The three topics you are not supposed to discuss when engaging in small talk are politics, religion, and sex. I find it strange that race is not considered a fourth, though upon further reflection there are likely two reasons it is not: 1) race is inextricably linked to all three anyway, so it may well be redundant to include race on that list, and 2) race is a subject we — and by “we” I mean whites like myself, since I can speak from no other perspective here — tend to suppress quite automatically (consciously or not). In other words, to discuss race is to ask for a difficult conversation, so better to not discuss it at all if you want to be polite; or, if you must discuss it, speak in agreeable platitudes only once you have ascertained you already have the same opinion as the person you are speaking to; or, if you have an axe to grind (particularly when speaking to someone of another race), reduce the terms used in the conversation until they have been simplified to the point that they can make you feel invulnerable to attack from the other person.
That last (very long) sentence is more or less what played out over and over (and over) during the 2016 US presidential election; there were at least two or three dozen debates featuring candidates, thousands of debates featuring analysts and pundits on cable news, and millions of debates among the citizenry, but there was no dialogue — only noise and a refusal by everyone involved to look reality in the eye. I must plead completely guilty here, at least in the following respect: I didn’t know anyone in my day-to-day life who was for Trump, so I didn’t think a Donald Trump presidency was possible. My reality was not actually reality, and now I feel vaguely guilty about it — not because I thought of Trump supporters as lesser (we’re all Americans here), but because I didn’t actually know any of them. To me, they were an entirely external threat, found only in pixel form on electronic screens: my TV, my laptop, or my phone. Forget shared nationality — there was no shared humanity, and that absence does sting my pride; I wish I had at least talked to Trump voters about the election before election day to try to understand them.
The winning campaign slogan may have been “Make America Great Again” — an appeal to nationalism, obviously — but there were so many dog-whistle tactics employed by Trump’s campaign I was surprised they didn’t ditch the official handle for “Make White America Great Again.” My head still cannot comprehend that the same country that elected Barack Obama twice would then turn around and vote for a bullshitter like Trump who preys — even after the election — upon white people’s anxieties about people of other races and ethnicities living both at home and abroad. Something worth pointing out that is essential to any analysis of this, though, is that for the most part these white people do not actually know or live among any of the “others” Trump was frequently targeting with his rhetoric. Let’s be real here: How many Muslims do Trump voters in white America actually know? Do they see them? Ever? Would banning them from entering the country really change their day-to-day lives one iota?
Let’s examine other minority groups: Does black-on-black crime in inner cities actually affect white people in rural areas? And who exactly would pick all our fruits and vegetables if undocumented Hispanic/Latin American immigrants did not? Are the whites who are complaining that manufacturing jobs have left the country and that there’s no work for them willing to step in and pick fruits and vegetables if the illegal immigrants were suddenly sent home? I suppose I should stop playing 20 rhetorical questions and get into the meat of it. Donald Trump was not elected president of the United States solely because of his dog-whistle tactics, but for the purposes of this essay, I will use the racial angle of his campaign to frame the rest of what you will read below in my discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. There are three reasons why I am choosing to do this: 1) the election is current and therefore relevant (plus I would end up referencing it anyway), 2) Between the World and Me itself was written in reaction to current racial tensions, and 3) Coates himself just interviewed President Obama about the end of his presidency for The Atlantic, so everything dovetails together nicely that way.
I first became acquainted with Ta-Nehisi Coates when The Atlantic published a lengthy diatribe of his called “The Case for Reparations,” which made national headlines back in mid-2014. I didn’t read it at the time — or if I did make an attempt, I have forgotten that I did. Looking over it now, I find it entirely unconvincing; in fact, reading over it just now revealed something I couldn’t quite put my finger on as I was reading his astonishing new book Between the World and Me. The problem I have with Coates’s perspective is that he believes his worldview to be self-evident. His visceral writing focuses on the pain, joy, and various emotions created by his world, which to a white person makes him a fresh voice — and, unexpectedly and bafflingly to Coates, a sort of celebrity among hipsters who have now claimed him as the writer to read to learn about being black — but when he confronts the root causes, he comes up somewhat short.
Not that “The Case for Reparations” isn’t worth reading, but Coates leaves no stone unturned in terms of examining every angle to which blacks have been wronged (and continue to be wronged) throughout this country’s history, and it devolves into a never-ending litany of the visceral nature of black oppression and injustice. That may seem like a strange criticism for me to make, but the problem is Coates never actually pushes out and extends any of it into an argument as to why and how reparations should be made — he’s more interested in the emotion, not the argument. And to be clear, being interested in the emotion is fine — raising awareness of the plight of black Americans is certainly worthwhile — but the article is misleading in that sense, since it doesn’t explore the logic beyond “African Americans have been the subject of sustained systematic suffering dating back from before this country was even a country.” We knew that already, and no one would disagree with it. (Perhaps Coates would say otherwise, however.)
