Viewpoint Magazine

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.