FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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

November 14, 2018
Charles Pierson
Unstoppable: The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline and NAFTA
Sam Bahour
Israel’s Mockery of Security: 101 Actions Israel Could Take
Cesar Chelala
How a Bad Environment Impacts Children’s Health
George Ochenski
What Tester’s Win Means
Louisa Willcox
Saving Romania’s Brown Bears, Sharing Lessons About Coxistence, Conservation
George Wuerthner
Alternatives to Wilderness?
Robert Fisk
Izzeldin Abuelaish’s Three Daughters were Killed in Gaza, But He Still Clings to Hope for the Middle East
Dennis Morgan
For What?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Government is Our Teacher
Bill Martin
The Trump Experiment: Liberals and Leftists Unhinged and Around the Bend
Rivera Sun
After the Vote: An Essay of the Man from the North
Jamie McConnell
Allowing Asbestos to Continue Killing
Thomas Knapp
Talkin’ Jim Acosta Hard Pass Blues: Is White House Press Access a Constitutional Right?
Bill Glahn
Snow Day
November 13, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Midterm Results are Challenging Racism in America in Unexpected Ways
Victor Grossman
Germany on a Political Seesaw
Cillian Doyle
Fictitious Assets, Hidden Losses and the Collapse of MDM Bank
Lauren Smith
Amnesia and Impunity Reign: Wall Street Celebrates Halliburton’s 100th Anniversary
Joe Emersberger
Moreno’s Neoliberal Restoration Proceeds in Ecuador
Carol Dansereau
Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity
Dave Lindorff
Hey Right Wingers! Signatures Change over Time
Dan Corjescu
Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge
Patrick Bond
Mining Conflicts Multiply, as Critics of ‘Extractivism’ Gather in Johannesburg
Ed Meek
The Kavanaugh Hearings: Text and Subtext
Binoy Kampmark
Concepts of Nonsense: Australian Soft Power
November 12, 2018
Kerron Ó Luain
Poppy Fascism and the English Education System
Conn Hallinan
Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon
Robert Hunziker
Tropical Trump Declares War on Amazonia
John W. Whitehead
Badge of Shame: the Government’s War on Military Veterans
Will Griffin
Military “Service” Serves the Ruling Class
John Eskow
Harold Pinter’s America: Hard Truths and Easy Targets
Rob Okun
Activists Looking Beyond Midterm Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take
Dean Baker
Short-Term Health Insurance Plans Destroy Insurance Pools
George Wuerthner
Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range
Patrick Howlett-Martin
A Note on the Paris Peace Forum
Joseph G. Ramsey
Does America Have a “Gun Problem”…Or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?
Weekend Edition
November 09, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Louis Proyect
Why Democrats Are So Okay With Losing
Andrew Levine
What Now?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Chuck and Nancy’s House of Cards
Brian Cloughley
The Malevolent Hypocrisy of Selective Sanctions
Marc Levy
Welcome, Class of ‘70
David Archuleta Jr.
Facebook Allows Governments to Decide What to Censor
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Zika Scare: a Political and Commercial Maneuver of the Chemical Poisons Industry
Nick Pemberton
When It Comes To Stone Throwing, Democrats Live In A Glass House
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail