Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between The World And Me, viscerally describes what exists between many black Americans and the world experienced by those of us who America deems white, especially white men.
The visceral power of his description is an inevitable result of his focus on the body – his own body – but it is remarkable for creating, in this book, an almost tangible experience out of concepts that many of us consider abstract. And I think that this creation bridges a crucial gap in how many of us understand racism in America today, when we as a country are examining the disproportional rate at which police kill black people and how this is connected to the history and present reality of racism in America.
A central episode in the book is the death of Prince Jones – one of Coates’ college friends, painted with some of the most loving brushstrokes in the book as a beautiful soul who touched everyone he encountered – murdered by a plainclothes police officer for attempting to drive away, when the killer, who failed to identify himself as a cop, pulled a gun. The officer was ultimately charged with nothing, and his mother is left grieving at the end of the book – a book written to Coates’ own son. (The parallel powerfully evokes how parents of black children must fear that their children’s bodies could be snatched away from them at any moment.)
But the book is not an exploration of this police murder – of the evils of this cop or the failure of the criminal justice system in this case. Nor is it and exploration of the racism of cops or the failure of the criminal justice system as a whole. That is part of it, for sure, but the book focuses on this in a way that reflects life: the criminal justice system is a violent mechanism of our system, which is persistently racist, constantly putting a barrier between people of color and the world many of us experience.
Even when reflecting on this painful episode of police violence, Coates never loses sight of that: “I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth,” he writes, expanding the crimes of the racist, violent cop to all of America.
But this is not merely an indictment of a static, racist system that persists from history. He goes on to explain how we all play an active role in constantly perpetuating it: “The police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.”
The fear that continues to justify this system is on full display in the debate surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement – in the comments of people who minimize the violent racism of a cop killing an unarmed black person, in the continued justification for broken windows policing, and in the rationalization of the disproportionately black prison population.
Coates eloquently tears away the layers of self-defensive rhetoric from these racist ideals, and exposes the mentality we are up against as we struggle for racial justice: “To challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them in the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
In fighting to end police violence, we are ultimately fighting against every subtle racist ideal in America. “The killer was the direct expression of all his country’s beliefs.”
A somewhat discouraging, though ultimately uplifting, conclusion to draw from this, is that we may never end police violence until we have completely dismantled racism in America, in all of its most subtle ways, as well as its most obvious.
“You are powerless before the great crime of history that brought the ghettos to be,” Coates writes to his son. And while this may sound pessimistic, it illuminates the reality of our present condition, swiftly debunking rhetoric often thrown at the Black Lives Matter movement, and giving us a critical insight in how to create meaningful change:
No matter how hard one person struggles, they cannot undo the effects of ghettoization, which were built with hundreds of years of intentional, violent force. Our only hope of ending the violence inherent in this system is by working together to dismantle the structures that support the ghettos.
And to blame people of color for the violence of this system, is beyond irrational, as Coates point out: “To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”
While written to his son, the book spoke to me as someone who America has deemed white – both by illuminating what exists between people of color and the world experienced by myself and others, and by elucidating ideas on how to break down that barrier. “People who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration,” he writes, a powerful reflection of people’s need to feel like they are not racist, and to say it, “I’m not racist.”
No one should say this. No one should think it. They should focus on the ways they play into the structures of racism and work to dismantle them.
As Coates’ book makes incredibly vivid: structures of racism are all around us, they exist in every moment of life for our black brothers and sisters, from walking down the street, to falling in love, to traveling. Moments of escaping the constant effects of racism do not exist for people of color, so we should not try to escape them by merely saying or believing we are not racist.
No matter what we do, as people considered white, the toll of racist structures is ultimately much greater on people of color. While we can attempt to shoulder some of the psychological burden of combatting racism (rather than ignoring our part in it) we cannot take on the bodily fear it exacts on people of color day in and day out.
This was the most powerful part of the book for me – beginning to experience the bodily fear experienced by Coates – fear for his own body, and fear for the body of his son.
In perhaps the most the most vivid episode of the book, Coates and his son are walking out of a movie when two wealthy white Manhattanites shove his child from behind. The feeling that they could so easily dismiss the boy’s body is enraging (even for the reader), but when Coates react with rage – even very measured rage – he is threatened by the white couple and quickly realizes his own body could be taken from him as well.
The bodily fear for people of color is that their bodies could be taken from them at any moment. “And one racist act. It’s all it takes,” Coates writes.
In America’s recent past, that one racist act could have been any citizen murdering a black person with impunity. In America today, that one racist act could be a cop killing a black person, with the active support of our system and citizens, and never being charged for it. That one racist act could be someone calling the cops. That one racist act could be an extended prison sentence. That one racist act could be almost anything, around any corner.