Dear David Brooks,
Your Friday column-cum-letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates has shocked me and led me to reconsider and reflect. In particular, I wonder how Yale would let someone like you piss away a course’s worth of student tuition by letting you teach a seminar on humility. It should not be so difficult to realize that different groups of people can view and experience the same society in fundamentally different ways. Since we’re both Ashkenazim, let’s consider German society from the late 1920s to the start of World War II. It’s safe to say that, from our shared perspective, Germany was not a good place for Jews, whether in absolute terms or in comparison to ethnic Germans (whatever those actually were). But for many of those considered to be ethnic Germans, though not all, it wasn’t bad. It might have even been an improvement over the recent past. Clearly, Jews and non-Jewish Germans, at that time, had a fundamentally different experience of Germany.
So why is it so difficult to believe that the ancestors of slaves–who lived in a government-sanctioned and -protected multi-generational labor camp where torture and terror were finely calibrated to maximize slave productivity–might view the American experience in a fundamentally different light than Ashkenazi Jews, who as you rightly note, have thrived in the U.S. This is not simply a matter of redistributing the pie better, though that is also a factor, but a fundamental question of whether African-Americans will ever, based on previous history, be considered ‘real Americans’ with all of the benefits and opportunities that entails, or if they will remain the Constant Other, against which other ethnic groups, including ours, can integrate.
I don’t know if I share Coates pessimism, but our ancestors’ experience does not invalidate his experience or that of his forefathers. And it is a brutal experience, one that has become less brutal, but for too many African-Americans is still brutal and is still based on them existing as the Constant Other. Nor is it simply based on the evil in our hearts: it is a deep, structural Othering, one formulated and entrenched in local, state, and federal law–and the application of that law.
Someone who is fortunate enough to teach at Yale should be able to understand how different groups (and individuals) can have vastly different perspectives because they have had very different experiences–ones based on structural and institutional phenomena.
Also, why do you write like such a pedantic twerp? Does it pay well? As I learned while writing this post, it’s certainly not fun to do.