The leap to the use of reparations as a method of righting those wrongs is one that requires quite a detailed logical construct in order be effected as policy; Coates never really provides one, so in that sense, the article is a disappointment and has a rather misleading title. Again, he is more concerned with making sure the world understands how unfair and unjust the African American experience is and has been dating back across centuries. And he does so excellently, but the logic of how reparations would be doled out remains unexplored, though he does look at the case of what the Germans did for the new Israeli state after the Holocaust. Tellingly, he never mentions that the United States did give out reparations to Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps here during World War II. This, however, was a much different case: It was the United States government that ordered the Japanese Americans rounded up and put in internment camps, so the blame could easily be placed on one guilty party — the same one with the power to rectify the wrong. That’s a cut-and-dried case.
In the case of African Americans, blame is totally decentralized, with slavery’s perpetrators many — and long since dead. Were African Americans slaves during this country’s history? Yes, and that’s a despicable wrong — but it’s there that the (ethically) black-and-white nature of discussing the subject of race, slavery, and the African American experience ends. There were many guilty parties in the slave trade, not the least of which were ruling Africans who took a break from genocide to instead sell the conquered and captured to European traders. When Coates refers to the Middle Passage — the voyage all slaves took across the Atlantic Ocean — in both “The Case for Reparations” and Between the World and Me, he speaks of it strictly from the perspective of victimhood. Again, I am not saying that articulating this pain to such an eloquent degree is in any way less than noble, but Coates is exploring emotion, not logic. (If you are making a case for reparations, it has to eventually take the form of, you know, an actual case.) Even when he goes into detail about discriminatory housing policies in “Reparations,” he focuses on the emotional effects.
What “The Case for Reparations” is decidedly not is a detailed proposal for who would pay, how they would pay, when they would pay, how much they would pay, and to whom they would pay. To me, this is where the rubber meets the road. Disappointingly, Coates never gets into any of these many variables at all; it’s powerful writing, but it’s more or less an entirely impractical document because he’s entirely concerned with the “why they should pay.” On the surface, this should be enough — his article is called “The Case for Reparations” — but he isn’t really saying anything new; he’s just taking all of the many legitimate grievances of African Americans and fusing them into one powerful, cogent document. But it’s never anything more than surface: he spends the entire piece addressing the problem without ever providing a solution. The debate about reparations, to me, is entirely about providing a road map for how reparations would occur, and then justifying that road map. That’s where the why comes in.
In a sense, Coates and I are talking (or perhaps thinking) past each other: I think the problem is self-evident, and he thinks the solution is self-evident. Perhaps he doesn’t give white people enough credit — to me, blacks have been wronged, and continue to be wronged, in explicit and implicit, and sometimes despicable, ways — or maybe he has another half to his manifesto tucked away for now that would specifically address what exactly the solution would look like, and he was waiting for the world to absorb this half first. (Speaking of manifestos, if you actually read The Communist Manifesto, you’ll notice that Marx is a lot more interested in complaining about the evils of capitalism than he is in extolling the virtues of communism; like Coates, he cared much more about the problem than the solution.) But the devil is in the details, and with reparations, this is especially true. I am sympathetic to reparations — slavery, racism, discrimination, and the resulting African American experience is a singularly unbearable weight for a country to bear — but I am ultimately against them. Right now, the case for reparations remains entirely vague and without shape.
Let’s take a look at the aforementioned variables that Coates ultimately declines to address. First, who would pay? The American government itself did not enslave anyone, it just allowed for enslavement to take place. Can you assign blame to an adolescent who can step in to stop torture but opts not to in order to ensure his or her own self-preservation? It’s a fair analogy in my estimation (can you honestly argue that’s not what essentially happened during the early years of our country?). The American government is also the only body that has survived slavery’s demise — the actual bodies of the slaveholders have long since returned to the dirt. Should their contemporary descendants — who have never actually owned slaves — be forced to pay for the sins of their forebears? Ethically, perhaps, but the legal system would never allow for such an unconstitutional measure, nor should it — it’s a violation of an individual’s rights to hold him or her responsible for something he or she did not do.
Obviously, this argument is not without irony — this is a discussion about slavery, an institution that denied its victims access to the same rights we (including descendants of slaves) now enjoy. It would seem somewhat unjust and cheap if these rights prevented reparations from occurring, but it’s a circle that, on a purely logical level, appears impossible to ever square. Once you get started with the actual process of shaping what a policy of reparations would look like, it becomes an endless web of options that can only be considered ethically murky at best. Perhaps, in Coates’s mind, it is actually a cut-and-dried issue: the American federal government should pay, and they should pay anyone who can prove they have one drop of African DNA. After all, there was once a “one-drop rule” when it came to racial classification — one drop of African blood, and you were black. Maybe it would be better to let him speak for himself and patch together a makeshift quote from toward the end of his work:
Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken.
The crime with which reparations activists charge the country implicates more than just a few towns or corporations. The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.
