Given the hollowness of the creedal imagination, the growing radicalism of a new generation of activists feels inevitable. In everything from calls for reparations to attacks on the Confederate flag to arguments about mass incarceration, these activists are reconnecting to the black radical tradition—opening doors that have been closed for decades. This is a profound development, particularly for activists’ reengagement with a politics of national disavowal and revival of arguments against the carceral state. In many ways, the figure who has come to embody both positions in the current discourse is Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose political disillusionment is best exemplified in his stark statements to his son (“We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America”).
But one problem with Coates’s version of black radicalism is that at times—more in his book Between the World and Me than in his political interventions in the Atlantic—he depicts disillusionment in individual terms. That book in particular conveys little of the communities of solidarity African Americans belong to, or of how things like reparations ground a shared social vision of the future. Instead, Coates combines radical rejection of polite society with a personal notion of resistance, in which “struggle” is presented as the individual’s ethical refusal to comply with the totalizing injustice of racism and its structures. What is missing is a collective sense of action, let alone of the possibility of transformation through such action. We are left in the world of either overwhelming and oppressive institutions or isolated individuals of conscience.