Michael Brown's death last year in Ferguson, Mo., created a new martyr for the black movement in America. Never mind what really happened: to many people, black and white alike, Mr. Brown was the victim of racist policing in a racist system in which all whites are complicit. If you question this narrative, beware. You will be judged as part of the problem.
But is it true? Is the system racist? Are all whites complicit? According to the most influential black intellectual in the U.S. today, the answer is yes.
"Here is what I would like for you to know," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his new book, which is addressed to his 14-year-old son. "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage."
Mr. Coates is being widely described as the heir to James Baldwin, the novelist and social critic whose powerful work on the brutal realities of race galvanized an earlier generation of Americans. Much of the nation remained segregated then. Black people were denied their voting rights, and racists blew up little girls in churches.
As Mr. Coates tells it, nothing has changed. Instead of being gunned down by the Klan, black men are gunned down by the cops. Racism is still the essence of America. White prosperity was built on black suffering, which created the privileges that white people enjoy today. Black-on-black carnage (as in Chicago, where gun crime is epidemic ) is the poisoned fruit of white supremacy, and is embedded in a structure that is dominated by whites. If you are white, you have an unfair advantage based solely on your skin colour. You are part of the problem.
Mr. Coates's book, Between the World and Me, has been lionized by the white intelligentsia. "Extraordinary," said The New Yorker's David Remnick. David Brooks, the usually level-headed New York Times columnist, sincerely asked if he, as a white man, has the moral standing to question any part of it. The Times's film critic, A.O. Scott, called his writing "essential, like water or air."
But some are skeptical of all this rapture. "This is more than admiration. It is an affirmation of enlightenment," observed Carlos Lozada, the Washington Post's book critic. "The more radical Coates's critique of America, the more tightly America embraces him."
The racial horrors of the past are undeniable. But the reality of black life has changed immensely since the '50s. Black governors, mayors, and a president are the new normal. Black families are far more prosperous. Although discrimination has by no means disappeared, social attitudes have undergone a revolution. Yet even as racial attitudes and racial equality evolve, enlightened people rush to don the shroud of guilt.
Much of the liberal establishment today is obsessed with white supremacy, and what to do about it. Schoolteachers are required to take "cultural proficiency training," so that they can "recognize the impact of systemic oppression of people in America who are not heterosexual white men." The New York Times is currently publishing an exhaustive series on white privilege that features interviews with intellectuals such as Joe Feagin, a (white) sociologist who claims that Americans are no less racist than they ever were (they just disguise it better), and that children are indoctrinated into racism from the time they're babies. When Mr. Coates published an article in The Atlantic last year calling for trillions in reparations, it was received with widespread enthusiasm.
Some black intellectuals, however, are not all crazy about the cult of Coates. The political commentator John McWhorter argues that the doctrine of structural racism according to Mr. Coates has become a new form of liberal religion. His book is not so much an intellectual argument as a fiery testament from the pulpit. White progressives have embraced the gospel because it allows them to feel absolved from the charge of racism. By professing their guilt, they can also display their virtue to their peers. "You have original sin, you have this guilt, you acknowledge your guilt," Mr. McWhorter said in a recent podcast. "What you're doing is being religious – eating the wafer and life goes on."
Mr. McWorter calls this a form of social signalling. Whether it really helps to ease racial tensions in America – or advance the cause of black people – is beside the point. "When you acknowledge your white privilege it doesn't do anything for us," he said. "It has nothing to do with creating change."
The religion of structural racism allows everyone to duck the profound challenges still faced by the black community. It disempowers people and absolves them of responsibility. If structural racism is to blame for black violence, then communities will never be able to heal themselves. Mr. McWhorter argues that blaming white racism for the existential crisis in black communities like Chicago's is a monstrous evasion. "Why do black lives matter more when white people take them than when black people take them?" he asks. "But you're not supposed to ask that."
In Mr. Coates's world, race is destiny. (Never mind that the United States is increasingly diverse – to him it's still black and white.) Like James Baldwin, he's convinced that America can never be reformed. But Mr. Baldwin had a counterpart – Martin Luther King, who preached a narrative of progress, hope, and redemption. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," he said. The arc is very long indeed, but I think he was right.
Where is today's equivalent of Martin Luther King? Tragically, he doesn't exist. And if he did, nobody would listen to him. He'd be booed off the stage as an Uncle Tom. The tragedy of race relations in America today is that nihilism and rage are a bigger draw.