No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
I agree that we should have a debate, and our representatives in government should have it. But what is the case for reparations? Coates does not actually provide it. Instead, he provides the case for why we should have a debate about reparations. Which is fine, but change the title next time. I find it pretty curious that the piece received so much praise and publicity, since Coates never actually articulates what form reparations should take; and it’s the form, not the debate, that is the roadblock to reparations. (I certainly find Coates’s notion that reparations are a necessary symbolic gesture to be pretty ridiculous.) On paper, determining whether you are for or against reparations comes first, but this isn’t really the case in practice. This is how I would imagine a debate between Coates and me playing out: “So are you for or against reparations?” “Depends. How would that work exactly in terms of who would be held responsible? And what would be the scope of what they would be held responsible for? Also, who would be entitled to reparations and how much would they get?” The reparations debate is not a simple yes or no question — the how is more important than the why. The how must first be determined, and then the why must be determined to justify that how.
Coates’s strength as a writer is in making the painful plight of his race in the United States viscerally felt — he transfigures, with remarkable skill, what exists only in the abstract for the ignorant into something concretely real for the reader. This is what gives his writing such emotional depth and power. The problem is, actually making the case for reparations requires doing the opposite. Any legal or policy matter begins with gathering grievances that have happened or are happening — establishing them as facts — and then forming a working logical construct that can prove that a particular party is at fault. Then that logical construct must be tested against the framework of the United States Constitution. If lawmakers perceive it will pass that test, they draft a bill to be voted on by members of Congress. If the bill receives enough votes in both the House and Senate, it gets sent to the president’s desk, where he then signs it into law (unless he doesn’t want it to become law). That’s a lot of steps. The ones toward the end can only be carried out by elected officials, but Coates doesn’t do much of anything to bridge the early steps and the later ones. He only really does the first, actually, by presenting grievances, and instead suggests others should do the work of the second and third steps. To me, the second and third steps — forming a logical construct and then testing it against the Constitution — are the meat of any serious case for reparations.
Furthermore, there are many aspects of this that are thorny from a legal point of view. For example, above Coates continually refers to slavery as a crime. At the risk of sounding outrageous, I simply disagree. It was a moral crime, yes, but it certainly was not a legal one during the Colonial or post-Revolution periods of antebellum American history. It was perfectly and plainly legal to own slaves until, one day, it wasn’t. I do not agree that people can be held legally responsible for something that was not illegal. And if a reparations lawsuit is brought against the government itself instead, I’m not sure damages would really be justified in that case, either. Slavery was detested by many of the founders (like John Adams, for instance), but they recognized it was more important for the survival of our country to deal with the issue later. (First, the country needed to be founded, plain and simple.) After several decades of compromises, we finally went to war over slavery, where mostly whites shot each other to pieces and died of disease. I’ve never really thought about it (or discussed it with someone black), but there is and always has been an implicit understanding in our race relations, I suppose, that blacks get to live free here as a result of northern white heroism. (I’m sure if you tried hard enough you could find whites who believe blacks should not receive reparations because if not for whites, they would not have been rescued, or something to that patronizing effect.)
Abraham Lincoln himself said at the time he would keep slavery, as much as he hated it, if it meant keeping the Union whole. Keeping slavery for as long as we did was a matter of pragmatism, and above all, the government must always be pragmatic if it is to function in any useful way. It is all too easy these days to think it is the natural order of life to arrange itself in a civilized manner that always bends toward justice and dignity. The third world plainly demonstrates this is not the case, and so does much of human history. It is hard to conceive now that our way of life was built upon something so inherently corrupt and dehumanizing, but to look away from it is to deny the truth that the world is an unfair and miserable place, by and large. It is through our institutions that we fight back against this harsh reality. Countries with strong economies, culture, and freedoms have built-in institutions that emphasize these values — and citizens make the institutions stronger by believing in them. This is how corruption is curtailed, civil war is eliminated, and nationhood is achieved.
Decades before the Civil War came about, our founders put forth a blueprint for a liberal democratic republic, and the new country’s citizens bought in, setting the tone for our nation’s institutions and values. Over time, however, many citizens realized slavery was logically inconsistent (to say the least) with the language of the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution and the abolitionist movement began, followed by a slew of free-state/slave-state compromises. In other words, time and again the government favored the preservation of the Union through compromise over abolishing slavery outright. I simply do not think this is a punishable offense — not even on a moral level. The state — even one of, for, and by the people — has a responsibility to keep itself whole by whatever means necessary. Clearly, the division among the people over the issue of slavery proved too deep, and compromise ultimately failed. But we had to try. Otherwise the South would have walked and we would have found ourselves in a civil war anyway. (Though it’s a bit scary to think how some of those awful pre-Lincoln presidents would have handled that situation. Slavery and the Confederacy might have lasted much longer or even still exist today.)
