The US government is quick to acknowledge and disdain ethnic divisions that have spurred civil conflict throughout the world; however, we fail to confront seriously the ethnic divisions in our own home. Although we may not have had any ethnic cleansing in the US, we have had and continue to have contemptuous practices that put to shame our status as a developed nation. Both race and color are difficult topics for anyone to discuss. All of us are touched by these issues and we cannot escape the ramifications of the labels that have been placed on us. America, unlike other countries of the world, identify people based on race and not nationality. Groups in the minority will always fare worse than the majority. As a result, no matter how much we try to see people as individuals, the issue of color is always looming overhead. We have had over four hundred years of this classification, without escape. Honestly, but unfortunately, I notice race when I first meet someone. It’s not to discriminate, but it’s an identification marker. Moreover, race is especially a big issue for me because my brother was the victim of a racial incident in Connecticut twenty years ago. He was severely attacked because of a relationship that he had with a white woman. Amazingly, he was able to move on and work through the issues that the attack caused. I also on many occasions have been questioned by whites when I have been the only person of color at an event. I have been asked whether I had a ticket to attend the event. I have been asked what I do for a living when shopping at a high-end store. These questions are all based on race. Many of us have read many articles on race relations. Some we agree with and others we discard. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and the author of Between the World and Me, has put forth his theory on race relations in America.
When I received my copy of New York magazine two weeks ago, the cover featuring Ta- Nehisi Coates intrigued me. Much to my chagrin, I had never heard of Coates prior to the featured article and his image gracing the magazine cover, and I only had a cursory knowledge of the Atlantic magazine for which he writes. A few days later an article by David Brooks appeared in the New York Times about Coates and his new book. I read both articles in their entirety. I became intrigued to hear his theories on race relations in America. Coates has been featured on news programs in which he has discussed his ideas as well as his new book. In this book he examines some deep-seated causes for the racial unrest that has been plaguing our country for centuries. He explains his theory on the root causes of behavior of African-Americans as well as the causes of behavior of whites or those who “call themselves white.” Prior to its release, his publicist sent a copy of the book to Toni Morrison who stated, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.” Thus, with this endorsement in mind, I decided to read Coates’s view on race in America. Coates states at the inception of his book that the success of America is based on violence and on stealing. He says that the progress of those in America who are white or who want to be what America calls white have prospered from America’s history, and those who are not white have suffered because of it.
Coates book is a letter to his fifteen year old son that discusses his worldview on race and how he came to formulate his opinions. His parents taught him to read and write well so that he would be able to think for himself instead of regurgitating other people’s thoughts. He had to be able to develop his own ideas and support those ideas with evidence. At an early age, he learned how to navigate the crime ridden neighborhoods of Baltimore. He also learned how to take pride in himself and in people of African descent. At Howard University, his Mecca, he gained strength through his camaraderie with people from the African diaspora. He learned from his parents and from fellow students to value his skin color and the physical traits of his blackness. Coates opines on black hair, and the lengths that many black women go through to camouflage their hair so that they can blend in with the rest of society.
According to Coates, fear is the major emotion that drives people’s behavior. He says that people live in fear of what might happen. Black parents beating their children, he says, is a result of fear. They fear that if they do not beat them, then someone else will if they engage in negative or criminal behavior. This fear explains why the woman during the recent riots in Baltimore beat her son in plain view when she saw that he was about to take part in the riots. She was vilified for beating her son. Few people understood her actions. She was trying to save her son from future harm. Her actions might not have been appropriate, but they were understandable. Black people fear the police because the police have not been there to protect them. Coates cites numerous recent incidents such as Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others. These individuals were either not protected by the police departments or they did not receive justice because those responsible for their deaths were not criminally charged or adjudicated to be criminally responsible. Furthermore, Coates acknowledges that black cops as well as white cops are just as likely to kill black men. He looks at the structure of the police department in Prince George County, Maryland. There are many black officers within that police department, yet they were responsible for the death of Prince Jones, an unarmed black man, who should never have been pursued by the police. Jones came from an affluent family, and was not a criminal. His mother, a radiologist, is the head of her department at the hospital where she works. Her economic status could not shield her son from death. Fear caused the officers to overreact, thereby killing him. Officers, justified or unjustified, fear the effects of nonconformity to a code of police behavior.
Additionally, Coates also examines the school system. He says that schools place more shackles on African-American boys through punishment, while trying to force them to conform to a model of behavior that does not fit many African-American boys. Coates outlines that African-American children are expected to behave according to rigid standards of conduct. They are often punished for nonconformity, and he says that schools do not adequately educate African-American children They are just gateways for punishment.
Lastly, Coates tells his son that we must struggle against the climate of the country. We must try to work through the challenges we face. He acknowledges the difficulties, the hindrances. He says that we must struggle for our ancestors, struggle for our families, and hope and pray (he is either an atheist or an agnostic. He appears to waffle of which one best defines himsel) if one is moved, for those who willingly participate in the activities that continue to divide us and destroy our country. One must never give up the struggle. Using the words of Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”
Prayer will help us work through these difficult challenges that Coates discusses. We must be willing to tackle these issues and see people as individuals. We have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones and meet and befriend people of other races. We must form bonds with people who come from diverse backgrounds. If we can do that, there will be hope for tomorrow. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Coates is moving with his wife and son for one year to Paris, a city where he feels that he will not be evaluated based on race. He is truly following in the traditions of Baldwin, Richard Wright, and other black writers of the twentieth century. I hope he writes about his experiences. I highly recommend this book. Excerpts can be used as informational texts in a high school classroom.