Black No More?

Black No More?

Los Angeles Review of Books

Cinque Henderson

LAST NOVEMBER, Thomas Chatterton Williams appeared on a podcast with four other black intellectuals who had gathered to discuss the state of race relations in America. Together, the men, who included Brown University economist Glenn Loury and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, comprised an “all-star” team of what in our crude political nomenclature might be called black conservatives, though at least one of them confessed to voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. They were not there to discuss the nature of affirmative action or racial inequality, but rather to discuss how those types of things get discussed: an hour-and-a-half-long discourse on racial discourse in the United States called “On Anti-Racism.” They seemed to agree on many things, especially the failures of #BlackLivesMatter, but their central concern was that that there is no hope of getting past racism in this country as long as commentators on the left keep calling things racist when there are more complicated explanations at play. As a listener, I was not entirely unsympathetic to this view.

If there was an intellectual nemesis in the conversation, it was Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose blistering polemics on the intractable and unchanging nature of racism has dominated racial discourse over the past six years. If there was a political nemesis, it was perhaps DeRay McKesson, the de facto leader of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and maybe Barack Obama, who came in for a mild rebuke, even though I don’t think any of them harbors any particular animus toward the former president. The conversation was fascinating, frustrating, enlightening, bizarre (at one point McWhorter asked, “Why should I care that a certain number of whites are racist?”), but ultimately it was less than satisfying — the format hopelessly ill-suited to the type of ambitious, boundary-expanding discussions these men were interested in having. Williams’s new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White, represents a better medium for such ambition. It is equally bizarre…

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