Just as it was no guarantee that the disease of slavery would actually be eradicated from our nation, it certainly was not a sure thing that America would survive at all, much less thrive. America was still expanding westward and was not even close to being a world power at the time of the Civil War, though its economy was picking up steam. Nowadays it is easy to think of America as inevitable, yet this is hardly the case. What was inevitable was a war over slavery; the South was so dug in on it that the Civil War really had to be fought. Which brings us back to the subject of reparations. I suppose I have a more utilitarian view than Mr. Coates does: I do not think the government should be held responsible for slavery when the only reason they held on to it was to keep the country from splitting up. When the South seceded anyway, the North then fought a war — which, remember, it didn’t actually have to fight — in order to bring the South back and end slavery in one fell swoop. In that respect, the United States bent over backwards to end slavery, so it’s somewhat difficult for me to understand how or why the government itself would be liable for damages.
As for the citizens who owned slaves, I’m not seeing how they could be held liable either, since they’re dead. The Constitution effectively protects their non-slave-owning descendants from liability for something they are not individually responsible for. Our entire legal system is based on precedent, and that would set such a dangerous precedent that the unintended consequences would be far-reaching and profound. As cold and hard as that truth is, it’s precisely what infuriates so many about the justice system more broadly. Which brings me, finally, to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent bestseller Between the World and Me. You might be wondering why I am recommending it after spending some 3,000 words mostly criticizing the author and his point of view. Here’s why I think it’s a great book: it’s presented as a letter to his son. Not a new concept, of course, but it plays entirely to his strength as a writer — in this format, he is simply expressing his perspective and how he acquired it. He may be treading familiar territory in terms of subject matter, but unlike with “The Case for Reparations,” there is no burden in the book to provide a case; he is simply explaining to his son, in careful and measured detail, what their world is.
What spurred him to write this letter? As Coates describes in the beginning of Between the World and Me, his son followed the news about the police officer on trial for the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and ran to his room crying when the officer received a not guilty verdict. As Coates watched his teenage son cry, he realized the difference between them: Coates’s son had escaped the reality Coates himself had to face when he was the same age, and this was his son’s first real exposure to that reality. Considering the distance involved — his son had now just perceived this reality through a TV, within the friendly confines of their home — Coates felt a more intimate exposure was required, and so, since he is a writer, he found himself writing a letter to him. (Whether it was always something he intended to publish is not something I know.) As books go, this one is fairly short — I finished it in a matter of hours after buying it at an airport and reading it on a plane. If you find yourself in the same situation, take the time to do the same.
Frankly, this is a profound document. One of my earlier criticisms of “The Case for Reparations” is Coates’s conviction that his worldview is self-evident. That made him come up short in that space, but it allows him to shine in Between the World and Me, since he utilizes his powerful prose to talk about mostly his own experiences — which are riveting to read. Ta-Nehisi Coates is from West Baltimore, one of the most dangerous and crime-filled places in the country. The details of his childhood are rendered terrifyingly here. For example, fans of the fourth season of The Wire in particular will find his description of public school to be downright chilling, since they will be able to visualize the following better than those who have not seen the series:
The streets were not my only problem. If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later. I suffered at the hands of both, but I resent the schools more. There was nothing sanctified about the streets — the laws were amoral and practical. You rolled with a posse to the party as sure as you wore boots in the snow, or raised an umbrella in the rain. These were rules aimed at something obvious — the great danger that haunted every visit to Shake & Bake, every bus ride downtown. But the laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to, as our elders told us, “grow up and be somebody”? And what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline? To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly. Educated children walked in single file on the right side of the hallway, raised their hands to use the lavatory, and carried the lavatory pass when en route. Educated children never offered excuses — certainly not childhood itself. The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools? Algebra, Biology, and English were not subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines, copying the directions legibly, memorizing theorems extracted from the world they were created to represent. All of it felt so distant to me. I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea why I was there. I did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would. France was a rock rotating in another galaxy, around another sun, in another sky that I would never cross. Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom?
The question was never answered. I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers. But I cannot say that I truly believed any of them. … I sensed the schools were hiding something, drugging us with false morality so that we would not see, so that we would not ask: Why — for us and only us — is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies? This is not a hyperbolic concern. When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not, and while I couldn’t crunch the numbers or plumb the history back then, I sensed that the fear that marked West Baltimore could not be explained by the schools. Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them. Perhaps they must be burned away so that the heart of this thing might be known.
An astonishing autobiographical slice, that’s for sure. You probably noticed above that Coates constantly refers to “the body” and its destruction or some such; it more or less forms the core of his rhetoric. I could provide more quotes, but I don’t think doing so is really necessary — it quickly becomes apparent as you read through the book that this rhetoric stems from survival. As Coates makes plain, in his childhood nothing was abstract; Coates’s world was entirely physical, his reality hyper-concrete. Fail to adapt and you fail to survive. By referring to himself as “my body,” he objectifies himself, revealing the many ways he has been the object of oppression, hate, brutality, and God knows what else. Obviously, he is not alone in his suffering — other blacks exist too, and their bodies regularly come under attack. He touches on all that and more throughout Between the World and Me, drawing an effective parallel between the slaves of centuries past and their modern-day descendants. If enslaved Africans in antebellum America did not work, the result was death; in contemporary West Baltimore, if African Americans fail to find work the result is usually imprisonment or death.
