — which explains his pen­chant for means-test­ed trick­le-down anti-racism. But if he had faith in the mass­es, as Fan­nie Lou Hamer did, he’d see that the renew­al and acknowl­edge­ment he seeks comes from below, from class sol­i­dar­i­ty in the strug­gle for uni­ver­sal eman­ci­pa­tion.

Har­vard has a $37 bil­lion endow­ment. Mere months before Coates’s appear­ance, din­ing work­ers at the school were locked in a pro­tract­ed bat­tle for a liv­ing wage. Many of these work­ers are them­selves descen­dants of slaves, but the uni­ver­si­ty was unmoved by their strug­gle. The din­ing work­ers spent the bet­ter part of a month on strike, before final­ly forc­ing Har­vard to con­cede to their demands. The uni­ver­si­ty was quick­er to take the less expen­sive mea­sure of admit­ting that the school was com­plic­it in 17th cen­tu­ry slav­ery than it was to pay its work­ers fair­ly today.

I’m a for­mer staffer for UNITE HERE, a hos­pi­tal­i­ty union. Last year, I worked on a cam­paign in a mul­ti­eth­nic, mul­tira­cial uni­ver­si­ty cafe­te­ria in Chica­go. The campaign’s pri­ma­ry demands were for wage increas­es and health­care, using the slo­gan “Dig­ni­ty and a Doc­tor.” Nego­ti­a­tions with the sub­con­trac­tor had stalled, and strike prepa­ra­tions were under way. Pres­sures ran high. Work­ers were afraid. How­ev­er, just as sto­ries cat­alyzed resis­tance for Civ­il Rights lead­ers, sto­ries anchored the work­er orga­niz­ing in our cam­paign. Though work­ers’ strug­gles with pover­ty wages and a lack of health cov­er­age were cru­cial, one sto­ry stood out above the oth­ers. Work­ers con­tin­u­al­ly shared sto­ries that their Chi­nese col­leagues were being abused for speak­ing Chi­nese on the shop floor. Man­agers would walk past, and upon hear­ing Chi­nese, they’d smack the speak­er on the back of the head com­mand­ing the work­er to “speak Eng­lish!”

Most of the work­ers were peo­ple of col­or, but the major­i­ty were not Chi­nese. The largest plu­ral­i­ty in the work­place was made up of African-Amer­i­cans, vir­tu­al­ly all of whom only spoke Eng­lish. But every­one could iden­ti­fy with the indig­ni­ty of the sto­ry, the asym­met­ri­cal rela­tions that empow­ered the boss­es to abuse any one of them for any rea­son. Work­ers from a whole range of iden­ti­ties fought in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Chi­nese work­ers. Dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of lan­guage became a cen­tral demand in the broad­er cam­paign. The cam­paign attached the speci­fici­ty of the Chi­nese work­ers’ sit­u­a­tion to all the work­ers’ com­mon strug­gle against the boss. It was class strug­gle; not enough to over­come racism the world over, but a brief glimpse of sol­i­dar­i­ty across back­grounds and expe­ri­ences, through acknowl­edg­ing the shared indig­ni­ty of class exploita­tion.

In the end, the work­ers won. As the cam­paign vic­to­ries were list­ed, the excite­ment in the room was over­whelm­ing, a type of ener­gy that I’d only ever felt at a par­tic­u­lar­ly intense church ser­vice or while attend­ing a high-stakes game in a packed sta­di­um. The orga­niz­er announced that health­care had been won. We clapped. We cel­e­brat­ed as the wage increas­es were added up. But when the orga­niz­er revealed that the con­tract guar­an­teed the right to speak non-Eng­lish lan­guages in the work­place, the room erupt­ed. The Black work­ers were pal­pa­bly just as invest­ed as the Chi­nese work­ers, and every­one was ecsta­t­ic.

Because he fails to deeply con­sid­er the real, mate­r­i­al resis­tance of the mass­es, the kind that guid­ed Fan­nie Lou Hamer, Coates ide­al­izes racism. He evokes metaphors of earth­quakes and phys­i­cal laws to describe its mag­ni­tude. But for the work­ers in that uni­ver­si­ty cafe­te­ria, racism was a smack from a boss. For mil­lions of poor Black peo­ple, racism is the cor­ro­sive water pipes poi­son­ing their bod­ies. School clo­sures, crum­bling and unsta­ble hous­ing, and all the inti­mate­ly prac­ti­cal things nec­es­sary for every­day life are the mea­sure of racism. These racist real­i­ties are not sep­a­ra­ble from ques­tions of class. In fact, they are expres­sions of class pol­i­tics. The racial­ized tragedies faced dai­ly by the mass­es require us to embrace class strug­gle, not Coates’s demo­bi­liz­ing meta­phys­i­cal max­ims about how white peo­ple “must ulti­mate­ly stop them­selves.” Sol­i­dar­i­ty from below, between cafe­te­ria work­ers, truck dri­vers, sec­re­taries, and any num­ber of every­day peo­ple is worth mag­ni­tudes more than spe­cial acknowl­edge­ment from elites. This sol­i­dar­i­ty through shared strug­gle, as Fan­nie Lou Hamer rec­og­nized, is the foun­da­tion for social trans­for­ma­tion. Where Coates would have us retreat, she called on us to march. She knew that the only way to defeat racism was to fight it, every step of the way.

Author of the article

is an organizer in Chicago, founding editor of Orchestrated Pulse, and the A. Philip Randolph Fellow at Jacobin.