At the very beginning of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, the author recounts a recent television appearance wherein he was asked to discuss why he felt “that white America’s progress — or, rather, the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white — was built on looting and violence.” Coates describes how he explained his ideas. Then, at the end of the segment, he writes, “the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about ‘hope’. And I knew then that I had failed.”
I thought of this anecdote when I read David Brooks’, um, widely-discussed New York Times column on Coates’ book. The piece — entitled, and I kid you not, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” — has inspired some hilarious rejoinders, as well as more serious responses, including this one from Coates himself. (The question he was answering, since deleted, was something along the lines of, “How do you hope white readers will receive your book?)
The best and most instructive bit of Brooks’ piece comes when he asks, “Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree?” — to which one might be tempted to respond, “Well, here you are writing in your nationally syndicated New York Times opinion column, wherein you can say basically anything you want, so I dunno, David, you tell me.” But there’s already been enough rebuttal of Brooks’ column, so I’ll leave it at this: I am a white man, David Brooks, and you do not speak for me — and as you’re commenting on a black man writing a book that is literally constructed as a letter to his black son, you might want to think about why you feel the purpose of the book is to enlighten you.
The most interesting takeaway from Brooks’ column isn’t so much what he has to say to Coates, anyway, but the ideas that underpin what he has to say. Essentially, he’s arguing that he still believes in the American dream, and that all those pesky facts don’t really change that, because despite all of the country’s failings — past and present — the dream remains a noble belief:
In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow.
America is, as I’ve written here before, a country that’s fond of grand narratives, and there’s no grander narrative than the American dream. Its mythology is carved deep into the culture of the US — the idea of the self-made man (yes, man), pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Coates speaks a great deal about this in his book, largely in the context of the dream being a sort of dream world — “perfect houses with nice lawns… Memorial Day cookouts, block associations and driveways… tree houses and the Cub Scouts” — that had nothing at all to do with growing up on the crime- and drug-ridden streets of Baltimore. The dream is presented as something aspirational — but how are you supposed to relate to, let alone aspire to, a state of being that is so remote that you might just as well aspire to flying or having X-ray vision?
That, too, is covered by the mythology of the American dream, in its two great rhetorical concepts: hope and belief. These are as much a part of the dream as the dream itself: a necessary part of the American dream is believing in the American dream, and if it fails, its failure can be attributed to not believing hard enough.
But hope and belief are false idols — belief is no use if what you’re believing in is untrue, and hope… hope is something you cling to when you’re rendered impotent. It’s a consolation of defeat. It’s something to which you turn in a situation where you have no agency at all. If you contract some hideous tropical disease for which we have no cure, all you can do is hope. If you get something for which we do have a cure, you don’t need to hope (or, in America, the only hoping you need to do is hoping that you can afford treatment). You wouldn’t have to dream of beating cancer if we had a cure for it. And you wouldn’t have to waffle about hope if you took actual, concrete steps toward abrogating racial and economic inequality in American society.
Nevertheless, the American dream is sacrosanct for people like David Brooks: “By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism,” he writes, “you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.” Some guiding star. A better future would be dismantling the dream and embracing realism, however “excessive” (if realism can ever be called that), so as to work out how that reality might be improved. To think that way, though, is to abandon both hope and belief. And the rhetoric of American politics, especially on the right, has absolutely no time for this. These things are not discussed — or if they are, they are denounced as communism or socialism or terrorism or whatever other -ism it is we’re supposed to be scared of this week.
This, in turn, allows politicians to characterize the poor as undeserving scroungers who just aren’t working hard enough to escape their circumstances. They’re supposed to aspire to transcendence, but only within the framework of the dream. And that’s necessarily an individualistic aspiration: it’s dreaming of success for yourself, of it being you one day at a Memorial Day cookout with your well-heeled neighbors, of being able to buy a big car, of safety and tennis lessons and ballet classes for your kids. If those things do come to you, you’re encouraged to see this as a sign of merit: you stayed in school, you worked hard, you deserve this.
Of course, the corollary of this belief is the idea that people who don’t have those things don’t deserve them. But as it stands at the moment, the American dream is a lottery, and the very nature of a lottery means that not everyone can win it. Indeed, very few people can win it. For every winner, there are countless losers. And in this sort of scramble to the top, the only way to even reach the ladder is by stepping on the people below you. (As Coates writes: “the dream rests on [black people’s] backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”)
You’re allowed to dream of winning the game. You’re allowed to hope against hope that maybe your number will come up, and believe fervently that it’ll be you one day in that house in Beverly Hills with a Labrador and a beautiful husband/wife and smiling kids. But you’re never allowed to dream of changing the game. And as the years go by and you realize that the dice are loaded, the cards marked, the dealer holding all the aces — well, then, you’re supposed to just believe harder. In following your guiding star, you’re meant to ignore the fact that you’re still trudging down the bleakest and dirtiest of streets.