Socrates vs Sin: Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Role of Knowledge in Systemic Racism

by Pablo Travieso


There is a fundamental interpretive dilemma in ancient ethics, which has persisted to this day. It can be characterized as the result of two competing and deeply-ingrained interpretive frameworks, corresponding more or less to the Socratic and Christian understandings of wrong action:


No person knowingly does wrong; true knowledge that something is wrong precludes any interest in it. All wrong actions are fundamentally failures of reason (errors or mistakes), which stem from a basic ignorance of the good.

This framework emphasizes reasoning as the means of moral reform; it calls on the wrongdoer to examine their error.


We are all in sin, and sinning is a matter of knowingly doing wrong, or else failing to do what one knows to be right. All wrong actions are fundamentally failures of the will (decisions or indecisions), which stem from a deliberate rejection of the good.

This framework emphasizes accountability as the means of moral reform; it calls on the wrongdoer to repent.

This is, of course, a simple summary of two very long and convoluted traditions. More can be (and has been) said on either side, but for the sake of expediency, I invite you to consider them as laid out.

In their barest form, these ethical frameworks are incompatible with one another, set apart by a fundamental disagreement on the role of knowledge in wrong action. One cannot endorse them both at once, and—going by the principle of non-contradiction—neither can one employ their dictates simultaneously. One might use each of them in turn to make sense of a single situation, but at some point one must make the transition, from reasoning to accountability or vice versa.

So how do we choose which framework to adopt? We cannot even ask which is “better” without accepting some rules for determining value, thereby committing ourselves to a prior interpretive scheme. We are always already occupying one or the other. Without recourse to an impartial frame of negotiation, and with each framework (naturally enough) interpreting itself more favorably than the other, their disagreement seems intractable. So rather than weigh them against each other, I want to examine the dynamic that they create and how it affects our concrete attempts to address injustice.

The Problem

To do this, I will be considering American racism through the eyes of Ta-Nehisi Coates, as a particularly egregious case of injustice.

We can already find the dynamic of the Socratic and Christian frameworks underlying many of Coates’s concerns in Between the World and Me. Are racists aware of their racism as such? Do they permit and perpetuate racial injustice because they have self-consciously embraced it? Or are they simply ignorant? Yet I would like to focus on just one of Coates’s stories, which takes up this issue in a very self-conscious way.

In the story, he has just taken his four-year-old son to see Howl’s Moving Castle at a movie theater in the Upper West Side. Coming out, his son lingers at the bottom of a crowded escalator a little too long, and a white woman shoves him from behind: “Come on!” Coates confronts her—“hot with all of the moment and all of my history” (p.94)—but the crowd sides with the woman. Tensions escalate and the story culminates in a white man telling Coates, “I could have you arrested!”

Coates lingers on this story longer than usual, noting how this threat of arrest fits into a history of white claims over the black body, and wondering how he might have communicated such a thing to the woman that pushed his son. He wants to explain the context of her actions to her—to reason with her Socratically—but he anticipates failure:

Had I informed this woman that when she pushed my son, she was acting according to a tradition that held black bodies as lesser, her response would likely have been, “I am not racist.” Or maybe not. But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic—an orc, troll, or gorgon (97).

Here, we see a way in which, one could say, the Christian framework turns to thwart the proper functioning of the Socratic: we open with the Socratic, but the wrong-doer receives the Christian—an accusation that they deliberately harbor contempt—and responds accordingly.

This pattern is a general one, though it seems especially common in racially-charged encounters, thanks to the history of these “politics of personal exoneration.” Coates lists examples that span the entire twentieth century, from Michael Richards to Strom Thurmond to the segregationists of Levittown, PA. In each case, white Americans, whose actions clearly fit the structure and function of white supremacy, manage to ward off any such association by maintaining their innocent intentions. The force of this is not in refuting a claim—for these people’s intentions had not been called into question—but in refuting what is not claimed, thereby shifting to a framework in which the original claim makes no sense.

