Ta-Nehisi Coates Attacks One Privilege, Defends Another

Last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly took Dylan Byers to task after the latter’s snarky response to Coates’ anointment of Melissa Harris-Perry as ‘America’s foremost public intellectual’:

What sets Byers apart is the idea that considering Harris-Perry an intellectual is somehow evidence of inferior thinking.

I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated lists like “Geniuses of Western Music” written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist. That tradition continues. Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.

Good stuff. But as part of his defense, Coates also said:

This began because I claimed that Melissa Harris-Perry is “America’s foremost public intellectual.” I made this claim because of Harris-Perry’s background: Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry.

Again, mostly good stuff. The bit that bothers me is the bit about ‘background’, which abides by another conventional sort of privilege: the credentialing capacities of the Ivy League. (In my mind, almost synonymous with ‘expensive private university privilege.’)

Duke, Princeton, Harvard. (There is Tulane too, another private school; I’m aware Duke is not Ivy League.) Coates deploys these names as any other exponent of Ivy League privilege might: the mere fact of association with them is evidence enough of intellectual quality. What was the Ph.D on? Was the dissertation any good? Did it make dissertation-level contributions to its field or was it pretty perfunctory stuff? Coates also mentions ‘two books’. What were they on? Were their arguments any good? (They were published by Yale and Princeton University Presses incidentally.)

What if Melissa Harris-Perry had done exactly the same work, but had gone to the University of North Carolina with stints at San Diego State and the University of Illinois? And had her books published by Florida University Press and University of Texas Press? Would Coates still be citing her ‘background’? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Ivy League privilege is real. Presidents, Supreme Court justices, the list goes on. Remember that old football chant that Ivy League students use when their teams are losing to a state school: ‘It’s alright, it’s OK, you’re going to work for us someday’?

Why not just concentrate on the intellectual quality of her work and forget about her credentials? Like you know, we should forget about race and just concentrate on the quality of her work? Down with all privilege, right?

There is something problematic, also, about turning the business of being a ‘public intellectual’ into some sort of competition, but more on that later.

Note: I didn’t attend the Ivy League.

4 comments on “Ta-Nehisi Coates Attacks One Privilege, Defends Another

  1. joelw says:

    I think this is a bit cute Samir. TNC went to Howard after dropping out of high school. I think he likely knows Ivy privilege. The point of listing those credentials was “Nobody would blink if I said the same thing about a white dude with those credentials was America’s foremost public intellectual. You, lazy journalists, only think about peeking under the hood because of what MHP looks like.”

    • Samir Chopra says:


      Perhaps. Or perhaps he is unconsciously not questioning it, because his Howard days far behind him, he’s forgotten about it. I’d welcome clarification from him.

      PS: You did double-post but I didn’t put up the second post. No worries.

  2. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but I just graduated from one of the most expensive, elite, private universities in the country. Something that annoys me to no end is when people assume that someone with a Master’s degree, and especially a PhD, is automatically smart. I want to tell them No, that’s not true. I’ve seen people in my graduating class go onto graduate school because 1) they were bored 2) they were scared 3) they didn’t want to enter the job market 4) they wanted the additional prestige and 5) their parents could pay for it. Some of them go for the right reasons, but many, many don’t. So yeah, if I ever get a PhD, I won’t parade about calling myself a “public intellectual” or some nonsense like that. I’ll reflect and realize how lucky I was, and try not to forget that someone significantly smarter than I am could have gone to grad school in my place, but for various reasons, didn’t or couldn’t.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      LV: Thanks for that. Pedigree seems to count a little too much in this domain. And then it is just perpetuated by a variety of means, most of all by folks who promote their own ‘brand.’

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