The Other Columbus: Just because I can't fix it doesn't mean it's not broken

Scott Woods
Ta-Nehisi Coates

If you have been earnest in your quest to become more woke on racial issues in the last several months, you have probably come across the work of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you haven’t, you’re already doing woke wrong.

If you’ve taken the shortcut and burned through a few videos of Coates interviews to get at least merely conversant, there is a thing he occasionally does that you may have noticed. An interviewer or moderator will ask him for an overarching solution to a problem he has painstakingly written or spoken about, and, depending on the angle, depth and his personal proclivity with the subject matter in question, Coates will sometimes say, “I don’t know.” If you watch enough of these videos, you’ll notice he does this all the time.

Regardless of where you fall on Coates as a person, writer or intellectual, you have to admit his candor in such moments is refreshing. It’s clear that it’s largely not from a place of ignorance, and he certainly doesn’t lack opinions. The deal is that he is interested in moving conversations and work forward, and getting bogged down in solution talk that may or may not be given in the right context doesn’t advance any cause by much.

What’s funny to me is how often I don’t see that happening with people in everyday conversations about the big-picture items like racism or police violence or politics, when it should be happening all of the time.

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I get why people feel the need to respond to someone who asks “Well, what’s the solution?” It makes your criticism seem half-baked if you don’t have an immediate answer. But for my money, most people haven’t done enough digging into a given problem before they go running for the solution switch.

I understand this desire, too. The work involved in unpacking and navigating social issues is often hard, brutal work. It is self-effacing work in which fingers are pointed at you all of the time. It can be demoralizing to realize how uncivilized you have been when you thought you were one of the good guys. It’s easier to just ask for a checklist of solutions and start marking boxes on your way to a better society and, if we are honest, more comfortable feelings.

But that’s not how things get fixed. You couldn’t build a popsicle house with an engineering plan like that. 

To be clear, I’m not really talking about the random person you’re arguing with on the internet who throws up their hands in the middle of the debate and says, “Well, what’s your solution?” Half of the time that person is just trying to end the debate because they know that information already exists, they already disagree with it and they figure you’re too exhausted to go dig it up for them anyway.

I’m talking here about the instances in which the call is earnest and well-meaning, but still misplaced. It wants the answer, but it either a) hasn’t always done the work to deserve the answer, or b) wants the answer in a way that isn’t productive... like a Twitter thread. Imagine Cornel West trying to answer how to fight racism — a question he gets all of the time — in a 25-tweet thread, like he hasn’t already written five books trying to answer the question.

More to the point, it’s OK to complain about how things are and not follow such criticism with solutions. We pay lots of people good money to work in the solution business. Politicians, school administrators, organizations and institutions abound whose mission statements trumpet solutions as the order of the day. We pay many of them with hundreds of millions of tax dollars in Columbus alone for solutions.

What protesters, marchers, political writers and yes, even that otherwise very pleasant guy on Facebook who is always complaining about the government, are doing is exposing to what degree the solutions aren’t working. Societies need that kind of (mindful) criticism. That kind of criticism is its own full-time job in some areas. And we shouldn’t demand people have the solutions to the problems they uncover when we have people we pay to do that, nor should we act like their problems are less valid because they’ve only been able to get to the surviving and having-a-voice part. We should be demanding the people we pay for solutions to confront the criticisms, over and over again, until we get to a solution that works for more than one side of the table. No politician should get a recess, ever.

Companies play this kind of shell game all of the time. They talk vaguely about how there may be “areas to work on,” but then they present a laundry list of the ways in which they have clearly tried to address them. The problem is that their laundry hasn’t fixed the problem, and while the leaders of such discussions are happy to keep talking about “ways to improve,” they would rather you not spend too much time on how they ended up being in a place where improvements are necessary. And that’s why none of these recommendations stick. It is not enough to acknowledge that a past exists; you must reckon with it. 

It’s OK not to stop everything to develop some long-winded answer about how to fix a multi-generational social ill. Anybody asking that question knows such answers already exist. I promise you: Whatever amount of complaining you’re seeing on the internet about how things are all messed up isn’t even close to the actual number of people experiencing the problem. And just because people can’t always fix the problems afflicting them doesn’t mean the problems aren’t valid.