The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part 2, Race, Empire and Domination

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a theory about race.

It doesn't exist.

Throughout Between the World and Me Coates describes how "race" is merely a social construction that justifies oppression, a tool of Empire that makes oppression seem natural, biological, logical and inevitable. Race is used to vanish oppression.

In discussing the phrase "the people" used by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, Coats observes (p. 7):
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming "the people" has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.
"Black" and "White" is a power relationship. Later in the book Coates describes making this discovery in college (p. 55):
[P]erhaps being named "black" was was just someone's name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.
And the use of race by Empire, as a tool of exploitation and oppression, is observed throughout history (p. 115):
[T]he history of civilization is littered with dead "races" (Frankish, Italian, German, Irish) later abandoned because they no longer serve their purpose--the organization of people beneath, and beyond, the umbrella of rights.
Of course, race isn't the only way human societies sort themselves into hierarchies. The important part is the sorting.

This dynamic, as social psychologists point out, is an outworking of human nature, our tribal need to denigrate out-group members. If it's not race, it's some other boundary marker. Coates describes his first encounter with gay persons in college and uses that experience to elaborate upon the theme (p. 58-60):
"Faggot" was a word I had employed all my life. And now here they were, The Cabal, The Coven, The Others, The Monsters, The Outsiders, The Faggots. The Dykes, dressed in all their human clothes. I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human's body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.
But this social psychological observation does not replace history, how race/hierarchy has been used to create and expand empire. And America is no exception here. Coates writes (p. 8):
Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization...I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. 
But such an honest moral accounting is very, very difficult to do. Why? Coates concludes:
This is difficult [this exceptional moral accounting] because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.
We'll turn to consider "the fruits of our history" and the "apparatus of innocence" in the coming posts. To conclude this post, the theological connections here should be obvious. The gospel proclaimed by Jesus in his ministry was "good news" for those at the bottom of society along with associated "bad news" for those at the top:
Luke 6.17-26
Looking at his disciples, Jesus said:

“Blessed are you who are poor...
Blessed are you who hunger now...
Blessed are you who weep now...
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil...

But woe to you who are rich...
Woe to you who are well fed now...
Woe to you who laugh now...
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you... 
This flipping of the power relationship is the hallmark of Jesus's gospel and it's what liberation theologians mean when they say that Jesus is "black."

As Coates points out, to say that Jesus is "black" isn't a claim about race.

To say that Jesus is "black" is to make a claim about hierarchy.

Part 3

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