A new book by the black author Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, is a short, mostly autobiographical look at race, racism, and white people, written as a letter to Mr. Coates’s 14-year-old son, Samori (named for Samori Touré, a 19th-century West African who fought French colonizers). It has touched off a frenzied contest to see who can say the most star-struck, admiring things about the author.
Publishers Weekly set the tone: “Coates’s compelling, indeed stunning, work is rare in its power to make you want to slow down and read every word.” Slate predicted that the book is “destined to remain on store shelves, bedside tables, and high school and college syllabi long after its author or any of us have left this Earth.” Vogue wrote: “[I]t’s hard to think of a book that feels more necessary right now. Urgent, lyrical, and devastating in its precision, Coates has penned a new classic of our time.” Vice, which I thought tried to stay out of stampedes, assured us that the book is “as important and necessary as everyone says it is.” David Brooks, the New York Times’s lap-dog conservative wrote: “Between the World and Me, is a great and searing contribution to this public education. It is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it.” The Atlantic published an 8,500-word excerpt.
The Denver Post called the book “a riveting mediation on the state of race in America,” and the New York Observer wrote that “Mr. Coates is the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States.” When the Economist got out of line and complained that the book’s writing was “loquacious, repetitive, at times self-indulgent,” Salon wrote an entire article just to blast the review.
What are we to make of this prodigy who outshines Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Jason Riley–and even Cornell West and Toni Morrison (of course, no white person could ever be the best writer on race)? Between the World and Me is shockingly, appallingly bad. It is full of willful blindness, and shows a contempt and even hatred for whites that goes well beyond orthodoxy. There can be no common ground with any black who sees the world as Mr. Coates does. I don’t know whether his white admirers actually believe his poisonous raving or are simply indulging the Negro du jour, but there is no common ground with lunatics or cowards, either.
The book begins with the moment the Ferguson grand jury refused to indict Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot Michael Brown. Mr. Coates writes to his son:
You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.
Why was Samori crying? Because he believed Darren Wilson had gotten away with murder. I suppose he believed Brown was “shot like an animal” as early “witnesses” claimed. Whatever he believed, for Coates not to comfort his son was child abuse. By then, we knew that Brown was stoned on marijuana, had just committed a robbery, attacked Officer Wilson, and tried to wrestle away his gun. It would have been immensely comforting to young Samori to be told that anybody who does that–black or white–has a good chance of being shot, and that if you don’t break the law, the police usually leave you alone.
I believe Michael Brown was executed by Officer Wilson.
— Remembering Barry (@marionbarryjr) August 15, 2014
But, no, Mr. Coates didn’t say any of those things. Instead, just a few passages later, he writes that when police kill blacks there is “nothing uniquely evil” about it. They “are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. This legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies.” If racist police were evil men, we could fire them, jail them, and hire police who were not evil, but America is much worse than that. The police have simply absorbed the “heritage and legacy” of America and therefore think no differently from slave drivers. “You [Samori] know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” That is because:
this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect.
Eric Garner was not, of course, “choked to death for selling cigarettes,” and it is wildly irresponsible to tell anyone–especially a child–that he was. He was taken down in a choke hold because he was resisting arrest–his ninth for the same crime–and died later in an ambulance of cardiac arrest. He weighed 350 pounds and had such bad asthma he couldn’t walk a city block without stopping to rest. The coroner reported that the cause of death was “compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”
Nor was Renisha McBride “shot for seeking help.” She crashed her car in the middle of the night and was described by a witness as “discombobulated.” At 4:30 in the morning, she banged on the door and the window of a white man’s house and frightened him. Yes, he shot her dead, but Mr. Coates fails to mention that he was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison for it. It would be tedious to annotate the rest of Mr. Coates’s outrageous examples.
But this is the first lesson for young Samori: that racism is deep in the soul of white America and always lies in wait for black men, “that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.”
After this horrifying lecture on the nature of whites, we should ask 14-year-old Samori how many of the 2,491 black people murdered in 2013 were killed by whites. Eighty percent? Ninety percent? The true figure is 7.6 percent, and probably at least half of those “whites” were Hispanic.
But Mr. Coates would blame that on racism, too. He writes that he grew up in an all-black part of Baltimore, and was therefore “naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” The streets were so dangerous that “fully one third of my brain” was constantly devoted to physical safety. “[T]he only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” Mr. Coates is not so idiotic as to claim that they were afraid of white people; they were afraid of each other.
But the problem was not each other. The problem was the existence of a different world that the young Mr. Coates glimpsed only through the television set:
There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and endless lawns.
The young Mr. Coates knew his world was different from that world: “I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach and I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty.” And since he learned in school that the United States was founded on violence and expropriation–all school children learn that–he came to understand that “the violence that undergirded the country . . . and the intimate violence of the streets were not unrelated. And this violence was not magical, but was of a piece and by design.” It was by design! White people make black people kill each other.
Now, he writes, when he thinks back on the terrified, violent blacks of his childhood, “all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away.” Blacks kill each other because they are marionettes, still dancing on the strings pulled by long-dead white people who might have lynched a few of their ancestors.
