Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me is a moving look inside the mind and heart of an intelligent, sensitive, African American man. Written as a letter to his teenage son, it is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to impart to his boy, and to readers in general, what he has learned from experience and observation about what it is to be black in America.

The book is a condemnation of his country, of its failure to solve the problem of racial injustice, of its tolerating—indeed, in his eyes actively choosing—a two-tiered system in which white people live what he calls the Dream (i.e., their lives, their opportunities, at least roughly match the myths the country tells itself about the American Dream, about how hard work and virtuous behavior will enable you to prosper and be happy and safe), and black people live in a permanent underclass, forcibly prevented from participating in the Dream, kept in a state of fear and danger where they can never relax in the knowledge that their autonomy or even their basic bodily integrity will be respected and safeguarded.

Allow me to touch on a few points that stood out to me from the book.

One cultural difference Coates notes is that the violent disciplining of children is commonplace in the black community, with the way his parents raised him being no exception. Not just low level “spanking,” but really beating kids to impress upon them the difference between right and wrong.

I have encountered anecdotal evidence for this. Multiple times in my life I’ve conversed with an African American person vehemently defending physical disciplining of children that at least comes close to the legal definition of abuse, if not crosses it.

They have argued that the degree of pain you inflict needs to match the degree of seriousness of the lesson you are imparting. They present this as pretty much self-evident, and treat disagreement with it as either evidence of stupidity or an indication that white parents don’t face the same serious issues they do when it comes to their kids. That is, if your kid making an unwise choice about studying for the SAT just means he’ll “only” get into Yale and not Harvard, then maybe it’s not such a big deal that you’re overly liberal about “sparing the rod,” whereas if you’re trying to straighten out your kid to prevent her from getting shot in gang warfare or getting pregnant at age 14, you damn well better beat her ass until she gets the message.

Coates focuses mostly on explaining why this practice is as strongly believed in as it is in the black community rather than evaluating it. He finds it completely understandable that parents would be driven to beat their children when the stakes are as high as they are for black kids facing such existential threats as hostile gang members and police, and he is reluctant to condemn it. To the extent he does imply an evaluation of it I sense some skepticism, but he consistently avoids going more than a step or two down any road that involves judging African American people’s responses to oppression unfavorably. This isn’t a book about what African Americans are doing wrong.

He indirectly returns to the topic later in this letter to his son, in this heartfelt passage: “Your mother had to teach me how to love you—how to kiss you and tell you I love you every night. Even now it does not feel a wholly natural act so much as it feels like ritual. And that is because I am wounded. That is because I am tied to old ways, which I learned in a hard house.”

Clearly many people believe that a priority in raising children, especially children facing a difficult life, it to “toughen them up,” and that violence is necessary to do that. I remain skeptical on this point, possibly more than Coates.

The above quote shows that such disciplining-through-pain can indeed toughen a person up in a sense—or at least Coates is implying such a causal relationship in his own experience—but is that a desirable form of toughness? Is it not at least as likely to “wound,” as it did him?

If beating kids within an inch of their life to make sure they understood the really important, highest stakes, things they need to learn in order to survive worked, we would expect to find that in the communities that most embrace this philosophy, children disproportionately succeed in avoiding bad early life decisions. Is that what we see in the black community? Are those kids less likely than in other communities to join gangs, get pregnant, commit crimes, defy the police, drop out of school, obtain a gun, do drugs, etc.?

Certainly not. I suppose it’s possible that most of the kids doing those things are in the minority whose parents lack this philosophy and unwisely refrain from beating them, but I’d have to see some pretty serious evidence of that.

I’ve always suspected that the main “lesson” violent discipline teaches is that if you want to impose your will on someone you should inflict pain on them or threaten to do so.

Also under the broad theme of violence versus nonviolence, I found Coates’s remarks about political nonviolence (e.g., Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement) quite interesting.

As a child, he resented the way in his schooling the nonviolent protestors were presented as heroes, with figures like Malcolm X either ignored or treated as having been wrong to reject the path of nonviolence.

As a Gandhian myself I largely agree with the assessment he attributes to his schools, but at the same time I’m highly sympathetic to why he has a problem with it, and indeed believe that Gandhi would agree with his criticism.

Why, he asks, is nonviolence always advocated only for the underdogs, for those on the bottom, for the oppressed? Why are only black people admired for loving those who beat them, sic dogs on them, turn fire hoses on them, etc.—or condemned for failing to do so—instead of the people doing the beating, siccing the dogs, and using the fire hoses being judged by that standard?

He’s right. It’s an inconsistency that has always rankled me. If you believe that nonviolence is a moral imperative, it doesn’t cease to be a moral imperative because you’re on one side rather than the other, such as if you’re a state actor.

That’s why I’ve always contended that ultimately pacifism implies anarchism (as Tolstoy recognized). I don’t believe that it’s justified to use violence against a system you oppose, but I also don’t believe it’s justified to use violence in support of a system you agree with. Cops and soldiers and jailers defending a state are as anathema to my moral philosophy as assassins and violent rebels opposing a state. I believe the consistent Gandhian should use only nonviolent means whichever side he or she is on.

