Recently favorite Ta-Nehisi Coates got into a prolonged debate with Jonathan Chait (who blogs at New York Magazine) over whether it’s OK for Paul Ryan or Barack Obama to blame “black culture” for African Americans’ lack of economic progress relative to white people. Here’s Coates’ initial post if you want to start at the beginning.

Anyway, the debate shifts ground into an argument about whether Coates (standing in as a proxy for African Americans) should be optimistic and grateful for the progress that has been made on racial equality in America since slavery. Chait (who is white) argues that he should be, Coates disagrees. In doing so, he provides this quotation from Malcolm X1:

You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.

While it can of course be argued that African Americans are treated better today than they were 15 or 50 or 100 years ago, it’s also true that they continue to face pervasive discrimination as a matter of policy and custom. They owe America no gratitude for treating them less badly.

When there are obvious, structural problems black people face that are the direct product of historical and current discrimination, blaming black culture for lack of advancement is scapegoating. That much was clear to me after reading Coates’ argument. I’d encourage you to read back through his entire series of recent posts on the topic.

What occurred to me after I let the post sit on my brain for awhile was how broadly applicable Malcolm X’s quote is; not only to other social issues but in my personal life as well. For example, women in the technology industry owe men no gratitude for any progress that has been made on the gender inequalities, because the ledger is still far from balanced.

Today I started thinking about times when I realized that I was treating other people poorly and made an effort to change my behavior. Stepping away from my own perspective really made it clear that I was the person with the knife in Malcolm X’s metaphor. In nearly every case, I have believed that I was making progress, and expected not only gratitude but complete forgiveness for my past poor behavior, some of which no doubt continues.

When applied at the social level, the quotation in question is illuminating. Applying it at the personal level is humbling.

  1. Here’s a video of Malcolm X giving one version of this quote in an interview.