For Coates’s part, he claims several times in his book that America depends on the oppression of blacks—who, he claims, represent “the essential below,” an oppressed class of workers whose sweat and blood propel America’s economy. This may well have been true in the times when cotton was king and the South produced most of our exports. But for many states in 2015, the fact is that the low-wage labor force is now made up of workers largely from Latin America or Asia, who do the grueling work that blacks too often performed in the past.
In a multi-racial society—where African Americans are in many places the second- or third-largest minority—black communities must focus on developing a competitive economic advantage. There are traditions here to draw on, from such disparate figures as Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, who emphasized the need to be competitive with other peoples. The role models are not posturing Black Panthers but those who built institutions like Tuskegee Institute or even Howard University, Coates’s “Mecca.” Instead, Coates seems to prefer the theatrical racialism of the Panthers, whose legacy of violence left little in terms of tangible accomplishments, but who, like him, can count on the continued fawning approval of white intellectuals.
Revolutionary posturing and racial redress may appeal to New York publishers, but economic success requires more than identity politics. Community members must loan to each other, start banks and nonprofits, and seek to dominate specific niches. In contrast, how much independent wealth or how many jobs have been created by the likes of Al Sharpton, whose career is largely one of extracting money from frightened corporate donors seeking anti-racist absolution?