Given this, it’s a wonder Coates escaped and eventually learned to write so eloquently. His father worked in the library at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., so from a fairly young age Coates was introduced to black thinkers through their literature and written works. That right there explains a lot — West Baltimore schooling was useless to Coates, but he was able to form his own curriculum and chase his own curiosities with the guidance and encouragement of his parents. By the time Coates had graduated from high school, he had fully embraced Malcolm X as his intellectual idol. After high school, Coates enrolled at Howard, but he found himself much more interested in spending time in the library — he had unfettered access now that he did not have before when he had to get them through his dad — than in the classroom. Unsurprisingly, he would later drop out, but before he did so he spent his time devouring book after book and developing as a person. He describes, in intimate detail, what it was like to be a part of “The Mecca,” the campus at Howard that functions as the center of African American culture. (As he puts it, Howard itself is not The Mecca, but The Mecca can be found at Howard.)
The student body was from all over the country — from all over the world — and to a kid who had only lived in West Baltimore, this was nothing short of awesome to experience. In a section at the heart of campus known as “The Yard,” he saw strands of blackness from all over the world weave into something beautiful before his very eyes. Kids would debate each other, learn from each other, play with each other — it was a fully realized center of learning. Still, the classroom proved too limiting, and Coates eventually left Howard without a degree. The personal curriculum he pursued in the library didn’t go as expected either: his search for answers only revealed more questions. And contradictions, too — the African American scholars and thinkers he read never seemed to agree on anything, much less put forward a unifying theory. Upon exiting Howard, Coates went to work as a journalist, where he had to submit his work to white editors. It was the first time he had ever really had in-depth contact with anyone white, and he was surprised to find they valued his perspective and supported his work.
Before leaving Howard University, however, the woman who would later become his wife (and the mother to his son) came into his life. Before that happened, however, there was another girl at Howard he loved and who opened up the world to him by taking care of Coates one time when he was sick. Almost in passing, he mentions her boyfriend at the time, Prince Jones, and expresses his approval of him, describing him as the type of person who brightens up a room or something to that effect. Later, he recounts how he was stopped by the police one night when he was driving through Prince George’s County, the county in Maryland east of Washington. Through his work as a reporter, he was well aware of tensions between blacks in PG County and the police there, and at the time there had been the kind of police shootings of blacks that we’re seeing now, just without any of it captured with cell phone cameras. The officer asked for his license, took it, and walked back to his car. Coates powerlessly sat there, paralyzed by fear. A few minutes later the officer returned, handed his driver’s license back to him, walked back to his squad car, and drove away without ever explaining why he had stopped him.
Not long afterward, he saw on the news that a young African American man in northern Virginia had been shot and killed by a Prince George’s County police officer who had followed him all the way there. It caused an uproar in the DC metro area, especially when it was revealed the victim was a student at Howard, which obviously got Coates’s attention. When the name of the victim was revealed, Coates was stunned that it was his friend Prince Jones, who was 25 and on the verge of completing his studies. He wonders — quite angrily — what made him so lucky that night he was stopped by the cop. I suppose I’d feel existentially frustrated too if my fate were in the hands of white cops who wouldn’t be held responsible if they shot me or people I cared about. In the case of the officer who killed Prince Jones, though, he was black and was not held criminally responsible, although he was found liable in a civil suit several years later.
It was around this time that Coates, his wife, and their newborn son moved to New York City. I don’t recall him mentioning in Between the World and Me what his wife did/does in terms of work, but his own career description at the time was “I was trying to be a writer,” and he found himself pitching ideas to publications and publishers around town almost entirely without success. He even mentions that his earnings as a freelance writer were so meager he only earned enough to pay for two electric bills a year. (Unfortunately, some things never change — there never has been much money in writing.) Mere months after arriving in New York, 9/11 happened, and his account is essential reading:
We arrived two months before September 11, 2001. I suppose everyone who was in New York that day has a story. Here is mine: That evening, I stood on the roof of an apartment building with your mother, your aunt Chana, and her boyfriend, Jamal. So we were there on the roof, talking and taking in the sight — great plumes of smoke covered Manhattan Island. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who was missing. But looking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own. The officer who killed Prince Jones, like all the officers who regard us so warily, was the sword of the American citizenry. I would never consider any American citizen pure. I was out of sync with the city. I kept thinking about how southern Manhattan had always been Ground Zero for us. They auctioned our bodies down there, in that same devastated, and rightly named, financial district. And there was once a burial ground for the auctioned there. They built a department store over part of it and then tried to erect a government building over another part. Only a community of right-thinking black people stopped them. I had not formed any of this into a coherent theory. But I did know that Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city. I never forgot that. Neither should you. In the days after, I watched the ridiculous pageantry of flags, the machismo of firemen, the overwrought slogans. Damn it all. Prince Jones was dead. And hell upon those who tell us to be twice as good and shoot us no matter. Hell for ancestral fear that put black parents under terror. And hell upon those who shatter the holy vessel.
