When Ta-Nehisi Coates is at his best, he’s on fire. And his response to Jonathan Chait’s warmed over 90s neoliberalism about African-Americans’ alleged “culture of pathology” is Coates at the top of his game. The whole thing is terrif, but these grafs were key:

And the president of the United States is not just an enactor of policy for today, he is the titular representative of his country’s heritage and legacy. In regards to black people, America’s heritage is kleptocracy—the stealing and selling of other people’s children, the robbery of the fruits of black labor, the pillaging of black property, the taxing of black citizens for schools they can not attend, for pools in which they can not swim, for libraries that bar them, for universities that exclude them, for police who do not protect them, for the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators.

The bearer of this unfortunate heritage feebly urging “positive habits and behavior” while his country imprisons some ungodly number of black men may well be greeted with applause in some quarters. It must never be so among those of us whose love of James Baldwin is true, whose love of Ida B. Wells is true, whose love of Harriet Tubman and our ancestors who fought for the right of family is true. In that fight America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis.


There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

I have many problems with moralistic lectures to the poor about their personal failings. Perhaps the biggest is that this rhetoric never, ever leads to a good place politically. It misdiagnoses the issue, falsely suggests that the problems of the poor are personal rather than structural in nature, and misleadingly implies that, with a li’l grit, hard work, and determination, they too can realize the American dream of economic success.

Yeah, tell me about it.

At its worst, this kind of smarmy moralizing lends itself to reactionary political crusades. The most important example in recent American political history was the drive to end welfare as an entitlement. I remember the debates about welfare “reform” very well, and what shocked me at the time, and still stuns me to this day, was how many putative liberals signed on to the campaign. Some of these people, I know, were well-meaning types who hadn’t thought things through.

As for others, many of them associated with Chait’s former employer, “even the liberal” New Republic, it is much harder to give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially when they published covers like this one, from 1996:

I find it fascinating that many of the so-called liberals who were such ardent supporters of welfare reform back in the day have, since then, completely lost interest in the subject. You barely heard a peep from them, afterwards, about the impact the law was having on poor families, or about issues of low-wage work or social programs for the poor. The law, of course, did not pan out so well for poor folks, particularly during the protracted era of recession and slow growth the economy has been stuck in for years now. As Bryce Covert recently reported, poverty rates are higher, and many more poor families are suffering from deeper levels of deprivation:

By 2012, two-fifths of families headed by a single mother lived in poverty. Meanwhile, TANF has failed to help families avoid deep poverty: the number of families whose incomes are below half the poverty line (less than $12,000 a year for a family of four) is higher now than in 1996. Worse, in a recent study sociologists Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer found that extreme poverty, or the number of families who live on $2 or less for each person per day, “has risen sharply since 1996, particularly among those most impacted by the 1996 welfare reform.” By the middle of 2011 the number of households living on such a small budget had risen by 159 percent.

But never mind. The likes of Martin Peretz, Andrew Sullivan, and Mickey Kaus have long since moved on. Their work was done. Clearly.

UPDATES: A friend reminds me that in 1994 — less than two years before The New Republic issue referred to above — the magazine published excerpts from the notorious racist polemic The Bell Curve.

On the topic of poverty, readers might be interested in checking out this post I wrote about the subject, from my personal blog.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee