Through deeply personal stories and reflections, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book “Between the World and Me” provides essential perspective into a critical topic: violence against black people. The book’s primary shortcoming is that it fails to offer any real vision or policy solutions. Indeed, the book effectively counsels black people to disengage from the policy process–which would only make the violence worse. The book is structured as an autobiographical letter to Coates’s teenage son, and it begins with the premise that black bodies in America are vulnerable. Black lives are vulnerable to violence from others in unprotected neighborhoods, to violence from police, and to violence from white civilians who are presumed innocent in everyday interactions with black…
Through deeply personal stories and reflections, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book “Between the World and Me” provides essential perspective into a critical topic: violence against black people. The book’s primary shortcoming is that it fails to offer any real vision or policy solutions. Indeed, the book effectively counsels black people to disengage from the policy process–which would only make the violence worse.
The book is structured as an autobiographical letter to Coates’s teenage son, and it begins with the premise that black bodies in America are vulnerable. Black lives are vulnerable to violence from others in unprotected neighborhoods, to violence from police, and to violence from white civilians who are presumed innocent in everyday interactions with black people. This violence is not a mistake or an aberration–it built American wealth (e.g., cotton) and sustains wealth today (e.g., “safe” suburban enclaves).
Coates’s central critique is of what he labels the “Dream,” a sanitized, secure, privileged, suburban “American Dream” dystopia that adheres to an oversimplified “I Have a Dream” notion of formal equality. To Coates, the Dream holds out hope, but in reality it sustains violence against black people. Those who adhere to the Dream are “Dreamers” (not to be confused with children of immigrants) who view themselves as noble heroes. They suppress the true horror of American history and use Orwellian devices to discount today’s violence, such as attributing the violence to the victim’s actions (wearing a hoodie, selling untaxed cigarettes, playing loud music, or picking up a BB gun). While Dreamers call for violence against ISIS, they expect passive nonviolence and forgiveness in response to violence against African-Americans.
Coates’s critique is important, both in affirming informal conversations and feelings of some African-Americans and in introducing many others to an important perspective. His ideas–unobscured by academic jargon–are accessible. Coates’s writing humanizes black people and life.
While his book lacks the empirical grounding of his essay “The Case for Reparations” or Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” Coates’s honesty in “Between the World and Me” generally bolsters the book’s credibility. For example, he acknowledges not only his anger toward police for violence against African-Americans but also his longing for more neighborhood police to protect him while he was growing up. Coates also repeatedly reminds readers of his atheism, even though doing so reveals a gulf between Coates and most African-Americans (who may not share Coates’s skepticism of forgiveness, faith, hope, and inspired purpose).
The most significant flaw is the book’s absence of vision and real solutions. Coates does not share a vision of what a healthy America or a healthy black community would look like. He provides only an amorphous directive to “struggle” for wisdom, for ancestors, and “for the warmth of” the Howard University community. “Struggling” without the direction provided by a clear vision, however, is a recipe for disaster. Fish in a boat struggle.
Also, Coates’s struggle in this book does not include grappling with serious policy options. For example, Coates notes that our “publicly appointed guardians” have recently given attention to police reform, and he writes that while “diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras . . . are all fine and applicable,” they are inadequate because the “problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.” A book on violence against black people deserves deeper analysis and real solutions. I doubt that dismissing people as majoritarian pigs will reduce violence significantly.
Some readers may possess a vision or solutions, but Coates counsels to “not struggle for the Dreamers.” He believes the Dreamers have already robbed too many black lives of time and energy, and that struggling to persuade or convert Dreamers is a waste of finite moments in life. “[Y]ou cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness,” he writes.
This advice not to struggle to convert Dreamers effectively suggests that black people–who are already underrepresented in the public debate–further disengage from civic life. Presumably, the Dreamers include elected officials, media executives, scholars, corporate and foundation officials, advocacy group and union leaders, and the entire cacophony of influencers who struggle and negotiate with each other to make key decisions in our nation. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Fraternal Order of Police, the Corrections Corporation of America, and the NRA continue to struggle to push their own solutions to convert key Dreamers. Why should black people sit on the sidelines?
Interrogating established powers may be fulfilling for writers, scholars, and activists, but that’s not enough for the broader community. Millions of black people in the real world are vulnerable to violence, and they need solutions. Even if solutions are piecemeal and merely reduce rather than eliminate violence, the solutions are meaningful to those whose lives are spared.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an important voice, and his book will serve as a mirror to American society that will, counter to his advice, convert some Dreamers. Hopefully the book’s caustic skepticism will not chill the energy of an emerging generation of thinkers, religious leaders, and activists. We need them to provide vision and solutions, inspire hope, organize, agitate, and directly engage the Dreamers.
Spencer Overton is the President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank founded in 1970 that focuses on race and policy. He also teaches Race, Racism, and American Law as a Professor of Law at George Washington University, and he is the author of the book “Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression.” Follow him @SpencerOverton.
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