Ta-Nehisi Coates sides with Nell Painter: Racism is probably here to stay

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Nell Painter, Ta Nehisi Coates



I’ve told this story before but, in our continued dialogue around “hope,” it seems worth telling again. Five years ago, I watched an interview with Nell Painter. In the video Painter asserted something that deeply disturbed me—white supremacy is likely a permanent feature of America:

On the other hand, the idea of blackness, that is poor dark-skinned people, I think we will have that with us always, and when we particularly at this moment of economic crisis and this moment in which we have a small number of very rich people and a lot of people who are kind of scraping by and then tremendous differences. We have a great inequality of wealth and income. This group of people who are scraping by, there will be a lot of them, but they will probably be largely black and brown and that will tend to reinforce racial ideas.  So on the upper strata, among these few people up here who are doing very well there will be people of various colors and from various backgrounds, but they will probably not be so racialized as the people who are not doing well.


The point here isn’t that white supremacy won’t ever diminish, nor that it won’t ever change form. The point is that it will always be with us in some form, and the the best one can reasonably hope for is that it will shrink in impact.  

Painter is an eminent American historian. At the time of this video, she’d just published a magisterial work—The History of White People. Her conclusions were drawn from that work and a long career spent studying the history of her country. And so when she asserts that the racial “idea of blackness” would likely always be with us, she was not merely lobbing rhetorical bombs. But she was saying something in conflict with the historical outlook of many, if not most, African Americans.

The black political tradition is essentially hopeful. Integrationists hold that if black people push hard enough then surely some critical mass of white people will recognize our humanity. Black nationalists believe that if black people only built up their own institutions, protected their communities, pooled own their resources, and started and supported their own businesses, surely we will come to rival any other group in America. Even if they take different roads, both nationalists and integrationists have abiding faith in the primacy of black politic, or rather what black people, themselves, can achieve. ...




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