A tale of two worldviews
How Ta-Nehisi Coates is tearing down what Martin Luther King Jr. built up
Booker T. Washington died in 1915, and for several decades afterward he was the most-quoted African-American leader. His autobiography, Up From Slavery, is still worth reading. I’ve referred to it 10 times in WORLD Magazine over the years, and we’ve listed it as one of the top 40 books of the 20th century.
In the mid-1950s, Martin Luther King Jr. became the leading American voice for civil rights, and large American cities now tend to have MLK boulevards but not BTW ones. King was a magnificent speaker who sadly did not live to write an autobiography, but this week on The World and Everything in It we recommended King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—available in many different books—as one of our February books of the month.
Now a new generation has arisen that knew not Washington or King. The writings some now prize are by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. Coates’ essays and books are widely available, but critiques of them are not—and we need to think long and hard about what he’s advocating before we start to have TNC streets in city after city. Scott Allen, president of the Disciple Nations Alliance, sent me recently a comparison of King and Coates he had written. I learned from it, and I believe you will too. —Marvin Olasky
There can be no doubt that race relations in America have deteriorated in recent years. I’ve reflected deeply on what has led to this tragic situation, and the answer I’ve come to is worldview.
The basic worldview assumptions that animated the civil rights movement—assumptions that led to incredibly positive changes, are slowly being replaced by an entirely new set of worldview assumptions. Because of this, race relations have taken a distinctly negative turn, and the gains of previous generations are under threat.
Martin Luther King Jr. gave voice to the older worldview. The new worldview has many champions, but perhaps none as influential as author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. For those unfamiliar with Coates, he is a native of Baltimore. His beloved father was active in the Black Panther Party—a revolutionary socialist organization active in the 1960s and ’70s. He attended the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and today, he works primarily as a writer. His powerful and creatively written essays appear in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Perhaps his most famous book, Between the World and Me, won the 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction.
Carlos Lozada of The Washington Post described Coates as America’s foremost “public intellectual.” New York Times editorialist A.O. Scott goes further: “‘Must read’ doesn’t even come close. [His writing] is essential, like water or air.”
Because ideas matter, Coates’ worldview needs to be taken seriously, for it is having a profound effect on the culture. Indeed, it is driving the discussion of race in America in 2018. And while Coates is at home on the far-left end of the political spectrum, he has a surprisingly large number of evangelical advocates and champions. With that, here’s a short worldview analysis of Coates and King. Their very different beliefs result in very different consequences.
King was a Baptist minister who operated from a Biblical set of assumptions about God, human nature, and history. His powerful speeches, letters, and books are among the most hopeful, stirring, inspirational, and prophetic in American history.
Coates is an outspoken atheist, who often describes the world as “chaotic.” His atheism colors his writing with hopelessness, anger, and resentment. His brand of atheism is heavily influenced by postmodernism, which reveals itself in a number of ways, particularly a willingness to push narrative at the cost of truth. Whether expounding on America’s history, or on issues such as policing or criminal justice, his tendency is to spotlight facts and evidence that support his narrative and whitewash those that don’t. As a result, the picture he paints is highly distorted.
Human nature (anthropology)
King, as a Christian, held to an orthodox, Biblical view of human nature: All people are created by God, in His image, with dignity, inherent value, and inalienable rights. Yes, there are different ethnicities, but King believed in a human nature that transcends ethnicity—one that unites all people regardless of skin color. For King, all people are children of God, whether “yellow, black, or white, all are precious in His sight.” He famously said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Perhaps most famously, he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Coates’ view of human identity is radically different. He absolutizes the forces of culture and community. Author Nancy Pearcey describes this postmodern anthropology: “Individuals are little more than mouthpieces for communities based on race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity.” For Coates, there is no common “human nature” that binds us together. Rather, our identity is determined entirely by ethnicity. Given this, there is little room for individuality, volition or personal responsibility. Commenting on this, National Review editor Rich Lowry writes that Coates “gives the impression of denying the moral agency of blacks, who are uniformly portrayed as products of forces beyond their control.” In short, for Coates, the individual means very little. The group defines everything.
In one of his most controversial statements, Coates describes to his son his reaction to watching the New York City police and firefighters rush into the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body” (emphasis added).
Here you see not only Coates’ disdain for the police and firefighters who sacrificed their lives on 9/11, but also his inability to see people as individuals—as fellow human beings. His worldview reduces them to subhuman representatives of oppressive groups.
The source of evil
King would no doubt agree with the famous Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who said “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” He would affirm that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Indeed, this is part of our common human identity. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. The source of evil isn’t of human origin. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
But for Coates, the line between good and evil runs between groups—in his case between whites and everyone else. In this, he channels the ideas of Karl Marx’s disciple Antonio Gramsci. The world is divided between oppressor groups and victim groups; nothing exists outside these categories. For Coates, to be white is to be defined as part of an oppressive group. To be black is to be a victim of white oppression. Society as a whole is structured to preserve white power. “White privilege,” which has recently entered our collective lexicon, is just a shorthand way of describing this.