I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.
I saw Prince Jones, one last time, alive and whole. He was standing in front of me. We were in a museum. I felt in that moment that his death was had just been an awful dream. No, a premonition. But I had a chance. I would warn him. I walked over, gave him a pound, and felt that heat of the spectrum, the warmth of The Mecca. I wanted to tell him something. I wanted to say — Beware the plunderer. But when I opened my mouth, he just shook his head and walked away.
My own perspective that day could not have been more different. I was 13, attending an almost entirely white, somewhat elitist, and definitely expensive private school in Severna Park, Maryland. Severna Park is in Anne Arundel County, which is directly east of Prince George’s County and directly south of Baltimore County. Frankly, anyone in that part of Maryland with money lives in Anne Arundel County. It consists entirely of suburbs of both Baltimore and Washington; lots of people who live there commute to those cities for work. PG County was always a place to be avoided, but for us it had nothing to do with police brutality. Instead, it was because “it wasn’t a good area.” Obviously, this is just code among white people for “it’s a low-income area full of black people.” When I was sitting on the plane reading Between the World and Me, I had to stifle a guffaw when Coates mentions PG County as a place where blacks with money lived — I suppose it’s all relative, unfortunately — and tried to participate in what he repeatedly refers to as the “Dream.”
When Coates was growing up, the only exposure he had to the world outside West Baltimore was through his television, where he would see a dream world — via sitcoms and other shows — that to him could not possibly exist. According to Coates, it’s this Dream that is at the root of black suffering. The Dream was created by white people, and white people themselves, in Coates’s mind at least, do not exist. Rather, they only believe themselves to be white. From a certain perspective, he has a point — the white identity only formed once people who were formerly considered something else (English, Irish, Italian, Polish, etc.) moved here. He also asserts that “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism — the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them — inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.” However, he insists that “race is the child of racism, not the father” and because of this, whites are actually a “new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
I appreciate his perspective, but this assessment is mostly bullshit. Again, Coates believes his worldview to be self-evident. This isn’t a problem when he’s simply describing how he developed this worldview (since it’s fascinating to read about that), but where I take issue with some of his perspective is when it doesn’t actually align with reality. For example, Americans believe race is a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world because science backs up that it is. We know that geographic isolation results in differences emerging over time among species; that’s just how evolution works. Given the relatively limited amount of time involved, the differences that resulted among our ancestors in Africa, Europe, and Asia were only skin-deep and superficial. No scientist would argue that, broadly speaking, these races did not develop. Coates’s point of view, by contrast, is an entirely sociological perspective. Obviously, as a white male with no minority status, I’m seeing this from the opposite side, but I can’t meet him halfway here.
Speaking of which, as someone who believes himself to be white, I only do so because it’s just easier — it’s a matter of convenience, not superiority. I once nearly laughed out loud when a college professor I had (a white one) referred to whites as European Americans, since I had never heard anyone say that before and I honestly had never even thought about it. In her case, she was just being overly politically correct, but even if we did not use “black” or “white” to describe ourselves and strictly used “African American” or “European American” instead, we would still be grouping each other into races. And it’s the grouping that Coates has a problem with, since those who could claim European descent (and only European descent) began calling themselves white only once they arrived in America and were faced with living among those of African descent. And he has a point. For example, this thinking did translate into policy in pretty despicable ways during the Jim Crow era in particular — images of bathrooms and drinking fountains divided into “colored” and “white” have always elicited an involuntary grimace when I have seen them, I must admit.
But let’s be real here: humans have always had a problem with “otherness,” and have looked for excuses to put their own group ahead of other groups. Often, it has nothing to do with race. For instance, Scottish people in the lowlands feuded with those in the highlands, and eventually moved to Northern Ireland, where today they are referred to as “Scots-Irish.” (Barack Obama’s maternal ancestors were Scots-Irish, for example.) In that case, those two groups were of the same race and in the same country, yet they still feuded. And, obviously, the amount of blood that has been shed in the internecine Sunni Islam vs. Shia Islam wars over more than a millennium could fill an Olympic swimming pool many times over. It’s just a fact of life that groups assert superiority over other groups, sadly. Which brings me all the way back to how I began this essay: with the election of Donald Trump. What I find strange about the post-election analysis from Republicans — at least the smug ones — is their insistence that “Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Democrats have been playing identity politics and the American people sent a message loud and clear that they are sick of it” or something to that effect.
To me, it’s the Republicans and Trump in particular who clearly appealed to white identity and made it an election of identity politics. Yes, the Democrats may have made a more conscious effort to get votes from minorities, but it’s not like they went around saying to them, “Hey, do it for your race! Vote for us!” That’s just ridiculous. Democrats simply focus a lot of attention on minorities to get them to actually show up on election day — and for good reason. In places like Detroit and Milwaukee, many more blacks stayed home compared to 2012 and 2008, single-handedly costing Hillary Clinton Michigan and Wisconsin. If anything, Democrats want to build a multi-racial coalition that paves the way toward a future when, just maybe, we can live in the kind of post-racial world that unfortunately did not arrive with the election of Barack Obama. (Tellingly, according to exit polling, if only millennial votes counted Hillary Clinton would have gotten 496 electoral votes. The future is clearly not what Trump and the Republican Party currently represent.) That Trump managed to win largely by appealing to white identity — and whites’ perceived loss of status in America’s economy and its everyday life — is incredibly disconcerting.
