Logo
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

A tale of two worldviews

How Ta-Nehisi Coates is tearing down what Martin Luther King Jr. built up


Ta-Nehisi Coates (left) and Martin Luther King Jr. Coates: Creative Commons/Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan/Sean Carter Photography, King: Associated Press

A tale of two worldviews

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.

Ultimate reality

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.

Justice

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.

America

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.

Violence

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.

Conclusion

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.


Scott Allen Scott is president of the Disciple Nations Alliance.

COMMENT BELOW

Please wait while we load the latest comments...

Comments

Please register or subscribe to comment on this article.


NEWS2ME

I wonder if Coates is using white leftists to further his agenda only to turn on them in the end.

Web Editor

Thank you. We've corrected it.

JennyBeth

Wow, it's incindiary irrationality like yours that drives people in horror toward that of Coates. Guess I should warn my Nigerian and Zambian friends, "Never come to America, you'll find yourself raped by an athlete or a boss, and then get shot, even if you stick to safe places like schools and homes." Painting the worst you hear of a place as the norm is bad enough, but characterizing a huge category of people by it is unconscionable.

But, putting that aside, I love this article, especially for calling out postmodernism's premises that are poisioning even Christian preachers, and putting our nation in jeopardy for much internal violence.

D Wallace

There is little difference between the racism, extremism, hatred, and divisiveness of whites such as KKK adherents and Marxist radicals such as Coates, consisting mainly in color of skin.  Or of other murderous, nonspecifically racial movements such as Islamic fascism.

And there is an actual moral / spiritual equivalency between those two groups who subscribe to the demonic ideologies promoted by and endorsed by the evil one as deviously implanted in those gullible, twisted, and / or demented enough to buy into the politics of hatred, victimization, and superficial identity.

Martin and Booker T were great men, Coates a bitter, twisted, hate-filled child of the devil.

not silent

I do not agree with Coates with respect to reparations or the idea that white people are to blame for all wrongs-nor do I agree that violent revolution is the answer.  In fact, if Mr. Coates insists on reparations, then presumably he will also demand that Boko Haram pay the families of the girls they kidnapped; that the descendents of the Incas and Mayans pay back the descendents of the lesser indigenous tribes they conquered; that the Italians pay me and many others back because the Romans invaded Britain, France, Germany, etc; and, of course, that the Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians, and Iraqis pay back the Jews for all the years they enslaved THEM!  We might as well go back to the Garden and demand reparations from Adam and Eve!

Having said all that, it foolish and naive to pretend that the idea of "white privilege" is mistaken and wrong on all accounts.  I grew up in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, and I saw for myself some of the damage done by the inequities in my own society.  These inequities were not caused by the attitudes of African Americans or by any fault in them despite all kinds of propaganda trying to blame it on them.  They were caused by the prejudice of white people.  To pretend that decades of unequal treatment of minorities have not had a lasting impact on them is to deny reality.

Dr. King never denied that white people were priviledged and that they were oppressing minorities.  In his vision and his dream, all people would be treated equally.  People today seem to have lost sight of how bad it was during Jim Crow days.  Shortly before I was born the army had to be called out so that schools could be integrated!  I remember the doctor having a white waiting room and a black waiting room.  There were poor white people, of course; but there were also rich white people and ALL the African Americans I knew were poor.  And that doesn't even take into account the violence, the lynchings, and the bombings that were happening.  The Mississippi Burning case happened not far from where I grew up-during my lifetime-and I'm not even old enough for Social Security.

Things have changed a great deal, thank God; but they still need to change more.  Until our hearts change, though, it won't be enough.  We ARE all equal in God's sight.  In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek-nor white, nor African American, nor Iranian, nor Syrian, nor Iraqi, nor Asian, nor Native American, nor any other ethnic group or nationality.  With respect to those "black nations," if you do more research, I think you will find that there is more to the story than you have implied. (I.e., It wasn't said, but there seemed to be the implication that there is some inherent "flaw" in "black people" that makes them unable to run a country-and, no offense, but that sounds like propaganda I used to get in the Jim Crow south.  I think MLK and Nelson Mandela show us that great statesmanship is not limited by color.)  At any rate, I can't say for every nation that has been listed, but in the case of Haiti, the US has a long history of interference which has greatly contributed to its decline and corruption-and that is coming from a fellow believer and current US citizen who immigrated from there.

So what SHOULD we do?  I may not be the best person to ask since I am not part of the minority, but I will try to offer a few suggestions.  They aren't perfect, of course, but maybe they are a beginning.  First of all, we can admit that there have been serious problems and that there still ARE serious problems with race in this country.  We can admit that wrong was done and ask forgiveness.  (I was just a child during Jim Crow; but I was still THERE, and I can admit that it was wrong.) Second, remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I think focusing on how everyone is a child of God and equal in his sight and allowing God to burn that truth in our hearts as Christians would help our entire nation going into the future.  Third, I am not averse to my tax dollars being used to help those who are less fortunate-in fact, I think a responsible government SHOULD help those who need help (regardless of what race they are).  I also think the church needs to step up. Maybe the government would not have to help so much if the church were doing more.