“White America is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our [black] bodies,” writes Coates in Between the World and Me. “However it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.” Indeed, the equating of “whiteness” with evil is a central theme in Coates’ writing. For him, whiteness, in all its falsity, is parasitical on blackness, in all its authenticity. It is a kind of bloodsucking subhumanity. “Whiteness,” Coates tells us, “[is] an existential danger to the country and the world.” Quoting his hero, black essayist and cultural critic James Baldwin, he writes that whites “have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.”
Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” By sourcing evil in “whiteness,” Coates reveals his worldview to be racist. That so many affirm Coates’ assumptions today is likely the single biggest reason for the deterioration of race relations in America.
King’s fight was for black people to be treated equally, no different than white people, or those of any other ethnicity. His dream was that his children would be treated the same as any other human being—judged by “the content of their character,” not “the color of their skin.” True justice, for King, must be color-blind.
But for Coates, skin color trumps other considerations. He speaks of the “crippling sadness” that he and his son experienced on the day that the grand jury cleared Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. For Coates, it mattered not that the Barack Obama–Eric Holder Justice Department, after an exhaustive inquiry, ruled that the shooting was justified and done in self-defense. For him, the verdict was a self-evident miscarriage of justice. Why? Because Wilson was white and Brown was black.
King believed in America. Indeed, King is beloved by all patriotic Americans because of how he helped our nation be evermore true to our founding creed. Consider these powerful words of his “I Have a Dream” speech:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. …
“We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. …
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
Coates loathes America. For him, the essence of America is slavery, oppression, and plunder. He writes, “By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy.” He goes on, “[W]hite supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it” (emphasis added).
In describing America, Coates quotes Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, who said, “This country was formed for the white, not for the black man.” This quote, for Coates, captures the very essence of America. There’s no denying the hatred and racism of Booth, or that he represents something larger that has shaped our nation. But here’s the problem with Coates’ writing on America. He spotlights Booth but ignores Abraham Lincoln himself, who wrote, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.” So what is the character of America? It is the one described by Booth or by Lincoln? I would argue that you can’t understand America without understanding both, but Lincoln is rightly praised as America’s last founding father—not Booth. Coates, by only focusing on Booth, provides a partial, highly selective—and therefore distorted—picture of America. In doing so, he reveals his postmodern tendency to prioritize narrative at the expense of truth.
King is famous for advocating nonviolence in his fight for civil rights. The title of one of his most famous books says it all: Strength to Love. He championed the Biblical virtue, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Coates distances himself from King on this issue. He writes disparagingly about those who “exult nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong.” Recalling his father’s Black Panther meetings when he was a boy, he writes, “I was attracted to their guns, because guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with despotic police, in its primary language—violence.”
An interview that Coates gave with Vox gives insight into his rather coy view of violence. He is personally against it, but affirming of it at the same time:
“When he tries to describe the events that would erase America’s wealth gap, that would see the end of white supremacy, his thoughts flicker to the French Revolution, to the executions and the terror. ‘It’s very easy for me to see myself being contemporary with processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a construct, and being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process. I think these things don’t tend to happen peacefully.’”
Civil rights agenda
The civil rights movement that King led had a clear agenda: End Jim Crow and bring about a change in America whereby people would be judged not by skin color but by character. It succeeded overwhelmingly, garnering support from people of all ethnicities. It led to the passage of the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to the greatest period of equality and harmony between races that the nation had ever known.
Coates is very muted about the positive changes that King brought about. He prefers to paint race relations in America circa 2018 as little changed from America in 1850 or 1950. He puts forward no real positive agenda for improved race relations. Rich Lowry comments that his writing “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair.”
He does advocate for reparations. His basic formula goes like this: Take the difference between black and white per capita income, multiply it by the population of blacks, and pay it out each year, for a “decade or two.” This Marxist-style, forced redistribution would amount to somewhere between $4 trillion and $9 trillion, or nearly half of the U.S. gross domestic product. If you are white, you pay, regardless of whether your ancestors were slave owners. If you are black, you receive, regardless of whether your ancestors were slaves. Would such a massive wealth transfer balance the scales of justice for Coates? No. He writes, “We may find that the country can never fully repay African-Americans” (emphasis added). In other words, his program is one of infinite penance for whites.
Ideas have consequences. King’s ideas, rooted in the Biblical worldview, led to many positive results for blacks, and for America as a whole. Coates’ worldview is fundamentally different. It is rooted in a postmodernism that absolutizes a group at the expense of the individual. It is rooted in a Marxism that frames reality as a zero-sum contest between powerful oppressors and oppressed victims, and dreams of a world of perfect equality—not of opportunity but of outcome. It hungers for vengeance and reparations.
Where will these ideas lead?
Where have they led?
If we truly hunger for justice and reconciliation, if we truly want to see race relations in America improve, we must embrace King’s worldview. The most important thing about Coates and King—and about all of us—isn’t our skin color, but our worldview. Ideas have consequences. Only the truth leads to human flourishing. King was far from perfect (as we all are), yet his most famous speeches and writings reflected Biblical truth. He modeled reconciliation, forgiveness, and love for all people—even for your enemy. These concepts are lacking from Coates’ worldview.
Tragically, Coates’ worldview is winning out. It is framing the discussion of race in America, not just in the broader culture, but even evangelical leaders are increasingly assuming Coates’ basic worldview framework when speaking on issues of race. If this trend continues, we should not be surprised by even greater hostility, blame-casting, division, and even violence.
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