In response to the Socratic, the Christian claims innocence: “I’m not racist.” It response to the Christian, the Socratic claims ignorance: “that’s not racist.” Coates does not give a concrete example of this latter dynamic, but we see it frequently enough in the real world. One can think of various convenient cases of color-blindness, and how they function to derail demands for accountability. The Socratic undermines the Christian by claiming that “this is not a race issue,” that the real issue is something else: black-on-black crime, or perhaps “freedom of speech.”

The potential for wrongdoers to shift and slide between frameworks at will, so as to elude the moral friction of each in turn, presents a real problem for the possibility of moral reform. Is there a way to address injustice without finding ones efforts subverted in this way? Each framework has its own answer, which I would now like to present, both in its own right and in response to Coates’s problem of the woman at the theater.

In Favor of the Socratic

The answer given by the Socratic framework is, I would say, the more prominent position among politically-conscious young people today. On this view, the plausibility of the Christian framework—the idea that wrong acts are inherently bound up with knowledge or (what amounts to the same) intention—is the only reason one can say “I’m not racist” with any kind of authority. By locating the criterion for injustice in the heart of the perpetrator, the Christian framework actually grants wrongdoers privileged access to their own moral standing. Without an omniscient God to peer into their souls, this move subjects any claims against wrongdoers to an unreasonable and, frankly, insurmountable doubt, since—as Coates warns his son—“there was no golden era when evildoers did their business and loudly proclaimed it as such” (p.98). Once evil becomes internal—a character trait associated with the likes of orcs and gorgons—then it becomes plausibly deniable.

Accordingly, we can salvage our talk of racism by focusing on concrete actions and regarding any recourse to intention as a distraction. Proponents of this might hold that, actually, all white people are racist, while amending racism to mean “unconsciously participating in systems that oppress people of color.” By emphasizing the way that people’s actions fit into historical patterns and affect current structures of power, they endeavor to shift popular consciousness from the impossible ideal of personal or intentional racism to the concrete structures of systemic racism.1

Now, it may be the case that wrong action always involves some sort of knowledge or awareness; after all, one needs to have a certain sense of what one is doing in order to competently do it. We can see this kind of knowledge at play in Coates’ account of the woman at the theater:

There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank. I knew, for instance, that she would not have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush, because she would be afraid there and would sense, if not know, that there would be a penalty for such an action (94).

One might read this and object that this woman’s very act of “pulling rank” demonstrates an awareness of that rank. Since, in this context, that rank is constituted by skin color, does that mean that this woman is already aware of her racism? This would seem contradict the Socratic claim that no one knowingly does wrong—and its corallary, that racism is a matter of ignorance; that no racist knowingly embraces racism.

It is worth emphasizing that when the Socratic denies the possibility of knowingly or intentionally doing wrong, it has in mind a very particular kind of knowledge. The person that holds such Socratic knowledge must be both aware of it and able to articulate it,2 which is not the case with the woman at the theater. Her sensing-if-not-knowing is a very unrefined kind of knowledge, one which the Socratic admits of, calling it unrecollected knowledge—knowledge that we have forgotten that we know.

Far from discrediting the Socratic framework, unrecollected knowledge is central to its method of moral reform. Unlike intention, it is not hidden in one’s heart but is made plain in the implications of one’s beliefs and actions. Rather than lecture his interlocutors, Socrates need only articulate what they already know. They may not particularly like to have their views clarified in this way, but if Socrates does his job well, then they should at least recognize these views as their own. If they do, then they have already forfeited the authority of Christian interiority, and so retired from the politics of self-exoneration.

It is tempting, faced simultaneously with repugnant beliefs and the believer’s vulnerability, to make for the Christian and level an accusation. Yet if one holds fast to the Socratic, then one continues to depersonalize the question of racism, moving from this interlocutor’s underlying assumptions to the structural realities that those depend on. White Americans must already sense, if they do not yet know, the pervasive fabric of systemic racism (else they would not be so good at playing it to their advantage) and this is precisely what one endeavors to remind them of. If a little Socratic interrogation could bring the woman at the theater to admit that “no, I would not have pushed a black child out on your part of Flatbush,” then it’s a short step to the real issue: “Yes, I suppose that I ‘outrank’ Coates in the Upper West Side. Yes, I suppose this is what allows me to push his son with impunity. Yes, this ‘rank’ is only afforded to me by a long history of racial injustice, and by exercising it, I am perpetuating that injustice.”

