In Response to: Between the World and Me
Recently, I joined in a book club discussion of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I am an admirer of Coates, having come across his blog on The Atlantic in the course of doing research on the Civil War. At the time, Coates was fascinated with the war and was one of the few public intellectuals actively talking about its importance for Americans today. He curated a broad and informed conversation on the blog, which benefitted me greatly. I have read many of his articles since, and watched several interviews. His essay “The Case for Reparations,” is a brilliant, systematic, and convincing argument for the American people to make reparations to African Americans for centuries of slavery, redlining, and theft of wealth.
Between the World and Me is a different beast altogether. Taking the form of a letter to his son, it eschews journalistic categories and operates as a piece of creative non-fiction. Its subject is the experience of being a black man in America in the era of police brutality and the ongoing impoverishment of so many African Americans. I wish to offer the ways the book moved me, and also my critiques of his arguments.
Coates is a writer of profound beauty and power. His voice succeeds at something very difficult to do: drawing you into the felt experience of a specific psyche, namely his own. In doing so, he makes you experience what it is like to live in a world where you are uncomfortable with, unsafe in, and betrayed by your own body. The black experience, for him, is one of brute bodily alienation. Racism’s ultimate injustice lies in how it makes a person feel a constant target because of his body—robbed of dignity, straitjacketed, painfully aware of having a physical stigma, and constantly aroused to danger because of it. Coates’s descriptions of putting on emotional armor to face the world from a young age are devastating. An atmosphere of violence and physical vulnerability permeates the text. In this it shares a mood with the film Moonlight of two years ago.
If there is a mission to the book, it is akin to that of Dorothy Day, who said her vocation was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Coates does not offer much comfort to anyone, but he certainly afflicts you. The text assaults the reader with its afflictive emotion, diction, and tenor. He aims to jolt you out of complacency, to shock you with the ferocity of his lived truth. He punctures the consciousness of people who live a hedonist, epicurean lifestyle. Those shallow, crass, materialistic narcissists whose attitude is always, “Let’s party and have fun!” He shoves the world’s suffering, injustice, and violence into their faces, as if to say, “Oh yeah? Here—try having fun with this!” In a vain, celebrity-obsssed, Mammon-worshipping culture like ours, we need those voices of emphatic moral absolutism. The voices that won’t let us look away from suffering. It is like Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” when an older white woman—convinced of her self-righteousness—is literally slammed with the epiphany that her behavior is racist. Coates’s books strikes you with the same force.
Finally, the book evokes the Christian insistence that God has a preferential option for the poor, and that any analysis of society must start from the experience of its most marginalized people. With Between the World and Me as such a starting point, American society is rightly condemned. If even one person feels the kind of suffering, hopelessness, and violence as Coates relates, we have failed as a human family. Coates shows you that any violation of human dignity,, no matter how minor, inflicts an ocean of pain and suffering. It recalls the tale from Genesis in which Cain kills Abel—the blood of one innocent person cries out to God. Coates’s cry is the cry of Christ on the cross. It brought to my mind the Talmud when it says that if you kill one person, you kill the universe entire. If you save one person, you save the universe entire. How many universes have been destroyed in America by the killing of black people?
Despite its conceit of being a memoir, Coate's’s book really functions as a kind of creative non-fiction. It takes the form of a letter to his son, but it is in fact a public letter to America. As such, it does more than relate and shape personal experience: it puts forth arguments to the reader, issuing what amount to declarative statements about history, religion, metaphysics, America, and more. These arguments, like all arguments, must be challenged. This holds especially with Between the World and Me because many people take this text as the single and final word on these subjects. Coates is taught in college and university courses around the country, and he has attained enormous influence in our public discourse. He bears a responsibility for his claims, then, and what comes of them. What follows are my respectful challenges to his arguments:
Philosophy of History
Coates claims both that he believes in the absolute chaos of history, and yet also that the social order is the result of a conspiracy of white people. It seems to me that you can’t have both—reality is either chaos or ordered by some kid of meaning. If you don’t think there’s a way to organize a future, how can you say that the past organized the present into any kind of ordered situation, just or unjust? If, on the other hand, there is a meaning to history that we discern, what is its shape? What’s its organizing principle? There are many different philosophies of history, but by definition they deny chaos. Coates seems to be a Marxist, minus the utopian outcome—the world is divided up by races and classes that are in inherent conflict. But for Coates, unlike Marx, there is no happy ending, just endless war. That’s a legitimate position to take, but it is not one that asserts real chaos. If reality is truly chaotic, then human beings cannot have any moral reaction to it. All cries for justice would be absurd, since there is no such thing as organized injustice—just pure randomness that results in different outcomes for different people.
