Currently, the topics of race and racism dominate the US media, with Claudia Rankine and Ta-Nehisi Coates as central figures in the conversation. Rankine’s collection of non-traditional poems, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf, 2014; hereafter, Citizen), won, among other honors, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in Poetry, and Coates’ book, Between the World and Me (Random House, 2015; hereafter, BWM), won the 2015 National Book Award for Non-fiction. Both of these authors have become “public intellectuals,” but critical treatments of these works are virtually missing from the conversation on race and racism. The present essay attempts, tentatively, to place Rankine and Coates in critical perspective, highlighting the commonalities and similar limitations, of their books. I suggest that these authors advance a liberal, rather than, a radical, meta-narrative characterizing race and racism as stable or essential traits based on a racial binary (African-American : White). There are conceptual limitations to their perspectives which we must challenge if we want to imagine a more radical future.
Institutional racism and the racial binary as organizational frameworks
Both Rankine and Coates address aggression and violence—personal, social, economic, and political. “Micro-aggressions” among acquaintances and intimates are the particular concern of Rankine (“Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.”), while Coates, in his book-length “letter” to his son, is primarily concerned with the vulnerability of the black male body (“I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog.”). Rankine and Coates intend to expose oppressive conditions and “institutional [structural] racism” as causes of and explanations for conditions of African-Americans, particularly, the black underclass. The authors characterize institutional racism as a top-down system of beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviors, and conventions maintaining the social, economic, and political superiority of whites, while subordinating its victims. Rankine and Coates advance the perspective that institutional racism constitutes a system of rule-governed roles, norms, and expectations, particularly via explicit or implicit legal formulations (e.g., work, gerrymandering, inequitable incarceration, media coverage). The authors describe oppressive conditions without advancing a radical critique, following, instead, liberal traditions that do not perturb the status quo by bringing about systemic change. The wide appeal of and popular support for these authors, then, might be explained by their proposals to reform the operations of institutional racism rather than to dismantle the elitist, hierarchical, and capitalist structures of which institutional racism is only one component.
The Rankine-Coates Project and Social Change
Rankine and Coates promote a pragmatic view that, in a democracy, equality should be maximized, inequality, minimized, a mainstream perspective. By suggesting that slavery’s footprint causes the present oppression of African-Americans, the authors foster a “pessimism” about the country’s capacity for progressive change similar to the state of politics after World War II when ideas of “social modification” were dampened by the realities of the Nazi era and the rise of state Capitalism. Radical critiques, on the other hand, promote tactics and strategies of social transformation.
Rankine and Coates limit themselves to descriptions of oppressive conditions rather than to analyses of social, political and economic contexts having the potential to unpack what the late British-Caribbean cultural theorist, Stuart Hall called, the “culture industry,” the production and reinforcement of cultural norms via social institutions and discourse (Citizen: “You hear one say to the other that being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.”; BWN: “The boy with the small eyes reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun.”). Neither Rankine nor Coates, however, links race and the ways it is manifest in society (e.g., via education, housing, income inequality, advertising, marketing) to broader national and international conditions (e.g., global poverty, climate change, free-market Capitalism). So, ultimately, they promote contemporary “identity politics” rather than a broader vision of resistance incorporating, following Hall, “difference” (rejection of binaries), “self-reflexivity” (rejecting the “universal” speaking voice such as “institutional racism”), and “contingency” (recognizing change in individuals and societies). In order to advance a radical critique, Rankine and Coates would need to promote fundamental structural change in American society and in Capitalism that would bring about a new, more equitable, cultural and social architecture, not only their suggested, moderate improvements in the ways that whites and blacks engage with one another, including, improved racial accord and the advancement of blacks.
Hall went on to point out that social change must be motivated by action; however, agency by African-Americans is virtually missing from Rankine’s and Coates’ projects that depend, instead, upon scenarios whereby victimizers (“whites”) free their victims (African-Americans) from oppression and subjugation. Thus, the Modernist meta-narrative (“institutional racism”) of the Rankine-Coates project depends upon a comprehensive world-view rather than a Post-modern understanding that social, economic, and political relations are fractured, changing, and unstable processes, and, in this sense, their world-view is an appeal to emotion rather than to reason (Citizen: “Aren’t you the one that screwed me over last time here?”; BWM: “I felt the fear in the visits to my Nana’s home in Philadelphia.”). One searches without success in Citizen and BWM for materialist concepts that are pragmatic and that situate the oppressed and the oppressor in complex, differentiated relation to each other. Thus, the potential of the Rankine-Coates project for radical change must be challenged and is, possibly, undermined, by ideas and concepts fundamental to contemporary progressive thought. This is to say, a truly radical critique of social relations would outline pragmatic initiatives to address and to change the causes and consequences of racism as one symptom of broader deficiencies in the structuring of social, cultural, and economic relations in America.
Conclusions: The Rankine-Coates Project and Discourse
Following progressive formulations, race is a “construction,” not only a “construct,” since race is “performed” by individuals in society. Power is “discursive” (based on reciprocal communication), a function of spoken, written, and behavioral discourse, so that its understanding becomes something more than enforcement by authorities (the police, the military, the central government, the law as institutional/structural racism). From a radical perspective, power is also enforced via social relations (public education, norms, voting, advertising), and these relations must be changed in order for sustainable societal change to occur. Citizen and BWM, then, cannot pertain only to victimized African-Americans since African-Americans and non-African-Americans participate discursively among themselves, creating “alliances” among “citizens.”
Just as the discourse of power can reinforce individual and social norms, so might it, according to Stuart Hall, generate “sites” of opposition or conflict, “margins” from which change might arise. Since discourse requires transactions between and among African-Americans and other “citizens,” Rankine’s and Coates’ projects, ultimately, fail because both avoid critiques of power manifested as actively complicit transactions among “citizens” as they interact personally, socially, economically, and politically (Hall’s “culture industry”). A radical critique would formulate how these interactions, and the institutions within which interactions take place, should be and could be restructured. Recent publications by Rankine (C. Rankine & B. Loffreda, Eds., The Racial Imaginary, Fence Books, 2015) and Coates (“The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 2015) continue to suggest that neither author is situated to call for an oppositional program of social, economic, and cultural change. Instead, Rankine’s and Coates’ projects seem to promote liberal, non-threatening, and familiar portraits of race and racial reform in America rather than disruptive, radical calls to action that would significantly modify the fundamental architecture and functions of institutions themselves.
Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, she writes about the “performance” of identity and power and conducts research on experimental poetry. She is the author of two chapbooks, and her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues.