A Caricature of Black Reality

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Ta-Nehisi Coates.

This book review appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is an open letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori. It conveys worry over Samori’s prospects and posits a stoical parental philosophy on raising a black man in America. Coates’s portrayal of the African American past, present, and future is gloomy. He asserts that the subordination of blacks has been an integral feature of the good fortune that Euro-Americans have enjoyed. “A mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below,” he observes. “You and I, my son, are that ‘below.’” True in 1776, “it is true today.”

Coates presents American history as a chronicle of atrocities. The consolidation of white America, he writes, “was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; 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.” Portraying the recent, highly publicized killings of blacks by police officers as reflections of racist business as usual, Coates tells his son that “there is nothing uniquely evil” about these officers “endowed with the authority to destroy your body”; they “are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.”

Past encounters haunt Coates. He notes the time when, as a youngster growing up in West Baltimore, he found himself on the receiving end of a black boy’s brandished pistol, a twitch away from serious injury or even death. He recalls the day when a white man in Manhattan threatened to call the police on him when, in defense of his son, he raised his voice against a rude white woman. An event that occurred shortly after he left Howard University left an especially deep mark on his thinking: A schoolmate, Prince Jones, was shot to death in September 2000 by an undercover Prince George’s County, Maryland, police officer who suspected the student of being a drug dealer. Not only was the officer’s suspicion mistaken, there is good reason to believe that he acted wrongly, probably criminally, in shooting Jones and that his plea of self-defense was fraudulent and should have been discounted. Coates writes that the killing and the absence of any subsequent prosecution of the officer “took me from fear to a rage … and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”

The death of his schoolmate, Coates writes, so scarred him that a year later, when al-Qaeda attacked America on September 11, 2001, he was unable to distinguish between the officers who had killed and absolved the killing of his schoolmate and the officers who sought to save lives at the flaming Twin Towers. “I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died [on September 11]. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body”—and, by implication, shatter the body of his son.

Coates’s letter includes recollections of his courtship with Samori’s mother:

I fell in love at The Mecca [Howard University] one last time, lost my balance and all my boyhood confusion, under the spell of a girl from Chicago. This was your mother. I see us standing there with a group of friends in the living room of her home. I stood with a blunt in one hand and a beer in another. I inhaled, passed it off to this Chicago girl, and when I brushed her long elegant fingers, I shuddered a bit from the blast. She brought the blunt to her plum-painted lips, pulled, exhaled, then pulled the smoke back in. A week earlier I had kissed her, and now, watching this display of smoke and flame (and already feeling the effects), I was lost and running and wondering what it must be to embrace her, to be exhaled by her, to return to her and leave her high.

Coates’s refusal to hide his enjoyment of sex and drugs is accompanied by a refusal to withhold heterodox views regarding religion and politics. He abjures what he sees as mythologies that offer cheap, false comforts: “Some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms.” This rejection was a “gift” from his parents, “who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory.” Coates maintains that “in accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live—specifically, how do I live free in this black body.” Carrying on his parents’ ways, Coates relates to his son his belief that there is no God, no hereafter, no assurance that good triumphs over evil. He tells his son that the United States is neither divinely blessed nor peculiarly noble. Far from it. “The entire narrative of this country,” he says to Samori, “argues against the truth of who you are.”

Many ambitious black parents tell their children that although they will inescapably confront daunting racial impediments, these obstacles can be surmounted by guile and effort. “Tie-tie, you lose,” my own father used to say to me about competing against white peers. “So don’t let it be close.” I say something similar to my children.

Coates proceeds differently. “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ And these words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket.” Coates abjures accommodating what he perceives as racial blackmail. He rejects what he sees as a corrupting racial double standard. “No one,” he observes, “told those little white children … to be twice as good.”

Repudiating the perfectionist strand in black middle-class respectability politics, Coates tells his son: “You are human and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell. You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn’t.” Those inevitable flaws, Coates writes, should not be the occasion, the excuse, for sending black youth to prison or the morgue.

“Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson,” he protests. “Not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined.” Despite appreciating the increased risks that black male youth face on account of their mistakes, however, Coates refuses to urge upon his son a regimen of racially self-conscious caution. He believes that such stratagems of self-denial are futile because there is no secure refuge from racism in America. “You have been cast into a race,” he tells Samori, “in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels.” Given these unavoidable dangers, Coates urges his son to live boldly according to his own wants, not diffidently according to restrictive fears. “My wish for you,” he says to Samori, “is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”

The principal demand that Coates imposes upon his son is a demand that he participate in ongoing struggles on behalf of black Americans. Sounding very much like the distinguished, late law professor Derrick Bell, Coates encourages an unwavering commitment to the black liberation struggle despite believing that, ultimately, the United States has been and will remain a white man’s country. Martin Luther King Jr. assured blacks near the end of his life that they would eventually reach the racial promised land. To Coates, however, such talk is mystification. He sees no redemptive victory ahead. Coates exhorts his son to struggle against racism “not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.”

Between the World and Me is a slim volume of only 152 pages. But it was the big “race” book of the summer, garnering widespread publicity, and climbing to number one on The New York Times bestseller list. It has been lavishly praised. It is, says Toni Morrison, “required reading.” The New York Times columnist David Brooks called it “a great and searing … mind-altering account of the black male experience.” In Vogue, Megan O’Grady exclaimed that “Coates has penned a new classic of our time,” a book that is “urgent, lyrical, and devastating in its precision.” On the right, Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, panned the book, describing it as “profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered throughout.”

Critical, too, were intellectuals on the left, such as Michelle Alexander in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Spencer Overton in The Huffington Post, and Melvin L. Rogers in Dissent. Their shared complaint is that Coates’s pessimism is excessive, his despair disabling, his fatalism disempowering. “For Coates,” Rogers observes disapprovingly, “white supremacy does not merely structure reality; it is reality.” But “when one views white supremacy as impregnable, there is little room for one’s imagination to soar and one’s sense of agency is inescapably constrained.” Even as they criticized Coates, however, these observers on the left highly praised his book. It displays, says Rogers, “great beauty and power” and “overflows with exquisite insights about the embodied existence of blackness and the warped logic of white supremacy.”

In my view, Between the World and Me is considerably less impressive than Coates’s typical blogs, op-ed pieces, and magazine articles—work that I often admire even when I am in disagreement with it. His book is afflicted by a pervasive rhetorical and conceptual laxity. He writes that Eric Garner was “choked to death for selling cigarettes.” Is that statement accurate? Did the officer choke Garner to death for selling cigarettes? Or did the officer, criminally over-reacting, choke Garner in order to subdue a suspect whom he perceived to be resisting arrest—an action that led to Garner’s death? Those two formulations portray actions that are leagues apart morally.

In the most infamous racially motivated crime in modern American history, two men killed Emmett Till because the teenager waved or maybe whistled at a white woman in violation of Jim Crow etiquette that rigidly forbade black men from showing any sexual interest across the race line. They intentionally killed Till for violating a white supremacist protocol. (They confessed as much to a journalist in an interview for which they were paid after an all-white jury acquitted them of charges for murder.)

By contrast, the officer in Staten Island, New York, did not intentionally kill Garner for the infraction of selling loose cigarettes. I am not exonerating the officer. The infamous videotape that captured the violent arrest of Garner shows that he engaged in criminal misconduct, most likely involuntary manslaughter. That he did not have to stand trial regarding any criminal charge was an egregious miscarriage of justice. Still, Coates’s description of the wrongful conduct to which he rightly objects is misleading. Killing Garner to punish the selling of loose cigarettes was almost certainly not the animating motive behind the cop’s disgraceful conduct.

Coates writes that “what one ‘means’ is neither important nor relevant. 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.”

Hold it. Are we to take seriously the proposition that “what one ‘means’ is neither important nor relevant”? Consider the following: I hit you with my car. Is it irrelevant whether I mean to hit you (a serious crime) or whether my hitting you was inadvertent (at most a tort for which I may have to compensate you for injuries sustained)? Shouldn’t it matter greatly whether a police officer said (a) that he meant to kill a suspect, or (b) that he did not mean to kill a suspect although the suspect did, in fact, die as a result of the officer’s conduct? The claim that intentions do not and should not matter is a notion that is bandied about casually in some circles. But it is an erroneous, vacuous, mischievous notion that a thoughtful person should abjure.

An important concept in Coates’s book is what he refers to as “The Dream.” He defines it only vaguely. He seems to intend for it to refer to a myth about the United States that he suspects that many Americans believe is real—the image of the noble, innocent, well-intentioned, generous country that is open, full of opportunity, and committed to liberty and justice for all. Coates tells his son:

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.

Those who believe in the Dream, Coates maintains, are not only misguided; they are dangerous. The Dreamers, he writes, “are pillaging Ferguson … they are torturing Muslims, and their drones are bombing wedding parties. … [The] Dreamers are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong. … The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition.”

Given the disparate nature of the acts noted, not to mention the variety of those engaging in the conduct he scorns, I am not at all sure about whom Coates is speaking when he refers to “Dreamers.” Sometimes he seems to be referring exclusively to whites. Hence he writes: “We [black folks] have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers [white folks] and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” In describing the depredations of Dreamers, however, Coates leaves unaddressed a puzzling ambiguity. After all, the person in control of the United States drones that have bombed wedding parties is a black American—President Barack Obama. Is he a Dreamer?

Elsewhere Coates has written trenchantly about Obama. He has lauded him, scolded him, and berated the president’s right-wing detractors. In Between the World and Me, however, he never mentions Obama (or, if he does, it is with vanishing brevity). Ignoring Obama fits with a central feature of Coates’s message: that despite apparent alterations in the racial demographics of power in America, despite Obama and Loretta Lynch, despite Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, despite Oprah and Jay-Z, the essential structure of American pigmentocracy remains intact, with whites (and honorary whites) on top. John Hope Franklin titled his great narrative of African American history From Slavery to Freedom. Coates sees the matter differently:

As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers … our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white.

