On David Brooks’s Whiteness

I see that David Brooks has already read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book: “Between the World and Me.” That’s good. It might even be of lasting benefit to him. I can’t for the life of me think of anything better suited to overcoming Upton Sinclair’s warning that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The immediate problem with Brooks’ response to Coates is that it’s so unobjectionable. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of hitting Mike Tyson with a wet noodle and thinking that you’ve left a mark. Brooks actually asks permission to have his little half-ass opinion as if he’s afraid that to say anything will leave him like a scalded cat.

Coates wrote a book; he didn’t give us Holy Scripture. You’re allowed to critique it. You’re allowed to stand up for the American Dream. Brooks could start, however, by examining the meaning of his own whiteness. Because, until six minutes ago, he wasn’t considered white in this country. And he ought to understand it, but it’s probably the most frightening and threatening concept in the world to him.

For starters, there is the headline to his piece: Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White. Then there’s the first sentence of the essay:

The last year has been an education for white people.

So, we’re immediately invited to think of David Brooks as white, and presumably white as Coates defines that term. He’s on the other side, standing accused, put on the defensive.

He goes on:

…the disturbing challenge of your book is your rejection of the American dream. My ancestors chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.

Your ancestors came in chains. In your book the dream of the comfortable suburban life is a “fairy tale.” For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption. America is Egypt without the possibility of the Exodus. African-American men are caught in a crushing logic, determined by the past, from which there is no escape.

Now, there are two issues here. The first is that Brooks wants to take issue with the determinism and pessimism in Coates’ book. And that’s completely valid. But he’s also drawing a distinction between how and why his Jewish ancestors came to America and how and why Coates’ ancestors came to America. It’s an important distinction, but he’s doing something impermissible with it. He’s denying the second class citizenship Jewish-Americans experienced when they got here and making himself out to be the complete flip-side to black American descendants of slaves. He’s not.

I see Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans and Polish-Americans do this, too. They’re so determined to embrace their relatively new status as “white” that they deny their past and deliberately fail to see the commonality their ancestors have with contemporary blacks and, yes, Latinos.

Do you think the Irish didn’t experience housing discrimination? Do you think Italians could join the local Country Club? How easy was it for a young Harvard-educated Jew to join a top New York law firm in the first three-quarters of the 20th Century?

All these groups first had to force their way into American society by looking out for each other, creating their own social organizations, taking over the local police departments and political machines, and founding their own legal and medical practices. Only then, and after handfuls of decades had elapsed, did they begin to gain enough acceptance that they didn’t often experience job or housing discrimination. And those are the prerequisites for being “white” in this country.

To be honest, in my experience, I don’t think Jews are treated as white in a lot of this country even up to this day. I certainly didn’t feel that they were when I lived in western Michigan. Sometimes, living there, I thought that the people were more familiar with Hottentots than with real-life Jews.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for David Brooks that he feels so integrated that he doesn’t even feel the slightest bit self-conscious or presumptuous about self-applying the white label. That’s what I want for all Jews in this country, at least until we get to the point that whiteness isn’t something to aspire to.

But isn’t that kind of the point?

As long as there’s a compelling reason to be white, people will aspire to it. And if people are aspiring to it, then there’s something pretty dramatically flawed about the American Dream for people who can never “pass.”

So, Brooks wants to know if he even has permission to talk about what it’s like to be cut out of the dream.

…I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?

If I do have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.

See, I think he’s not so much “displaying” his privilege as asserting it.

“I’m white, and you’re not, and I have an opinion.”

He should try viewing himself as colored or not-white or as someone whose parents and grandparents had to fight and claw to make him white.

Because, when his ancestors were dodging pogroms in Europe they sure as shit weren’t considered white. And they weren’t white when they got off the boat, either.

Now, I anticipate that some people might be a little defensive about or offended by what I’m saying here, but let’s just look at what the president of the United States had to say about Jews, Italians, and the Irish, not all that long ago:

“The Jews have certain traits,” [President Richard Nixon] said. “The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.”

Nixon continued: “The Italians, of course, those people course don’t have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but,” and his voice trailed off.

A moment later, Nixon returned to Jews: “The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.”

That’s from a conversation Nixon had on Feb. 13, 1973, with Charles W. Colson. David Brooks was a 12 year old boy that day, just moving from the gritty Stuyvesant Town housing development in lower Manhattan to the leafy Main Line of Philadelphia. About two years later, a wonderful Irish-American family moved from Stuyvesant Town into a beautiful house next to mine in Princeton, New Jersey. That was part of a process where they moved from discriminated-against striving minority to part of the accepted establishment. It’s how they finally became white. It’s where they could join any country club that they wanted to, and where they could raise their kids without having other parents give them the hairy eyeball.

Because “whiteness” isn’t a scientific thing. It’s a state of being. And it’s only available to a subset of all genuine, real Americans.

David Brooks is now white. Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son will never be white.

That’s what Brooks should be thinking about.

Because it matters.

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