But Coates certainly has a moral reaction to American history and social conditions, which belies a sense of a meaningful, ordered world. If the world is ordered, then—if present circumstances are the result of intentional moral choices by people in the past—then that also admits that people can change the world for the better going forward. Nothing is determined or random—so much is contingent on the choices of individual people acting in real time. Human beings can make moral choices with a degree of freedom, however much grand forces and social dynamics limit that freedom. History is the interplay between impersonal forces and personal agency. This means that the story is not yet finished, the final verdict on man not yet delivered. Fatalistic pessimism of the kind that Coates offers is premature, then, to say the least.
Myth and Meaning
Related to #1. Coates argues that America has an organizing myth—the Dream—that it needs to keep alive in order to survive. That Dream involves a kind of negative cohesion, in which various European and other “tribes” of immigrants achieved unity as a new tribe—“white" people—by virtue of a common scapegoat, black Americans. While many immigrant groups faced discrimination—and poor whites were kept impoverished by the rich—they were able to maintain a shred of dignity by knowing that, at least, they were not black. By keeping black people down, they could ensure that at least they were not on the bottom rung. Regardless of the merits of this story (and there is much evidence for it) the point is that it is itself a story. Coates calls history chaos and says he’s puncturing America’s deluded myth, but his book is itself a narrative, a story. He crafts his own myth even as he claims to deny any organizing story to reality. The difference is that he crafts a disytopian myth. Again, that’s legitimate, but you can’t believe in both chaos and myth—however dark, a myth by definition implies that we live in a meaningful world shaped by human consciousness, language, and moral value.
The American Dream
As to the American Dream, the book operates with the assumption that its vision is one of individualism, material abundance, and upward social mobility. The house in suburbia with a two car garage, white picket fence, and 2.5 children. To be sure, this is how the American Dream has often been fed to us. But it’s a version refined and honed by advertisers and capitalists after World War II—it is relatively new, and it competes with other versions of the Dream that are older, more durable, and arise out of a broader and deeper American spirit than Madison Avenue. From the utopian socialist experiments of the early 19th century; through alternative religious movements like the Shakers and the Catholic Worker; to the rise of the socialist movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—led by figures such as Eugene Debs—to the counter culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the American Dream has been contested by peoples who conceive it in communitarian and democratic terms, not the mainstream incarnation railroaded by free marketers.
Coates argues that Christianity is a kind of opiate of the masses—again, a Marxist interpretation. He claims that he was raised without a belief in God, thus “conscious.” A generous interpretation of that remark is that Christianity can be construed in a way to keep people passive. Again, there is much evidence to vindicate this. The Christianity is Constantine—the Christianity of the Empire—has functioned this way for centuries. Coates cites the Sermon on the Mount and argues that the meek don’t inherit the earth, but are brutalized. But that’s an interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount—and it’s not necessarily correct. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount served as the foundation of revolutionary (if non-violent) Christian movements in the 20th century (Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, etc). In other words, there are multiple versions of Christianity, and we can argue that Imperial Christianity was and is a perversion of the Gospel. Other forms of Christianity include the Social Gospel movement, Liberation theology, mystical theology, and the various typologies laid out by H. Richard Neibhurh in Christ and Culture. The history of black Americans shows that a liberation Christianity was their means of overthrowing slavery and working for freedom and justice—sometimes through violence, too. Mystical Christianity showcases how our social divisions—which stem from the human mind—are illusions. Over and over, the mystics experience the interconnectedness and unity of all created life. Their visions provide a crucial source of hope in the knowledge of true reality.