This justifies a cold hatred for today’s whites. Mr. Coates writes that he was indifferent as the Twin Towers crumbled after the September 11 attacks. The policemen and firemen who died “were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could–with no justification–shatter my body.” It’s hard to imagine firemen “shattering black bodies,” except that for Mr. Coates, all whites are in the business of shattering black bodies: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body–it is heritage.”
As you may have noted, all this comes with an odd vocabulary. Mr. Coates has an almost prurient interest in black “bodies,” as in, “ ‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies.” (“Exclusive power”? Why are almost all blacks killed by other blacks?)
To say black and brown “bodies” rather than “people” is new-fangled lefty-talk. There is almost no jabber about “white bodies.” You have to be oppressed to have a “body.” The fashion may date back to the famous 1971 feminist book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, that actually did talk about women’s bodies, but it appears that talking about enslaving or shattering black “bodies” is a way of implying that the souls in those bodies are unscathed. In any case, titles such as Killing the Black Body and Black Bodies, White Gazes, are a sure sign of anti-racist virtue, and Mr. Coates’s book is stuffed with virtue.
It also half-embraces the idea that race is a social construct. Mr. Coates describes a scene: “Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers.” Mr. Coates often writes about people “who believe they are white”–but never about people “who believe they are black.” Blacks are real people with a genuine identity: “I knew that we were something, that we were a tribe–on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.” Or again: “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”
Whites, however, have no identity other than rapaciousness and cruelty: “[T]he 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.” Think about that. The only thing that makes white people white is “domination and exclusion;” other than that they have no reason even to exist.
Whiteness is a dream of the people who believe they are white:
I have seen that Dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream . . . . But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.
In other words, everything that makes white people white and that makes their lives desirable is built on the mangled bodies of blacks. This is breathtaking. Does Mr. Coates really believe that without black bodies to mangle whites would never have had block associations and nice lawns? How did Canadians and New Zealanders and Swedes build pleasant lives without black bodies to mangle? And why do so many American whites fail to have nice lawns and tree houses despite all those black bodies available for mangling? What losers they must be. But Mr. Coates’s point is that only insofar as whites live in viciousness are they white at all. He continues, addressing his son:
[W]ithout the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they 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 [!].
Mr. Coates really does appear to believe that without black bodies to mangle, whites would shrivel up in disappointment and lead miserable lives. Or perhaps just die. In any case, Mr. Coates tells his son to give up any hope that whites will ever shake off cannibalism and be cured:
I would like to tell you that such a day approaches when the people who believe themselves to be white renounce this demon religion and begin to think of themselves as human. But I can see no real promise of such a day.
And it’s not just the United States that whites are befouling. In his commentary on Between the World and Me, black author Greg Howard, summarizes what he considers to be Mr. Coates’s most important point: The only thing that will ever cure rapacious white people is their own extinction after they have plundered the entire planet. Mr. Howard also notes that white supremacy is “the most destructive force in the world.” What a mercy it would be if this miserable tribe of people were exterminated.
Fevered corners of the Internet
Between the World and Me is the sort of rubbish that should be lost in the fevered corners of the Internet, along with The Isis Papers and books that claim Western Civilization was stolen from Africa. Instead, Mr. Coates has been treated as if he were the Second Coming.
When they even dare to question his lurid claims, whites assume a sickening, cringing tone. David Brooks writes:
Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?
Is this man a eunuch? What explains this lickspittle state of mind? After a few quibbles with some of Coates’s viciousness, Mr. Brooks concludes: “Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change. In any case, you’ve filled my ears unforgettably.”
National Review’s Rich Lowry, of all people, seems to be the only white man willing to point out that Mr. Coates is peddling a “toxic worldview.”
Since the United States is so loathsome, you might expect Mr. Coates to be planning a getaway, and you’d be right. But he’s not going to Africa. He’s going to France! Blacks who hate white people never seem to get enough of us. No doubt he will write nasty things about the French, but they won’t pay any attention to him, so he’ll be back. He’s only 39, so he’ll be around a long time.
If Between the World and Me is being shoved down undergraduate throats long after I’m dead, I’m glad I won’t be around to see it, but I think the chances of that are slim. The people reviewing this book may be fools and toadies, but not every college student is. What is the instructor going to say when someone in class shows him the Department of Justice report that completely exonerates the officer who shot Michael Brown? Someone will also look up Eric Garner, and find out that a black officer ordered his arrest and that a black sergeant supervised it. He will find out that nine of the 23 grand-jury members who refused to hand down an indictment in the Garner case were non-white, and that five were black.
Let’s not forget what allegedly sent Dylann Roof over the edge. He looked up the facts about Trayvon Martin on Wikipedia, and discovered that Martin was not a racial martyr but a thug. Anyone who assigns this book to students is setting them up for equally jarring surprises.
Of course, a lot of black people think like Ta-Nehisi Coates. They think whites are immensely powerful, deeply evil, and do awful things to black “bodies.” Fools in the media promote this dangerous nonsense, and most blacks will believe it for as long as they live inferior lives–and there’s no end to that in sight. And they will continue to vent their hatred against whites in acts of often sickening violence that will be no more than local news.
This book and the reaction to it are yet more evidence that blacks and undeceived whites live in different mental worlds. They should formalize the break and separate.