I understand why the people who have not rejected violence for their side do what they do, and I empathize with their conviction that they are justified in using any means necessary to achieve the ends they regard as justified—just as Coates understands why Black parents beat their children—but I don’t agree with them. I refuse to pick up a gun to attack or defend the status quo.

Coates claims multiple times that the oppression of blacks was not only intentional at the start, but that maintaining racial injustice and inequality in the present is intentional. Yet he also routinely dismisses intent as irrelevant in contexts when it is raised as a possible defense of whites. There’s certainly some tension there. I’m undecided if it’s a flat contradiction, as it may well be that the fully fleshed out versions of his positions would be consistent with each other.

A common response to this kind of book is that it’s not just blacks who suffer. Plenty of non-black people grow up poor, don’t have family connections that give them a leg up, live in violent, unsafe neighborhoods, etc. What he’s describing, they would say, is not what it is to be black in America but what it is to be poor in America.

Furthermore, attempts to achieve racial justice are often perceived to be—and sometimes probably are—a zero sum action where relieving real and alleged unfair disadvantages blacks have suffered under means imposing new disadvantages on others, with those new disadvantages tending to fall disproportionately on the already worst-off non-blacks.

So, it is claimed by this response, you have lots of suffering middle class and below people, and you take from some of them and give to others on a racial basis, leaving the rich who have most benefited from injustice and are most responsible for the decisions that brought it about and sustain it untouched.

This is one, though not the only, reason that the most vicious white racists are routinely those who benefit the least from institutional racism. In their experience, they haven’t exactly gotten a lot of unfair good breaks in life, yet they’re being punished as if they had.

I think such responses mostly are fallacious or miss the point—just feeding into people’s tendency to pity themselves, assume they’re being mistreated, and exaggerate the injustice of their own disadvantages while downplaying or denying the injustice of other people’s disadvantages—yet I don’t think they have zero merit, and I’m not fully comfortable with what Coates has to say because he seems to ignore that merit.

I don’t agree with those who maintain that all disadvantages are class-based rather than race-based, that poor blacks have to struggle no more than poor non-blacks (and wealthy blacks have it as good as wealthy whites). I think even if you could control for all factors other than race, this country still is rougher on blacks than whites.

But Coates writes as if it’s all race: We blacks have always gotten the short end of the stick, and that’s intentional. We blacks grow up with every disadvantage, including not even being physically safe in our own country. We blacks live our whole lives knowing that we could be randomly killed at any moment by cops or by other violent people (mostly fellow blacks) brought up in the same inhumane circumstances we are. It’s foolhardy to think we can ever convert white people through love and nonviolence to cease oppressing us. They’ve intentionally kept this injustice in place all along, and there’s no reason to expect them to ever do otherwise.

Whereas I would say instead: In an imperfect society everyone has to overcome at least some unearned disadvantages. Being a member of certain groups—of which being black is one, though by no means the only (there’s the transgendered, immigrants, and many others, especially the poor)—means you will likely have more such unearned disadvantages to overcome. Everyone is prone to being killed suddenly and unjustly, with again the differences being matters of degree, with certain group memberships being relevant factors in the probabilities. That is, the average black person is certainly more likely than the average white person to meet the fate that so haunts Coates in his despair over Michael Brown-type cases, but that just means it’s exceedingly rare for a black person to experience it and exceedingly, exceedingly, exceedingly rare for a white person to experience it, not that it’s somehow a universal experience of blacks and never happens to whites. Furthermore, “average” doesn’t mean that every black person has the same likelihood of being killed like that and that every white person has the same, lower, likelihood of being killed like that, since other factors are relevant, to where no doubt there are individual whites in certain circumstances that are more likely to suffer such a fate than individual blacks in certain other circumstances. And even in the case of much more common, lesser injustices than being killed, like being given long prison sentences for comparatively minor crimes, again it is a matter of degree with race being one important factor but by no means the only one. To the extent that specifically racial injustice remains, it is significantly lower than in the past, with many people—contrary to his skepticism—indeed being converted by the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement, and young people especially nowadays being a lot less apt than previous generations to see things in racial terms and discriminate against blacks.

So the present dismal plight of blacks is, in my opinion, exaggerated by Coates, and the hopelessness about the future similarly exaggerated. And the racial split is wildly oversimplified. Not even remotely close to all whites grow up in Leave it to Beaver households and have ample opportunities to live the Dream, and not all blacks are effectively blocked from such opportunities. Things just aren’t as absolute as you’d think from reading this book.

To point out that he overstates his case may seem churlish, since even if the situation is only half as bad as he says (or a third, or a fifth) it’s still unacceptable, and addressing that injustice is a higher priority than pointing out where he might not have measured it exactly accurately. Also, this letter to his son is 75% from the heart and 25% from the head, and to point out logical imperfections ignores the value it has as an expression of lament and anger.

So purely as a logical argument, Between the World and Me is just OK. It makes plenty of worthwhile points, and in other respects is exaggerated or unconvincing. But as an opportunity to step into the shoes of another human being and understand why he hurts the way he does and why he feels such extraordinary frustration that as a father he cannot ensure even basic physical safety to the son he loves, it is far better than OK. It is an emotionally powerful statement, well worth reading and pondering over.


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