Ultimately, Christianity is about love: love in the form of friendship, erotic desire, and self-sacrifice. It moves people to form friendships, fall in love, and even give their lives for each other in small and ultimate ways. The history of race relations in America contains a crushing mountain of hatred and violence. But it also contains these different forms of love, much of it stemming from a Christian source. Many Americans are and were Christians in name, and yet engaged in racial violence, repression, and hatred. Many of our leaders have been nominal Christians, only to build an unjust, exploitive society. But the Christian response to those hypocrisies is precisely that: to point out the hypocrisy and sinfulness. Many people are Christian in name only; the true conversion of the heart to the Gospel never takes place. We must distinguish the authentic from the false.
Non-Violence and Just War
Coates challenges the place of the Civil Rights movement in American consciousness. As a non-Christian, he sees no value in the philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience and pacific resistance. The black person must never willingly subject his body to such violence, he argues. Rather, he invokes the power of armed revolution and violent uprising. He is quite right to point out the hypocrisy in telling oppressed people that they must resort to non-violence, while the State always justifies its own violence as legitimate. Coates offers a necessary caution to Americans, who all too easily acquiesce to the use of violence by the government in dealing with foreign nations. Where were the protests of Barack Obama’s war in Libya? Or the ongoing drone war in Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries? Obama won the Nobel Peace prize only to give a lecture on the legitimacy of just war at his ceremony.
Let’s be clear: both just war theory and the call to non-violent civil disobedience apply to the State. Any use of pacifism to subdue and tranquilize oppressed people from struggling for justice is a perversion of its intention. The right of oppressed peoples to rebel violently against their oppressors has long been recognized among the laws of nations and of war. If anyone can wage a just war, it is people held in extreme injustice. The Civil War, insofar as it was an uprising of enslaved people, was such a war, as was the Haitian Revolution. For that matter, Americans claim that our own revolution and civil war against British rule was justified.
Moreover, the Civil Rights movement—like Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s—was successful because it was backed, in the end, by force of arms. The threat of action by the Federal government is what confirmed its political success. The brave students who desegregated high schools and colleges did so surrounded by National Guardsmen, after all. The Congressional legislation that was passed carried with it the enforcement of the State. But by the same token, the government would probably not have brought that force to bear if the non-violent movement had not won the hearts and minds of enough white Americans to produce the political capital necessary for Federal intervention.
Turning to Christianity, we must keep in mind that the BIble’s chief narrative motif comes from Exodus, in which God overthrows the unjust power of Pharaoh through violence, in order to liberate his people from slavery. Of course, God’s action is by definition legitimate—only God can wage a holy war. Human beings must never be tempted to think we can act with the same moral authority as the Lord. But, still, Christians must recognize that God can and does at times use violence to destroy social injustice—both in the Bible and in history. Abraham Lincoln very rightly dubbed the Civil War a punishment from God for the national crime of slavery. At the same time, Jesus Christ always holds preeminent place for Christians. And his example of the way of the cross and non-violence is the counterpoint to the Old Testament. Rather than kill for justice, you die for it, because in refusing to become violent yourself, you ironically defeat the power of evil—even if it kills your body.
Christians should hold out both just war by the oppressed and non-violent resistance as twin responses to social evil. Both are legitimate, but the call to non-violence is elevated. And the recognition of violent rebellion as sometimes necessary and legitimate must always bear in mind the corrosive, chaotic, and unintended effects of violence on peoples and society. Innocents always die, even in just wars. Everyone who kills—even when justified—loses a part of his humanity. The long range effects of civil violence on a society are grim. One must always ask if it is really worth it, or ultimately counter-productive. One must also ask if the present condition of African Americans is such that it would legitimate armed insurrection.
Coates does not ask these questions. Nor does he hold out non-violent resistance as a legitimate philosophy and response at all. He does not demonstrate an understanding or appreciation of it on its own terms, nor does he give it a fair hearing. His atheism comes into effect here, as he denies the existence of the soul, an afterlife, or the Resurrection and Last Judgment. He misreads Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, claiming that meekness merely gets you brutalized. Jesus’ statement was about something else, though, and one of the major themes of the Gospel is that God, in Christ, is overturning the unjust structure of society. Jesus’ life was one of bold confrontation with social evil, to the point of death.