The fact is, whites have always steadfastly believed that there has always been a place for them in what Coates refers to as the Dream throughout Between the World and Me. They believed if they worked hard and if they just believed in America that their place in the Dream was assured. This meant a reasonably good job, a reasonably nice house, a reasonably nice car, and the confidence their children would find the country in better shape than their parents found it. More than anything, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan referred to this in particular. To those who felt the Dream no longer existed for them, Trump was offering a lifeline in the form of magically reinstating something that has been steadily eroded by the forces of globalization and, frankly, cannot possibly come back. Perhaps someday America will return to the kind of preeminence and prosperity it enjoyed as a newly crowned superpower after World War II, but it still won’t be the same. I say this because I have witnessed this situation unfold up close while working in digital marketing these past several years. The economy has been rapidly shifting to a digital one, utilizing an internet and bottom line that effectively knows no borders. In other words, work gets increasingly outsourced to the lowest bidder.
For example, the Philippines has an entire industry called business processing outsourcing, or BPO, where Filipinos get paid wages as low as roughly $2 an hour to work in call centers for American or international companies. That may seem like a paltry amount to work for, but in the Philippines’ extremely weak economy, $2 an hour is substantially more than they would receive from a Filipino employer. I personally know someone my age there (she’s a fellow Incubus fan from Manila) who is able to support her entire family — parents, siblings, etc. — by working as a customer service representative in the BPO industry. She makes more than $2 an hour by now, but I’m sure you get the point: This kind of situation isn’t just the present, it’s the future. Many of the jobs that working-class whites could always depend on are simply not dependent on working-class whites having them. That’s an extremely bitter pill to have to swallow: even if working-class whites knew their chances of becoming truly wealthy were small, they took solace in knowing that they at least could participate in the Dream. Before, they could have a job, or even a house and a car. Now these jobs are hard to come by, many homes were foreclosed upon, and even cars are now frequently loaned at subprime rates. The Dream today is frequently a nightmare.
This is the true source of despair that fueled Trump’s rise: Trump voters want their Dream back. To be clear, they would never phrase it as, “As whites we’re entitled to something.” Instead, it’s closer to, “We didn’t do anything wrong to lose the status we used to have.” And they feel vaguely wronged because of it. That’s my read on the situation — it really is not white supremacy in that sense, although it certainly did not help that a few actual white supremacists came out in support of Trump, causing some to conflate the two groups. Instead, it’s disaffection caused mostly by genuine economic anxiety, and a shaken confidence in the American spirit that life is destined to improve. In this light, Coates’s broader point makes more sense: those of European descent have somehow convinced themselves they are a people that does not really exist, chasing after mythical lives that do not really exist. This is the Dream. I get where Coates is coming from, especially regarding a point I raised earlier that I left dangling until now: the Dream is the root of African American suffering.
The specifics of the day-to-day Dream life have changed over the centuries, but there is no doubt that when plantation owners bought African slaves, it was to leverage their labor so they wouldn’t have to do the back-breaking work themselves. Who knows what the plantation owners did with their time instead, but whatever they were doing, it was the 17th, 18th, and 19th century version of the Dream. After slavery was abolished, African Americans were denied access to the Dream in countless ways — via poor housing, education, employment — throughout the 20th century as the Dream took its new, modern shape. In order to do well financially, you typically need access to good education. Well, good schools tend to be in high-income areas. And in order to get access to a high income, you need a good job. Good jobs tend to go to people who had access to a good education. The Dream is a carousel already rapidly spinning — good luck jumping on without falling right back off it.
We are at an inflection point when it comes to the Dream and race relations. First, there is the presidency of Barack Obama. Frankly, Obama’s election virtually redefined the Dream, suggesting for the first time that it wasn’t just for white people. That, coupled with the Great Recession, exposed the Dream as a myth, at least for those who realized they were never really living in it. The knee-jerk vote for Donald Trump was an act of denial in response to an identity crisis. And then there are the police shootings, now caught on camera in the smartphone era. At one point in Between the World and Me, Coates vituperates, with quite a lot of conviction, that police are sent in to low-income/high-crime areas like West Baltimore to make sure blacks never escape, so that they never interfere with the Dream out in the suburbs. It doesn’t surprise me that it comes across that way to him. To be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about the specifics of any of the police shooting cases, including the Michael Brown one in Ferguson. What little I have gleaned has tended to all run together.
