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The USA as a Failed State: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”

Yes, all the praise of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is merited. The significance of the book is what articles about Coates and interviews with him have stated: the book should be “required reading,” as Toni Morrison has said about it (but it won’t be read by the people who most need to read it); Coates is heir to James Baldwin’s passion, though he does not write as effortlessly; the book, as it should be, is a terrible indictment of white America’s everlasting (and increasing) racism. Ever since black people arrived in the America as slaves, they have put up with humiliations by white America (whom Coates calls the Dreamers); the legacy of slavery has hardly gone away since day one. Count yourself fortunate if you were born white, though you are also a large part of the problem, even the most liberal-minded of you (myself included).

Between the World and Me is about the fear that Coates has felt his entire life: the fear that, first, he will be killed because he is black and, second, that his fifteen-year-old son will be killed by the Dreamers. The form of the book is an impassioned 152-page letter to his son. As he puts it, “‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.” These are strong statements that need to be taken seriously.

How does Coates explain his fear? “The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of the country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into 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.”

Coates grew up in Baltimore. (“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of coatespolicy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us.” He even feared his father’s punishment. (“Either I can beat him or the police” will beat him, his father said repeatedly.) Coates remembers a boy poking a gun in his face, what he describes as the recklessness of young black males. (“Perhaps they had known something terrible about the world. Perhaps they so willingly parted with the security of the black body because neither security nor sanctity of the black body existed in the first place.”)

In order to survive, he was forced to practice the culture of the street, “a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.” The safety he later found at Howard University (which he refers to as The Mecca) was shattered when one of his friends (ironically named Prince Jones) was murdered in cold blood by a Prince George’s County policeman. Though many years ago, that event is linked throughout the book to recent killings of black people by police in the United States (Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and others). While I was reading Coates’s book, a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal (July 16) reported “Police-Misconduct Costs Soar.” “The ten cities with the largest police departments paid out $248.7 million last year in settlements and court judgments in police-misconduct cases, up 48% from $168.3 million in 2010, which include alleged beatings, shootings and wrongful imprisonment.” Is there anything unclear about that? We out to be outraged by those statistics, but outrage is difficult to find in a culture addicted to instant gratification and bile (mostly generated on the Internet).

What else has Coates concluded, besides the fact that he must always fear for his body? “The plunder of black life was drilled into the country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.” This is what he wants his son to learn: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” Even the possibility for Black Power, the mantra of the 1960s, is questionable; it is “the dungeon-side view of Monticello—which is to say, the view taken in struggle.” Though the Pope is not mentioned in Coates’s riveting book, the pre-echo of recent remarks by the pontiff is clear: “the Dreamers…plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.” Is there nothing that the Dreamers will not destroy for profit?

Our country is broken, totally broken. In all my many years, I have never felt such despair about America as I have during the last decade, beginning with Obama’s run for the White House. I feared from the beginning of his first campaign that he would be assassinated; I have never let go of that fear and perhaps he hasn’t either. The Dreamers have done everything possible to make his presidency a failed one because they cannot accept the possibility of a black man succeeding. There is so much racism in the United States you can almost cut it with a knife, much worse racism since Obama was elected, and no evidence at all of a post-racial society. Any crazy person can purchase a gun (or an arsenal of guns) the way I used to hoard candy as a child. The children of Wayne LaPierre (the head of the NRA) are free to use their guns every day and kill as many people as they can. And LaPierre’s solution to the problem is more guns, ostensibly for self-defense against shooters: for every student in a classroom, for every attendee of religious services. How many of those guns end up killing black people? The country is mad, insane—and, worse, unwilling to address the major problems that it confronts.

Well, it will change but not for the reasons that most people think. Young people and minorities—Mitt Romney’s dreaded 47%—will soon be the majority. White men have been frightened to death for half a century that the day will arrive when they will no longer be in control of the country. The 47% will become the 53%. And although Ta-Nehisi Coates may not agree with me, my guess is that the new majority will treat the new minority more humanely than the current majority treats the current minority.

Hurrah for Ta-Nehisi Coates, a man who has the courage to say what sadly needs to be said. Hopefully, Between the World and Me will provoke the serious dialogue so urgently needed. Perhaps—just perhaps—Coates’s courage will be the catalyst for other people to call things out as they are, to face the reality that the country’s problems are what they have always been: self-inflicted. We’ve got a failed state, and it’s not just because of racism. It’s because of money and power, as it has always been—both irrevocably founded on racism, our original sin.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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