The ongoing debate between the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates and New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait about Paul Ryan's (and movement conservatism's decades-long) effort to present black Americans as possessing a pathological and grotesque culture is a public service.
The Coates-Chait event has spawned some excellent writing. It has also attracted many hangers-on and intellectual flies who see opportunity in what they view as a metaphorical carcass worthy of plunder.
I will identity and praise the former in a general way; I leave the latter to be content with their hyena-like efforts as failed carrion eaters.
As my father, a well-regarded and talented jazz musician told me, "sometimes you just sit back and watch folks cut heads". Or as what is likely an improperly attributed African proverb suggests, "it is hard for a full mouth to talk". The wisdom is the same: watching and listening can be more valuable than talking for the sake of talking.
In another era, Coates and Chait would tour the country and show off their intellectual pugilism in a style befitting 19th and early 20th century men of letters. In this moment, my hope is that Coates and Chait, at the very least, are able to have a panel discussion on NPR or C-SPAN. The American public would be well-served by such a public conversation about race, culture, identity, and poverty.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait's debate about the role of institutional racism and the "common sense" logic and conclusion that African-Americans have "bad culture" as "revealed" by statistical "truths" exists within a broader context where questions of racial inequality overlap with political economy.
[Is it not funny how poor whites are never taken as stand-ins for "white people" in mass? White supremacy and white privilege truly are "get out of jail cards" for mediocre and failed white people.]
Both the provocation and preface for the debate between Chait and Coates are dependent upon the many social challenges and problems faced by the black community. This is not surprising. Critical thinkers seek out problems to be solved, discussed, and reflected upon.
There is another question that should be asked. It is impolitic. The question is challenging. Said question may cause upsetness, tears, frustration, or anger.
As W.E.B. Du Bois asked in regards to black Americans, "what does it feel like to be a problem?"
In many ways, the black American community is still bound by Du Bois's genius reflection about how white supremacy still works to limit the life successes and life chances of African-Americans in the United States.
Instead of asking what is wrong with Black America, and how Black Americans are "failing", we should ask and ponder what Black America is doing right. Is it even possible to have some public praise for Black America's successes in the post civil rights era and the Age of Obama?
I am a Black American. I smile when I think about the singular and uniquely positive contributions of my people to the American project.
Moreover, I am loathe to participate in the obligatory Black History Month exultation of famous inventors, athletes, and other such rote listings of great black facts and people.
But, that centuries of life in a White Supremacist society did not make black Americans crazy, insane, destroy ourselves, or engage in (what is a reasonable and very much deserved) tit-for-tat acts of mass racial retaliation and terrorism against white people, is a triumph of collective and individual morality and ethics.
How the Black Freedom Struggle is in many ways quite successful, birthed a proud working class, a middle class, no small number of millionaires, and then elected a Black man President of the United States, is no small feat.
And yes, I acknowledge the dark irony that Barack Obama has little to no interest in dealing with the specific racial challenges visited upon African-Americans.
I choose to ask, instead of hand-wringing concern, worry, anxiety, and shame, what are some things that Black Americans in the present can and should celebrate as successes and triumphs?
I am a Black American. I am not a problem. I am a complex human being. I am not a ideal typical case or subject in a sociological treatise. To celebrate and acknowledge the successes of Black America in the present (and past) is not a whimsy filled lie, a happy pill, or other type of euphoric and distorted thinking.
Questioning and wondering what are Black folks and Black America doing right is an effort at seeking reasonable balance in the American public discourse, one that rarely talks about African-Americans in terms other than as a "problem" to be solved or managed.