When I started reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, sometime when he started writing for The Atlantic, I was struck by the energy in his writing, and the seriousness with which he addressed his topics, be they wresting, hip-hop, or more traditionally “serious” topics. Through his blog and feature pieces I was shown that major fixtures in our collective understanding of U.S. history were false, and easily dismantled through study of readily available scholarship. I appreciated his rigor and zest, and could relate to his admissions of being an under-performer in the past. Coates’ writing has, for me, been about empowerment – empowerment against prevailing myths and convenient beliefs, and a lesson on the moral obligation individuals have to use their talents to rip apart the falsehoods in our history. That is why I was in certain ways disappointed with his latest book, Between the World and Me. The book beautifully describes his growth as a writer and researcher, the myths of others and himself that he has battled along his journey, and a powerful reflection on the state of black life in America. But, in these pages were judgements on U.S. policies and institutions that I felt lacked the rigor he has shown in other efforts. At the point where I expected him to show me yet another myth, he sounded resigned and eschewed further exploration. I am uncomfortable with Coates’ dismissal of questioning motivations behind policies, and the structures that shape policy implementation, his glossing over does a disservice to his depiction of U.S. policy and its institutions.
Coates positions the details of these elements as immaterial to trying to understand the United States, and thus dismisses further questioning of them. For example on page 18 he describes U.S. society in the following way:
“A society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker … it does not matter if the agent of these forces is white or black – what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable.”
And again on page 103:
“It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”
While I agree that the material effects of these policies deserve greater attention than many want to give, I believe his fatalism about the policy making processes, both formal and informal, is misplaced. We can do more than just inquire about good intentions, which Coates’ correctly states is often used as a “hall pass through history,” and push for more information about the voices that influence a particular policy, where those voices might have fit in the milieu of ideas at the time, how the structure of an institution might affect policy implementation, how funding size and sources might affect a policy – any number of other questions that can contribute to a more exact picture of the creation and implementation of a policy. Answers to these questions are critical for informing future reforms, which I very much believe are needed.
One example of his fatalism in the book comes on page 83 in his discussion of the non-indictment of the police officer who, under very suspicious circumstances, killed his friend Prince Jones:
”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 physical laws.”
Thanks to the work of scholars and activists, it is now a matter of public discourse that there are problems in the United States regarding excessive use of force and a lack of accountability for offending officers, but Coates’ fatalism about the source of this injustice should be vigorously rejected here. For starters, the police are in many cases doing the very work Coates and others wish would be done to bring safety to marginalized communities. Dismissing them as inherently flawed leads the loss of an ally in the improvements Coates would no doubt welcome. Second, it is a myth that these institutions are beyond improvement. In my own review of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) use-of-force and internal investigation policies done for my Masters degree, I found that the structure of the relationship between the NYPD, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) was, in its current form, one that lead to opaque disciplinary procedures, disregard for CCRB recommendations, and an uncertain role for the OIG. With this finding I was able to list out several simple reforms to the policies regarding information sharing and complementary investigation tactics, reforms that I believe would make it more difficult for offending officers to escape culpability, and for their superiors to shield them from punishment. That is only one example, and I am not so naïve to think my suggestions are comprehensive nor would they fix the NYPD were they implemented tomorrow, but I found there was a design flaw that does not begin and end with racist motivations, either overt or hidden.
I believe Coates is correct is identifying that racism, or more generally fear of otherness, has a great deal to do with why our country so often falls short of its professed ideals. I also understand that many would argue that Coates’ fatalism is a tonal choice rather than an analytical one, and in that case I’m saying that this choice undercuts his arguments. If the more insidious racism in this country is latent, arising out of ignorance or laziness and not an actively cultivated feeling then that leaves the possibility for reform that has the original American ideals as their eventual goal. If a certain policy is under representing the concerns of a marginalized community, we need reformers primed and prepared to make that argument and fix that policy, but if they accepted Coates’ fatalism, why would they bother?
“But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious.”
I do not understand this argument. Coates himself is directly responsible for awakening countless of these “Dreamers,” myself included, to examining unquestioned truths about U.S. history and policy. But here where the rubber hits the road and we are looking at the point where policy touches the individual, Coates’ appears resigned. It was Coates who first encouraged me to dig, and now that I have I see that Coates is telling me that sometimes it isn’t worth it to dig – there’s nothing to see that isn’t already known. But, how is that not its own myth?
In this year’s Super Bowl, race played a distinctly more central role in the narratives about the players and their personalities. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton – a freakish physical specimen, with a flamboyant and, to some, grating personality – has been a source of controversy since his college days, and was the topic of choice in the days leading up to the game. As an African American quarterback known for dabbing in the end zone and flashing a wide, flawless grin at his haters, Newton represents the perfect foil for the casual and serious American racist alike. In contrast to Peyton Manning, a legendary good ol’ boy if there ever was one, Newton has often been portrayed as everything wrong with the game for his excessive celebrations and defiant personality. One does not have to bore down too deeply into this criticism of Newton to find a distinctly racist bent. Aaron Rodgers, another of the game’s elite (white) quarterbacks, does his patented “discount double check” to celebrate a touchdown, but it’s somehow different. Watch Tom Brady on the sideline after another masterful Patriots touchdown drive, and you’ll see him firing off an expletive-laden tirade. But, he’s just passionate about the game. And with all the controversy swirling about Newton and the Internet’s evolving tendency to turn in on itself (i.e., coverage of the coverage of the coverage of Newton), Beyoncé got up onstage for the halftime show and, if you listen to many on the right, punched white America in the face through their flat screens with a black power fist.