The case I did follow quite closely was the George Zimmerman shooting of Trayvon Martin, which technically doesn’t qualify as a police shooting since Zimmerman was just a neighborhood watch volunteer. (In other words, he was a loser who wanted to be a cop but knew he wouldn’t be able to cut it.) As the trial progressed, it quickly became evident to me that there was no way Zimmerman was going to be found guilty, and for a pretty simple reason: he wasn’t guilty. Oh, he was an asshole who, quite pathetically, got beat up by a teenager and shot that teenager once he realized he wasn’t going to win the fight. The problem was, Trayvon thought his life was in danger, so he likely wasn’t going to stop swinging. Zimmerman’s use of his gun to shoot Trayvon was therefore technically a perfectly justifiable use of self-defense — Florida’s infamous “stand-your-ground” law actually never even came into play during the trial. To find Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder there would just be ridiculous. (Not that I know anything about law, but why was he charged with second-degree murder and not manslaughter?)
Coates mentions the not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case in Between the World and Me, but only speaks to the anger he felt/still feels about the injustice of it. I disagree. It was a tragedy, yes, but it was not an injustice. There are two things that I haven’t mentioned about the case, and both are important: 1) Zimmerman, you may recall, was on the phone with a 911 operator during his initial pursuit of Trayvon. If he was thinking of murdering Trayvon, he certainly would not have called 911. (Hence why he was only charged with second-degree murder — it clearly wasn’t premeditated.) 2) Trayvon could have just run away. In fact, he did run away, disappearing into the night… and then for some unknown reason he came back and attacked Zimmerman, resulting in the fight that ended in Trayvon’s demise. When there is a criminal trial, the defendant must be found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt that they committed the specific crimes charged against him or her. The evidence to prove George Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder was insufficient, frankly.
I would never accuse the United States criminal justice system of being perfect — it plainly is not. And what George Zimmerman did was wrong. He should have gone back to his car and waited for the real police to arrive. But if they decided to, say, throw Zimmerman in jail anyway simply because he’s an asshole who killed a kid, the justice system would lose all integrity and would cease to function. In order for justice to be served, crimes must be specific, not vague. It’s not enough to say, “Well, what this person did was wrong, so he should go to jail anyway.” You just can’t have that. Anyone with any wisdom on this subject will readily admit that justice is an imperfect enterprise, and that the United States criminal justice system itself is even more imperfect. With each case presented before the court, the exercise is to essentially decide on which side to err, since a trial is merely a pursuit of the truth. Serving on a jury can be a heavy burden in that respect — someone’s life is in your hands, and you’re deciding on which side to err. Not exactly a fun responsibility.
The fact that a verdict is rendered gives the appearance that the nature of the justice system is absolute, but this just isn’t the case in practice. In the end, a judge or a jury is essentially just making their best guess based on the evidence and arguments provided. In that sense, a verdict is rendered without certainty; it’s an inherently imperfect interpretation of the law. This is where I find that both “The Case for Reparations” and Between the World and Me come up short: I don’t get the sense that Coates actually understands that our justice system isn’t really absolute. Or if he does, he thinks that’s what’s wrong with it. I have no idea if any of these police officers should have been found guilty or not. Like I mentioned earlier, I quickly became so fatigued by all the different cases that emerged that I didn’t follow any particular one closely. I respect Coates’s feelings on the subject: to him, it’s an obvious wrong that police are shooting unarmed black people. I just respect the justice system we have more — if a crime cannot be proven beyond all reasonable doubt, then the defendant should be found not guilty.
I find it interesting that in the quote I provided earlier from “The Case for Reparations,” Coates writes, “No one can know what would come of such a debate.” To me, the debate should be had about the justice system itself, which is in need of reform. Anyone who has seen the Making a Murderer documentary series on Netflix will agree with that. If you have seen the series, you will certainly recall the disturbing manner in which a confession is coerced out of a learning-disabled sixteen-year-old kid by an investigator hired by his own lawyer. I was shocked to learn recently that over eighty percent of people charged with a crime cannot afford an attorney and must rely on a public defender, like in the case of that sixteen-year-old kid. Given that the prosecution has a blank check to make their case against the defendant, it’s not at all surprising that a public defender who is given no money or means by his or her client to build a strong enough case to ensure a not guilty verdict would insist on having his or her client take a guilty plea for a much shorter sentence. Justice is for the wealthy, sadly — and African Americans tend to not be wealthy.
All of this is a rather long way of saying that if reparations are to be properly justified, the justice system itself would need to be reformed in major ways first. Considering there is certainly enough sympathy for reparations and a general will to correct the wrong of slavery, it’s foreseeable that someday a proper case for reparations will be made. But first reforms are needed, awareness must be raised, and debates must be held. Between the World and Me is a particularly magnificent document of the effects of bad policy and imperfect institutions. I’m actually heartened that there has been such an interest in the book, since if everyone read it, we would have a much more interesting national dialogue. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s quite short and takes a matter of hours to read. Ta-Nehisi Coates may not have entirely convinced me of his intellectual perspective, but his book allowed me to understand the African American experience like never before, which may just be better.