Coates makes the killing of unarmed black men by police the moral core of his indictment of society. He reads American history as an uninterrupted war of white society on the black body, with today’s police functioning not unlike the slave patrols and lynch mobs of the past. This narrative holds much emotional power and weight for many people in light of the singular injustices involved in the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Eric Reid etc. But is it true? Here, the data challenges the media’s narrative. According to The Washington Post, 987 people were killed by police in America in 2017. 69 were unarmed. 31 of those were white, 21 were black; 13 Latino. Unarmed black men made up 2% of the total number of people killed by police in that year. That’s 0.000000954% of the population of 22 million black men. How do we make sense of this? Phillips Lemoine, a Cornell doctoral student, has analyzed the data from the Police-Public Contact Survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It contains the responses of 150,000 people about their contact with the police. This includes 16,000 African Americans. The writer Andrew Sullivan has summarized Lemoine’s findings. It contains surprising figures. First, while 20.7% of white men report at least one instance of contact with a police officer, only 17.5% of black men do. When it comes to multiple encounters, 1.5% of black men report having them, compared to 1.2% of white men—a greater percentage, though not major. Sullivan then describes the core finding:
In other words, while black men actually experience less contact with the police than white men, they are twice as likely to experience the use of force, and three times the use of violence. This is the heart of the injustice and racist policing. It is inexcusable, immoral, and sinful. It is an ongoing miscarriage of justice. It is a national disgrace. I, for one, am in favor of the abolition of prison and the police as we know them, moving instead toward a system based on community policing and restorative justice. But—and this bears remembering—when it comes to the police’s use of force likely to cause injury, the percentages among blacks and white men return to a similar number. Again, these are answers as related by the respondents themselves.
Obviously, these are emotionally fraught numbers to take in. And they do not tell the whole story. Sullivan and Lemoine don’t address the mass incarceration of black men in America’s gulag archipelago, nor disproportionate black poverty, and all other sorts of social ills that African Americans suffer more than other groups. So their arguments do not refute all claims of systemic racism. Moreover, the greater truth these numbers reveal is that the police use force and violence two to three times as much against black people as white. That is a moral outrage. And in terms of absolute morality and justice—in terms of God’s standards—the killing of just one unarmed person, like Garner and Martin, is enough to condemn humanity and our society.
But Coates denies God’s existence anyway, making pure material reality the only measure of anything. And he makes police killings the centerpiece of his book, not other racist phenomena (though they obviously hang in the background as well). By fixating on the killings—rather than all forms of police violence against blacks—Coates unintentionally buries the lead. The real story here is not that unarmed black men are being killed at greater rates than whites—they’re not—but that the police use force and violence against black people two to three times more often than whites. This obscuring of the truth open up Coates to being argued against the way Sullivan and Lemoine do.
Capitalism and Slavery
Coates also argues in certain points that America’s wealth was generated by a capitalism and industrial revolution that depended on slavery for its untold success. This position arises out of a surge of studies on the “New History of Capitalism” (NHC), which do a great service in correcting the old view that slavery was naturally dying out in the South and would have ended whether the Civil War occurred or not. In fact, slavery was vibrant and expanding and would probably have lasted many more decades—even a century—if the war had not destroyed it. However, the NHC overreaches beyond this legitimate correction. It goes on to assert the radical opposite—that American capitalism required the slave society of the South to achieve its stupendous wealth. The moral thrust of the argument is that the vast majority of America’s wealth, carried down to the present, is poisoned by slavery. To the extent that we all enjoy the fruits of capitalism, we all enjoy blood and slave money. Let’s be clear: the history of capitalism in America is filled with the worst labor violence of any industrialized country. Capitalisms ills, evils, and inhumanity are pervasive, pandemic, and corrosive to our society and our individual persons. But this particular claim of the NHC—and thus Coates—has been rebutted by other scholars. Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, for example, have written a lengthy study dismantling the claims of the NHC. The percentage of capital generated by slavery in the United States are lower than the NHC claims, due to poor economic analysis. This is the final word, either, but the point is that—because of Coates’s imprimatur—many people do not question the NHC narrative at all. We should, because historians and economists have not reached a reasonable conclusion about it. What is clear is that a significant portion of America’s wealth and American society was produced by the slave economy of the 19th century. And let’s be honest: even the lower percentage that Olmstead and Rhode estimate is a condemnation of American capitalism. But by painting with such broad brush—by declaring that America’s wealth required slavery—Coates again abandons careful analysis and opens himself up to dismissal by his critics.
