As racial tensions simmer, the only way we can move toward healing is by unvarnished dialogue. A journalist’s creed is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In his book “Between The World And Me,” Atlantic Monthly writer attempts to do both. Yet his writing is one-dimensional and misinterprets his own lived expression of the American Dream. In this way, he does not comfort the afflicted, and his tunnel vision makes it difficult for the comfortable to envision any positive steps toward effective succor.
Coates’ criticisms of American culture and history do not leave his fellow African-Americans with an accurate sense of their power and potential, and he ignores or undervalues the tremendous societal progress wrought by hardworking activists of all races.
“Between The World And Me,” is written as a letter to Coates’ 15-year-old son, who was stunned by judicial response to Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Similar to David Brooks’ sensitivity in critiquing the book though he is white, at a journalistic level, I have spent many hours in Harlem and throughout New York City, highlighting African-American changemakers who operate in realms that seems far removed from Coates’ nihilism. At a personal level, I have two darling young nieces who, like Barack Obama, are bi-racial African-Americans. I would be their guardian, God forbid, if something happens to their parents. Often, I think about them and their futures as I research and report. Yes there are many daunting and ugly obstacles, which should be openly addressed. Yet my hope is also to give them an unvarnished sense of their strength and possibility, something I was hoping to see from Coates.
Coates’ observations of the segregated dystopia of his Baltimore youth are replete with jabs at the American Dream, which he deems a corrupt and fictional narrative. Yet Coates is the embodiment of that Dream: a man who rose from violent environs to attend college, marry, raise a family in a middle-class lifestyle, travel the world, and gain prominence in his chosen field.
Coates skewers white Dreamers who “would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism.”
Such dramatic flourishing is intended to shock Middle America into realizing the circumstances of urban decay. And we should be distressed at these circumstances; we should develop what Coates eloquently called in an earlier essay a “muscular empathy.” Yet his racial divisiveness and willingness to scapegoat white Americans without offering solutions is disheartening.
His anger is based on racial lines, though the same cultural pathologies in poor black areas are nearly identical to ones in poor white and Hispanic areas: high crime and drug abuse; low educational attainment; high unemployment; and unmarried parenting. Despite growing up in a chaotic neighborhood, Coates was raised by two parents—notably with a father whom Coates describes elsewhere as a “a stable and consistent presence in my home.” Coates does not connect the dots to realize that a stable, two-parent home, identified by Harvard researchers as the strongest variable in upward mobility, was a key ingredient in his personal success. In “Between The World And Me,” he does not write about how to replicate his success and empower his former Baltimore neighbors.
“I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard,” he writes. “This is difficult because there still exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much… Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
We should indeed hold America to “an exceptional moral standard.” Yet in Coates’ telling, any rational conversation about black-on-black crime—by far the greatest danger to African American lives—is out of order. He does not laud the thousands of white males who died to end slavery and thousands of today’s policemen and women of all races who put their lives on the line to protect minority neighborhoods.
After the death of a friendly acquaintance at the hands of a black police officer employed by a black-run county government, Coates describes a rage against broken-windows policing “that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.” For all of Coates’ vehemence against broken windows policing, he does not acknowledge that it is highly favored by both black and Hispanic residents.
Certainly there is room to improve our system (and counter heartbreaking abuses, including the case of Kalief Browder). Criminal justice reform is an issue gaining bipartisan traction. Yet Coates does not address data showing that, based on earlier crime trajectories, thousands of black and Hispanic men wouldn’t be alive today if not for broken-windows policing.
Coates characterizes Martin Luther King, Jr., as a weak figure. His teenage hero was Malcolm X. Yet in many ways “Between The World And Me” characterizes African-Americans as helpless prisoners of their circumstances, a narrative that Malcolm X likely would have found disempowering.
Coates’ worldview contrasts sharply with that of Juvoni Beckford, a young African-American blogger and software engineer, raised by a single mother in the Bronx, who also rose to high educational attainment and career success.
“If you want to change the world you have to start with the self,” Beckford said at a recent gathering of Silicon Harlem, a technology community lifting up African-American entrepreneurs in Harlem. “I don’t look for any sort of assistance or aid necessarily… within my realm of control, I control my response to external stimuli. I have an internal tranquility and peace, and I can direct my own path.”
Beckford was asked how he navigates the technology industry, which is dominated by white and Asian workers.
“I’ve never tried to paint a picture to discount myself,” he explained. “If I were to go out into the workforce and know that only 2 percent of software engineers at Google are black, that’s a very big hurdle to overcome, so I can’t hold myself to the statistics … I don’t like to paint things or classify a particular thing by races, I look for disadvantaged people and try to help.”
“Between The World And Me” is troubling and incomplete. It’s worth reading to get a deep, firsthand understanding of the problems inside urban core areas. Yet it won’t push readers, for example, to explore the work of scholar Arthur Brooks, who found that the ingredients of a happy and upwardly mobile life are faith, family, community and work.
Coates says he is an atheist, yet he writes of how he enjoys pondering the cosmos, his personal faith exploration. He also writes beautifully about his family, community and work. Though he doesn’t seem to realize it, Coates is living the American Dream, and he would be a powerful force to help expand this Dream for others by helping them fulfill their potential instead of perpetuating a narrative of victimization.
Photo by University of Michigan’s Ford School
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others.