Racial issues are a central tension point in American society, politics and culture today; this has been recently highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, the backlash to excessive police brutality and the senescent media’s sudden, and needed, attention to the tense state of race relations in America. But, I think it’s interesting that even as these issues rise to the surface, as the public discourse (minus within the Republican party, obviously) begins to grapple with race relations in a more substantive manner, we still see such baldly racist otherization of African Americans. If a Super Bowl quarterback and pop music’s reigning queen are so frightening to white America for essentially being too different, too “Black,” how would you feel about the trajectory of race relations as an African American? Frankly, a healthy sense of fatalism seems appropriate, if not also realistic.
That sense of fatalism pervades Ta-Neishi Coates’ highly regarded Between the World and Me. Indeed, Coates has said, flipping Martin Luther King Jr. on his head, that the arc of the universe bends toward chaos, toward tragedy. “My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box,” Coates writes. And if you are a family member of Eric Garner, or Michael Brown, or Sandra Bland, or Tamir Rice, it would be hard to disagree with him. Between the World and Me has been widely compared to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and is written as a letter from Coates to his son. At the center of the book is the contention that “America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.” For Coates, there is no America without the enslavement, dispossession, mistreatment, and violence perpetrated against black bodies throughout the country’s history.
Coates employs the same literary convention as Baldwin does in The Fire Next Time, although Baldwin’s book was written as a letter to his nephew. This has elicited comparisons between the two – both fiery and beautiful writers on race and the American experience – augmented by both making transformational sojourns, decades apart, to Paris. Coates discussion of the police killing his friend and classmate at Howard University, Prince Jones; his empty response to the 9/11 attacks; and the author’s atheism are other important elements of the book that provide a unique context into his life. By now, Between the World and Me has been reviewed and parsed over ad infinitum. So, I’d like to focus on three important takeaways from the book that I find particularly relevant for today’s public discourse on race.
“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks to loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.”
We frequently hear about the wealth gap between whites and Blacks (and other minorities), incarceration rates, the War Drugs and larger structural forces that cohere into an institutionally racist society. And for Coates, “It does not matter if the destruction [of the black body] is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from foolish policy.”
This is the lamentable and tragic status quo in America today. Yet, we often don’t extrapolate from these abstract issues and connect them to everyday people. There are more African American males incarcerated in the United States (745,000) than the total combined prison populations of India, Argentina, Lebanon, Canada, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England (742,000). Not only are many of these men’s lives destroyed for petty crimes, so are their families and the communities in which they reside; not to mention the attendant economic ramifications. Consider how such structural forces impede on the daily life of one Black person, let alone all African Americans. Thinking about such issues at the personal level provides a much more sober and tragic perspective on these abstract problems that often seem beyond our control.
“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, was not achieved through wine tasting and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, and land; through the flaying of blacks; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
You feel the anger dripping from Coates writing here as he rightly points out that violence against black bodies is inextricable from the American experience, and was a vital component of its early economic success. In the pages of The Atlantic, Coates famously made “The Case for Reparations,” but he did not look to slavery. Rather, Coates argued that 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal, and 35 years of racist housing policy were more than enough justification. How much wealth has been violently appropriated from African Americans? Personally, I have had many conversations with friends and family where they refuse to accept the notion that much of America’s might was built on the backs of slaves. For some, it’s just too difficult to reckon with such an execrable past. Whether it’s through reparations or not, it’s nearly impossible to foresee race relations truly improving without such a reckoning; an acceptance of where we came from and how far we still have to go.
“ … This banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation to ever exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.”
I often think about the paradox of American exceptionalism in terms of international relations. The U.S. is not exactly credible on the global stage when it argues against the use of state force or for respecting the sovereignty of other states, for example. Coates adds another layer to this argument, which is equally important. The U.S. has its own long, sordid history of racism and anti-democratic practices. Perhaps, Coates suggests, we should focus on strengthening our own democracy, on an inclusive, more economically just society, rather than lecturing other countries and even forcefully changing others’ regimes. Yet, many Americans, including politicians and intellectuals, fear what they will see if they dig too deeply – because ultimately, what does it say about us? “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage,” Coates avers.
Coates critics have argued that his fatalism is ultimately disempowering. Indeed, as Michelle Alexander noted in her review for the New York Times, Baldwin acknowledged America’s racial injustice, but implored his nephew to recognize his potential and power, and the possibility of revolutionary change. On the other hand, “Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change, and the dangers of believing in the American Dream.”
In a sense, Coates is rejecting existentialist notions of forging one’s own meaning in life, of deciding who you will be, because he argues that so much of the direction of the black body in America is structurally determined. I am sympathetic to that criticism; but I don’t think that Coates would deny that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement affected real structural changes. Progress is possible, to be sure. Nonetheless, I think Coates’ jeremiad is an incredibly powerful and needed discussion of the ever-present problem of race in America.
Despite progress through American history, Coates remain profoundly pessimistic. In the end, he injects a further sense of fatalism when he discusses the “plunder not just to the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.” Coates sees an environmental reckoning coming before America is truly ready to deal with its racism, present and past. While many rebut Coates and point to the progress in race relations over the decades, he demands more. It’s simply not enough for him. Ultimately, despite his fatalism, Coates makes the reader wake up and take a hard look at America, at even our own selves.
You all know Adam “the Big AG” Gallagher, but Evan Thomas-Arnold is one of our new contributors. Evan lives in Washington D.C., where he works in governance reform. He has a Masters in Public Administration from American University, where he focused on election administration, issues in public management, and urban governance. His research interests include governance reform movements in the U.S., local government, election administration, U.S. public administration ideals, and the history of Washington D.C.
For Part I of our roundtable discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, click here.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (New York: Spiegel and Gray, 2015), 28.
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