Opposed to the notion that the Obama phenomenon reflects and reinforces a decisive discontinuity in America’s racial history, Coates simply ignores the president. But no portrayal of the current American racial scene is credible without an explanation of the selection and re-selection of a black chief executive by a predominantly white electorate. I am not arguing that the Obama presidency marked the end of white domination, or widespread discrimination, or extensive resentments against public policies perceived as helping a colored “them.” I am arguing, however, that Obama’s election exposes features of the society of which it is imperative that all Americans, including young African Americans, be aware.

One feature, happily, is an unprecedented opportunity for skilled African Americans, like Samori’s dad, to pursue ambitions that would have been ruthlessly thwarted previously. That in no way excuses the terrible plight faced by uneducated, unskilled, unemployed, impoverished, traumatized blacks consigned to dangerous, isolated, neglected areas like Ferguson and West Baltimore. The unprecedented opportunities available to affluent or middle-class African Americans, however, complicate a picture that Coates simplifies unduly. Simplification to some extent is always required to convey a point. But Coates reduces too much and too one-sidedly. He prides himself on being a realist. Here he has become a caricaturist. 

Racial sentiment is, to be sure, a major force in American life. It is not, however, the exclusive explanation of discord, unfairness, or tragedy. Coates sometimes writes as if race—or, more precisely, white domination—was the master variable that accounted for all that goes wrong for black Americans. Consider the single event about which Coates writes most searingly: the death of his Howard University schoolmate Prince Jones. Coates notes that the cop who killed Jones was black and that blacks were among the authorities who oversaw the local police department and thus presumably played a role in the decision to forgo prosecuting the officer. Under those circumstances, it seems that one seeking to understand what happened might consider explanations that are not immediately or directly racial in character: excessive decentralization of police authority; policies that give undue leeway to police officers to resort to deadly force; incentives that dissuade prosecutors from bringing criminal actions against police even when strong evidence points to criminal wrongdoing; misinformation that encourages electorates of all racial backgrounds to be far too accepting of police malfeasance. Coates pictures the killing of Jones, however, as a direct deployment of homicidal white power. After pointing out that Jones’s killer was a black cop, Coates proceeds to discuss the case as if it was a simple replication of more familiar scenarios in which it is a white cop perpetrator who does the killing:

The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers. … And the premise that allows for these killing fields—the reduction of the black body—is no different than the premise that allowed for the murder of Prince Jones. The Dream of acting white, of talking white, of being white, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in Chicago with frightening regularity. … The same hands that drew red lines around the life of Prince Jones drew red lines around the ghetto.

Coates offers no evidence to suggest that a hankering to act white, talk white, or be white had anything to do with the shooting of Prince Jones. Nor does he offer any evidence to suggest that a racist devaluation of black life prompted or facilitated this black officer’s egregiously wayward conduct. The possibility that the offending cop was a dangerously bad officer who posed a threat to everyone, regardless of race, is not a hypothesis that Coates seems to have considered for even a moment.

Coates is right to focus on the relationship between white racism and black-on-black violence. Withholding the protection of law enforcement from African Americans, thus subjecting them to the criminality of black neighbors, has long been one of the cruelest manifestations of white dominance. Of course, black police officers can and do enact anti-black scripts that they have internalized. That is a possibility warranting attention. But it is only a possibility among others. Coates doesn’t even consider alternatives. He writes that “‘black-on-black crime’ is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the [really restrictive] covenants, who fixed the [racially discriminatory] loans, who planned the [racially isolating] projects.” He insists that behind apparent black racial pathology is the omnipresent reality of white domination—in this instance an act of white supremacy carried out by a black marionette. “To yell ‘black on black crime,’” he contends, “is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”

A difficulty with attributing this much influence to white folks is that doing so negates the will of black folks. This brings to mind Ralph Ellison’s critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma. Myrdal averred that “the Negro’s entire life and, consequently, also his opinions … are, in the main, to be considered as secondary reactions to more primary pressures from the side of the dominant white majority.” Objecting to this formulation, Ellison asked:

Can a people … live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting? Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them? Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs; why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white men’s dilemma?

Echoing Ellison, I maintain that within the confines of a still-racist America, blacks—including black cops—have the wherewithal to do bad things that are not properly attributable to white racism. Just as blacks have done wonderful things independently of white domination—consider the blues, gospel, jazz, and rap—so, too, have blacks done dastardly things independently of white domination. Consider bigotry by African Americans that cannot properly be excused as mere black imitations of white folks’ vices.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is smart, energetic, and insightful. I anticipate reading his work in the months and years to come. I hope and expect that it will be better than this overpraised epistle. 

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