Academic journal article Theory in Action

Between the World and Me

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Between the World and Me

Article excerpt

Book Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. ISBN: 978-0812993547 (Hardcover). 152 Pages. $14.40.

[Article copies available for a fee from The Transformative Studies Institute. E-mail address: Website: ©2016 by The Transformative Studies Institute. All rights reserved.]

In his recent book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates tenders his views on race in America in the form of a letter to his son regarding their shared dismay at the unpunished 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Over the course of this meandering work, Coates recounts his childhood in Baltimore; his intellectual development at Howard University; the death of a former college schoolmate at the hands of the police; his heart wrenching visit with the mother of this victim of police brutality; and how he has come to understand the society in which these events have taken place.

Between the World and Me has clearly struck a chord with readers, having spent 31 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. It has also generated a great deal of attention in the mainstream media, though oddly not in scholarly journals as of yet, with critical responses ranging from celebration, to consternation, to condemnation, to every possible combination of the three. That this work both is both popular and divisive is no surprise given the unevenness of Coates' account, some of which is stellar, and some of which is lamentable.

What is stellar in Coates' account is his depiction of the history of race in America and its impact on citizens, both black and white. While this depiction is long on proclamation and short on documentation, as befits such a personal missive, it nevertheless expresses an understanding of our racial history that is shared by Coates and a host of others, including scholars of many stripes.

With regard to the history of race in America and its impact on African Americans in particular, Coates begins by asserting that the relative economic prosperity enjoyed by white Americans has been achieved through the exploitation and oppression of black folks. The plundering of such folks has, he claims, been achieved and maintained through a number of intolerable circumstances including slavery, lynching, segregation, and the woeful education practices that he defines as being low on both quality and veracity. Coates goes on to posit that these practices are responsible for many of the maladies currently afflicting black communities, which Coates often places in the particular context of violent young men and absent fathers, maladies for which the community members themselves are largely held responsible in the public mind. The most telling and alarming legacy of this history of racial mistreatment, Coates suggests, is the fact that police departments are increasingly free to destroy black bodies. They are, he regretfully informs his son, free to do so regardless of the character of the black body in their sights.

With regard to the history of race in America and its impact on whites, Coates maintains that, for whites to comfortably enjoy their ill-begotten gains, they must believe that they are deserving of their current prosperity in ways that others, especially blacks, are not. In his view, this is the reason that essentialist notions of race persist in the minds of white folks, notions that allow them to acknowledge past collective sins while never fully recognizing the impact of the aforementioned trials that have seemingly been replaced by unrestrained policing in the present. This process is quite evident, he notes, in the reactions of whites to egregious police violations of the rights of black citizens, violations they invariably attribute to rogue police officers (as opposed to rogue policing) and thereby avoiding responsibility for their multifaceted complicity in the oppression of their fellow citizens. …

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