We might worry that, even confronted with such a weighty recollection, the woman at the theater could simply accept it. Have we not just shown her that, as a white person, perpetuating this systemic injustice is in her own self-interest?

In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that this would not be a rational response, since we all consider it worse to commit an injustice than to suffer one. If the woman at the theater can be brought to acknowledge the systemic injustice inherent in her actions, we can expect her to reject it, even at great cost to herself. Socrates’ reasoning here can get quite technical, so I will simply suggest that it bears out in experience. The closest contemporary phenomenon to a shameless embrace of racism—the alt-right movement—still needs to justify itself, hence the practice of “red-pilling:” casting people of color as the oppressors and white Americans as oppressed.3

It is this that must be challenged; the rest will follow. And critical to challenging it is recognizing it for what it is—ignorance, a set of false beliefs—and doing away with the misleading and unproductive notion of a deeper intention or malice.

In Favor of the Christian

We have just characterized the Christian framework as naive in the face of history, hoping against all precedent that evildoers might acknowledge their evil. Yet the Christian similarly regards the Socratic as naive, but with respect to human nature. “Of course evildoers have never proclaimed themselves as such,” it admits, “but this does not mean that they have not understood (or, at least, willfully misunderstood) the nature of their actions.”

Though the Socratic speaks of sin as a kind of malice or contempt (and perhaps this is the only alternative to ignorance that the Socratic can conceive of), what the Christian framework intends is something much more passive. It starts with what Augustine calls “willful ignorance:”

It is one thing to be ignorant, and another thing to be unwilling to know. For the will is at fault in the case of the man of whom it is said, “He is not inclined to understand, so as to do good” (On Grace and Free Will, chpt. V).

Coates calls those “not inclined to understand” the Dreamers. Theirs is not the simple ignorance of those watching the shadows in Plato’s cave, but the willful ignorance of those who do understand the distinction between illusion and reality and yet do not care. The Christian framework contends that the vast majority of human ignorance is of this sort. It does not arise through a firm commitment to the truth (tragically led astray by false beliefs), but through convenience—that is, a negative commitment, a total lack of commitment.4

We can think of this negative commitment as a kind of drowsiness or lethargy, which is necessary but insufficient for dreaming, just as willful ignorance is necessary but insufficient for sin. To get sin, we need an opportunity for wakefulness, which the sinner then turns down, like a half-awake person squinting and shielding her eyes from sunlight. Here, the will transitions from weakness to defiance. The dreamer refuses to wake up, even as she begins to understand that she is waking up.5

Coates seems to recognize this kind of behavior in the Dreamers, as he practically accuses them of dreaming lucidly:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands (p.98).

Such “practiced habits” are precisely why the Christian framework insists on the role of knowledge in sin and injustice. Insofar as the will is active and defiant, it is impossible to will ignorance completely; the very act of “jabbing out one’s eyes” betrays an awareness of what one might otherwise see. Even if the Dreamers should succeed at this—even if they actually forget the reality of systemic racism—they must then forget this very act of forgetting, and so on.6 The present activity is never quite hidden, and it in it, their knowledge is apparent.

Accordingly, the Christian understands what the Socratic called “unrecollected knowledge” as something more like a repressed memory: never quite erased and constantly threatening to resurface. The Dreamers must plan and stage their forgetting in advance, anticipating where the memory will next break through. Slowly, their noncommittal dreaming becomes less convenient and approaches the realm of deliberate, self-conscious activity. But this transition is so subtle that, in most cases, the old habits forged by convenience are sufficient to carry one though it (and into sin) without fuss or fanfare.