TWH

"yet some of my brethren would rather be at the center of power rather than speak truth to power"

This is such an important point. It's time for Christians to quit identifying with a political party and find their identity in our Creator and Sustainer.

DCal3000

A thousand thanks to WORLD for daring to print this article.  And make no mistake, printing it takes courage, since many, many, many allegedly orthodox Christian leaders uphold Coates' ideas in one way or the other. 

Christian racial reconciliation should be about celebrating the dignity of each human being and the diverse ways God manifests His image through the diversity of human cultures.  Moreover, it should be about unity in Christ and the call of the Gospel to all people everywhere.  And it should be about repentance from sin--including the sin of racism.

But, increasingly, evangelical churches--including some leaders in the PCA (my own denomination)--have abandoned that form of racial reconciliation.  Instead, they have adopted the postmodern ideas of men like Coates.  And to my great and heart-felt grief, I have increasingly realized that, as a white male, I am intellectually unimportant to many of my fellow evangelicals.  The very people (white and black) who claim to be fighting racism judge me by the color of my skin.  My actual sins, my personal struggles, my own daily need for the Gospel are unimportant.  Instead, I am judged to be privileged and part of the structural racism ever-present in the country.  And, if I complain, I am told that, as a white male, I cannot understand--that cultures and genders can never truly understand each other.

And so, racial reconciliation has been replaced by segregation again.  And I have mourned, especially since so many--black and white--gave so much to fight segregation specifically and racism generally.  Men like Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and countless others died for what they believed in.  And we abandon all of that to follow the postmodern cynicism of men like Coates--a cynicism that opens wounds instead of healing them.  In seeking to end racial divisions, we should pray that our churches would look to Christ instead of the abyss of atheistic postmodernism.

RWA

Quote: "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)."

I fully agree with the assesment of the author, though I think we need to be careful about putting words in anyone's mouth that he did not actually say.  None the less, the failure of past and present churches and preachers (including MLK) was the attempt to find a political solution to a spiritual problem, that ONLY THE GOSPEL CAN SOLVE.  The race conflict past and present is simply the result of a LOSS OF CONFIDENCE IN THE GOSPEL to provide the solution to the deep-rooted racism that exists in every corrupt human heart.  No one then nor now wants to recognize the racism on all sides in our country, from the Jim Crow attitudes and policies of the past, to the reverse discrimination attitudes and policies of the present.  Trying to solve discrimination and racism with more discrimination and racism whether on a political or spiritual level, is a foolish and futile effort.

Unless and until we have a return to the Gospel and a confidence int the Gospel as the power of God to transform the individual and society, we will continue to languish in the slough of racism, King's dream notwithstanding. We have great hope in Christ and His Gospel!  The halls of power are in our churches, not in our government!

JEFF

@Run Baby Run

I don't quite know how to put this other than to say I am curious, not mean-spirited.

My grandparents were immigrants; one set from Lithuania, the other from Italy. However they, my parents, and I, always thought of ourselves as Americans.

Why do you use the term 'African American'?

Nanamiro

If he is going to blame Whiteness for all of the world's ills, what about men? What about heterosexuals? What about cis-gendered people? What about right-handed people? What about able bodied people? What about seeing and hearing people? All of these groups have dominated in every culture on earth. They've always had more privilage than those who don't fit into those groups. You would have to fight against 99% of the world's population. What a sad existence, to be so full of hate, bitterness and despair. We have to pray for him and his son.

GaryG

Good and informative comparison.  But I am not convinced of this statement asserted at the beginning:

"There can be no doubt that race relations in America have deteriorated in recent years."

I do doubt this.  I wish you would have at least tried to defend this statement.  It can be defended, by pointing to news stories and proclamations of famous people.  But what if race relations among the 99% who are not on the news is actually improving?

You conclude with the same idea, asserting that "Coates' worldview is winning out."  I might be convinced of this "trend" among news media elites, but I don't see it in my own personal relationships.

Is there a real trend in popular opinion?  I myself do not have the data, but I am interested to hear from someone who does.

Janet B

Interesting article.

I, too, think "race" is a construct. Because if we go back enough generations, we all came from Noah (after the flood).

Somehow, I don't think Mr. Coates would agree with me.

MTJanet

Sometimes the most easily seen difference besides worldviews is how people view resolution.  MLK wanted to move forward with "I have a dream". Coates wants to move backwards with "I want revenge".  Which one is wisest and most peaceful is obvious.