Race in America is a topic that's never very far from the surface, regardless of how hard we as a society might wish to forget it. The racist stylings of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling are just this week's flareups, sparks thrown off a persistent brush fire that seems impossible to extinguish.
As a white guy who spends most of his time around white folks, and has done so for the vast majority of his 43 years, I'm wildly unqualified to offer much in the way of educated, or at least experientially-informed, opinions about race in the U.S. I did, when I was 13, spend half of a school year as a student in a school that was majority African-American. But since I got to come home to a neighborhood that was almost entirely white (and partially Australian!), I'm not sure that brief span of time qualifies me as an expert on the topic.
Since I find it difficult, if not impossible, to fully appreciate the minority experience in America, I turn to others to help me gain perspective. In particular, I read everything Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at The Atlantic.
Coates is at once a beautiful writer, a gifted historian, and a fearless examiner of his own motives and biases. His observations on everything from hip hop lyrics, to the Civil War, to his summer-long immersion in French culture, to his upbringing in inner-city Baltimore, to the history of America's racial politics are often revelatory and always thought-provoking.
Of late, Coates has despaired of the past, present, and future of the relationship between white America (read: the historical instruments of wealth and power) and darker-skinned minorities. The natural optimist in me hopes and wishes that he's wrong, but the pragmatist in me realizes how deeply researched and considered are his opinions.
His essay outlining the contours of his current feelings is required reading. As is his exchange with New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait on race and politics in America. Gawker weighed in with a round-by-round account of the latter, which is an amusing juxtaposition of intellectual heft and schoolyard sonning.
Reading Coates makes me uncomfortable. He challenges my assumptions, lays bare my ignorance of hugely influential historical forces and events, and makes me feel entirely intellectually inadequate.
We're lucky to have him.
(I expect book reports from each of you regarding the Coates/Chait debate on my desk by this time next week. And I need one of you to post something stupid and pointless in short order. We've got a reputation to uphold.)