In light of all of this, the Christian framework regards the Socratic program of rational deliberation as fundamentally misguided. While the Socratic endeavors to remind the Dreamers of their unrecollected knowledge of systemic racism, the Dreamers’ entire project has anticipated this, and slipping into the Christian interpretive frame is but one way of preserving their ignorance. The woman at the theater is not closed off to Coates’s imagined dialogue because she (innocently enough) confuses an explanation with an accusation, but because she chooses to take it this way. Her confusion is more convenient than recollecting that uncomfortable knowledge, hidden behind her “pulling rank,” which threatens to throw her actions and whole way of life into question.

Until this changes—until the Dreamers take responsibility for their dreaming—reasoning with them is actually impossible. They may nod and make noises like they understand, but this is ultimately a false act. It is no different from how they imitate the noises and movements of the oppressed: appropriating the language of discrimination and silencing, or demanding safe spaces to dream in. We are lucky if, convinced that it is making progress reasoning with the Dreamers, the Socratic merely accomplishes nothing. Too often, however, it falls for the false act and—blind to the willful element of their dreaming—accepts their account of white supremacy as a faceless force of nature, from which no agents emerge accountable.7 Coates blames such an account for creating a culture of resignation in the face of racial violence:

The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s laws (p.83).

In this way, denying the role of intention in systemic racism proves at least as as problematic as insisting on it. It is through this denial that lynchings come to be carried out by “persons unknown” and outrageous acts become mere tragedies.

So, prior to dialogue, the Christian framework calls on the Dreamers to repent. They know what they do, and the only hope is to appeal to this knowledge—to demand that they account for their decision to do wrong. This is the foundation of accountability: establishing or discerning a collective and public account of proper action, and holding individuals to that account.

While I think there is good reason to expect that a proper system of accountability will effect moral reform through general deterrence, there is something of a Catch-22 involved in setting one up. Such a system presuposes a public that is willing to hold people to count for their actions and is willing to acknowledge those actions as wrong. It depends, that is on a certain portion of the Dreamers waking up, and the Christian framework makes no promises here. There is always hope, to be sure, that a call to account might break through their charade and strike at their guilty hearts, but alas, there is only so much that one can do for another in matters of the will. One can present the Dreamers with a choice—in the form of a call to “wake up!”—but one cannot make that choice for them. At a certain point, one can only pray.


The careful reader may have already noticed a striking similarity between the Christian’s limitted take on the possibility of moral reform and what the Socratic initially took issue with: the way that the interiority of intention grants wrongdoers near-impunity. Meanwhile, the Christian accuses the Socratic of inviting wrongdoers to slip across frameworks by blinding itself to the workings of the will—a blindness that the Socratic only ever adopted as an antidote to the politics of self-exoneration. So, one method of moral reform proves the bane of another. The Christian framework, in its extreme, reduces racism to a character trait, while at the extremity of the Socratic we have the myth of racism as a natural phenomenon.

Between such extremes, we might hope to stake out a reasonable middle ground. Surely, both frameworks are always correct to some measure! Each case is mixed: there are some instances in which ignorance prevails, and others where the will dominates. Yet without its own coherent theory of wrong action, this middle ground is unstable, little more than a no-man’s-land between the Christian and Socratic borders. It is precisely through the ambiguity of these instances—the open question as to which framework is to be applied at which time—that wrongdoers are able to shift between the two, and the problem of the woman at the theater remains unresolved.

That said, I do believe there is a positive way of synthesizing these frameworks to our advantage, even if it is not entirely even-handed. For this, I want to turn to Søren Kierkegaard, to whom I am deeply indebted. His Philosophical Fragments first distinguished the Socratic and Christian frameworks in the manner we have been exploring, and I have already borrowed heavily from it in the preceding sections.

Yet, while its proposed aim is to set these frameworks apart into an either/or relationship of opposition, the Fragments also makes room for the Socratic to play a diminished role it its otherwise-Christian account of moral and spiritual development. While dialogue cannot be used to bring the sinner out of sin, it can be used to draw attention to their sin state—that is, by showing the sinner that they are actively rejecting the truth—making impossible the excuse of innocence:

If I had not come and spoken unto them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin (John 15:22).

In this respect, Kierkegaard presents Socrates as the moral exemplar par excellence. Yet this is not because his dialectic brings one, through reason, to the inevitable conclusion that one has rejected truth. Kierkegaard accepts the Christian premise that one cannot be reminded of one’s sin, for sin is the very cause of one’s forgetting. Yet he also accepts that maintaining oneself in sin requires a constant and deliberate application of effort, which one cannot be entirely unaware of. By engaging the Dreamers in rational discourse, one forces their will again into action. Even if it labors to repress the truth, this itself reveals the truth—this itself is a kind of recollection. One forces them to confront their sin by forcing them to perform it in discourse.8

For Kierkegaard, then, rational discourse is necessary for moral reform. It is not sufficient, as no amount of reason can bring about a reversal of the will, but it is needed in order to expose the will as the driver of wrong action. It is necessary for the Christian’s method of repentance, and—most interesting for our purposes—it is prior to it. In a dramatic reversal of the Christian, which insisted on accountability as the necessary condition for true dialogue, Kierkegaard tells us that dialogue precedes any possibility of authentic accountability. It is the only means of calling another to attend to their will.

What does this mean for our purposes? In some ways, it allows us to have our cake and eat it, with respect to the two frameworks. By accepting the Christian account of racism, I think we are more prepared to address the issue of shifting frameworks as one of deliberate evasion. We have a more mature explanation of the Dreamers’ dreaming and are less likely to let them off the hook. Yet by accepting a modified form of the Socratic method, we refuse to let the Dreamers escape into the private world of knowledge and intention. Kierkegaard’s method also has the benefit of being agnostic about the underlying causes of a particular set of wrong acts, since one is to proceed with dialogue in either case. It is not a practical issue whether the ignorance of the woman at the theater is willful or not. If the will is involved, then it will rise to defy reason, and make itself known through this defiance. If it is not involved, then reason may actually accomplish something in the way of dispelling false beliefs.

Yet the most appealing aspect of this synthesis, to me, is the way that the context of the Christian framework actually changes the practice of dialogue into something else: a practice of love. Kierkegaard calls on us to engage with one another Socratically only after we have renounced the idea that our dialogue can actually save anyone. The Christian framework demands our humility; it demands that we recognize that changing another’s mind is not within our power.

It may sound pessimistic, yet this expectation is often what makes real dialogue (and real love) so hard. If one understands succesful dialogue only as that which ends in agreement, then one is constantly faced with failure, perhaps even taking the goading of the Dreamers to heart: “Don’t you want me to understand?” “How will I learn if you don’t explain this to me?” This is an unsustainable practice. It is why Kierkegaard argues that we can only act ethically by renouncing the world-historical fruits of our actions,9 and Coates seems to suggest the same:

History is not soley in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life (p.97).

Success here is not important; one does not need to convert the racist crowd. Socrates never convinces Callicles (the infamous nihilist of the Gorgias) that he is in sin. They do not even arive at aporia! Callicles embraces his own contradictions and derides Socrates’ pursuit of truth as a childish fantasy. Yet Socrates continues to engage him in dialogue, patiently demonstrating his active denial of reason by forcing him to perform it. Where does Socrates find the strength to carry on in this way, banging his head against an unyielding wall? There is an almost unfathomable love at work here: the love of one’s enemy that expects nothing in return.

We are not obligated to love in this way; indeed, no one has ever loved another through obligation. Yet it is good to love. Kierkegaard never wants us to forget that our own souls are also at stake—that we too are in sin—and loving dialogue offers the lover a way to repent. Through it, one embraces the paradox of penance: first renouncing one’s power to effect change through dialogue, then engaging in dialogue by virtue of the absurd.10 True dialogue also functions to disclose one’s own ignorance, just as true penance discloses one’s own sin—and from the perspective of the synthetic framework we have just outlined, we should now see that these are one and the same.

The Solution

One does not, then, by one’s own power, reform the woman at the theater. One does not impede her as she slips from the Socratic to the Christian, even as one understands that this is a willful evasion, consistent with her decision to submit to the convenience of the Dream. The problem that she presents is not resolved by choosing the right words, for there are no words that will win her heart. One simply speaks. By means of love, one discloses oneself in dialogue; by disclosing oneself, one invites her to do the same.



  1. See this article for an explicite account of this agenda, and for a good example of the Socratic’s popularity among a certain progressive readership. The Christian makes a brief appearance only in the last two sentences, which make an ethical call on the reader and emphasize activity of “ignoring” systemic racism over a passive state of “ignorance.” 

  2. Consider Socrates’ many interlocutors who claim to know the meaning of virtue, yet fail to articulate it without self-contradiction. Consider also the slave boy of the Meno, who is perfectly able to articulate the Pythagorean Theorem, yet was not aware of this ability prior to Socrates’ intervention. In a certain sense, Socrates does take this boy’s innate capacity as proof of his mathematical knowledge. Yet if we are all like this boy—knowing everything there is to know through the eternal transmigration of our souls—then this unrecollected knowledge cannot satisfy the condition of “knowingly doing wrong.” Proper Socratic knowledge must be forged in the dialectic. 

  3. White supremacy, like all systems of hate, is not coherent by itself. It is always parasitic upon other ideologies, appropriating their values—be they family and country or progress and equality—to its own purposes. Such values also provide a fitting smokescreen, since white supremacy must obscure its own activity in order to properly operate. The more obvious it becomes, the more it betrays its own absence. There is nothing to it. 

  4. This explains the parasitic nature of white supremacy: it is first and foremost an absence (a lack of commitment) and absence requires something to be absent from. It needs a positive system of values with respect to which it can manifest. These values can take many forms, but fundamental to all of them (and to the possibility of maintaining positive values at all) is the commitment to truth and the good. This is why we have characterized white supremacy’s lack as one with respect to truth: it is the most basic and general form of sin—the sin state—on which all particular sins are then founded. 

  5. Morning presents itself to the dreamer as a kind of death, rendering her dream’s narrative incoherent and mocking the passion with which she pursued its dream-goods. It natural for one, standing at the edge of a dream, to curse the morning for ending it prematurely. Of course, morning’s reflection finds this behavior completely absurd. The dream-narrative has no end of its own. It leads the dreamer on a merry chase, as stories follow from stories, each task forgotten before it can be completed. The awakened person can make no sense of it—though most, with no further reflection, move right on with their waking narrative and real-life tasks, which surely must have an end in sight! 

  6. This appears to be the reason that true, psychological repression is both so taxing and so unstable. There is preserved a direct link between one’s present activity and the repressed memory; this is why the memory threatens to come surging back into awareness at the slightest provocation. True forgetting may be possible, but only through the weakening of the will. Those things that we most want to forget, we never quite can. 

  7. I might suggest that the Socratic risks this when it loses a healthy sense of irony. Irony is the only thing allowing Socrates to practice his method without being actually deceived by his interlocutors. 

  8. We see this most in Plato’s aporetic dialogues, where Socrates and his interlocutors sometimes fail to arrive at knowledge. I think there is reason to believe that, at least at this stage, Plato was deeply concerned with the possibility of failed dialogue, and had identified as the cause something that Kierkegaard would be very comfortable calling “sin.” This is most pronounced with two of Plato’s most infamous characters: Callicles of the Gorgias and Thrasymachus of the Republic. It does not seem, in these cases, that Socrates is at fault for failing to reach his audience, but that his audience has already rejected some necessary condition for effective discourse (often identified as shame and the other “allies of reason” found in the spirited part of the soul). They are more concerned with refutation or with proving themselves clever than with actually learning anything. There is room for more comparative work here. 

  9. See especially the Concluding Unscientific Postscript

  10. The paradox of penance, as embodied by the merman in Fear and Trembling, is, of course, to be distinguished from the paradox of faith, as embodied by Abraham. In both cases, the will is split by the absurd—the simultaneous demands of renunciation and expectation—while unified into a singular action. Yet in the case of faith, this action transcends the ethical sphere: one relates, in silence, directly to God. In the case of penance, this action fulfills the ethical sphere: one relates, in dialogue, directly to others. Much fuss is made of Abraham’s leap beyond the ethical, yet penance is the task laid at our feet. 

Written on October 27, 2016


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