Democracy and the Authority
Coates makes several claims about the nature of American republican government. First, he asserts that while most Americans think our history is primarily one of preserving democratic government, it is really a hidden history of who counts as an American, or a person at all. He quotes the end of the Gettysburg Address where Lincoln called his fellow citizens to resolve that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Coates suggests that we have paid too much attention to the government part of this, and not to the people part—that Lincoln was somehow evading the real question of the Civil War, which was not about democratic government so much as who counted as part of the American community. The real question was whether black Americans—slave or free—could take their rightful place in the body politic. But Lincoln knew that. In the very previous phrase, he calls his listeners to resolve that the nation “should have a new birth of freedom,” an unmistakable reference to Emancipation. He couples freedom for enslaved blacks with the perfection of democratic government. Far from being a marginal issue, the question of who counts among the people has occupied as central a place in American history as the idea of preserving democratic government. The Civil War revealed that the two questions are, in fact, inseparable, as we have been conscious of for decades now.
Coates also argues that the police and the State are direct products and reflections of the will of the American people. If cops are “pigs,” they are a product of “majoritarian pigs,” he states, i.e., the common citizen. That is just not the case. The United States is not, in fact, a democracy. It is a Republic, one that has oscillated over time between democracy or an oligarchy. In contemporary times, we are more like an oligarchy than a democracy. The State is, for all intents and purposes, removed from real accountability, being subject only to infrequent elections that are controlled by the richest and most powerful citizens. The police operate independently of the will of the citizens at all times. As the philosophers have said, the State never asked me for my assent to its existence, and the police have never consulted me on my opinion. Most attempts at government reform by ordinary people are obstructed and ignored. Coates can condemn this political system, and it must be thoroughly revolutionized. But he goes overboard in laying police brutality at the feet of millions of ordinary people. All are responsible, but not all in the same way—and only the powerful are truly guilty.
The American Story
Finally, Coates argues that American history is one of near unmitigated failure and injustice. In this, he once again paints with a broad, sweeping brush that is selective in its evidence even as it is totalizing in its conclusions. I would concede that the lion’s share of history and the facts are on his side and point toward despair and fatalism. And to the extent that many Americans live in complete and hostile denial of the crimes of our country, past and present, then Coates does us a great service. People need to wake up. Our history is all too often that of a slaughter-bench.
But to paint it as nothing but a crime does us a disservice as well. Even if only in small glimpses or examples, American history contains stories of remarkably capacious, generous, egalitarian persons, groups, and movements. History is not an uninterrupted line of upward progress. Nor is it an uninterrupted descent into the abyss. It is a spiraling U-shaped trajectory. Theologian Bernard Lonergan argues that at any moment, forces of progress and decline operate together in different areas of society. Over time, depending on their relative power, they move a society upwards or downwards and then back. Christianity posits a total end to history, with a final upward break out of this cycle into the Kingdom of God—the utopian experience we long for.
But even without a Christian worldview, the historical record indicates that we have had better and worse times in our social experience, and race relations. Coates and like-minded thinkers believe that white racism is a deus ex machina, a metaphysical force outside of history that explains all of history (even while he denies any metaphysics). But racism is not outside history—it is a product of history, and it has a history of its own, too. It rises and falls in society in conjunction with a variety of other factors. It rises and falls in individuals and groups, too—people can have their potential for wickedness stoked or pacified by a variety of influences, especially that of leaders and the mob.. Psychology tells us this much and more.
It is curious that Coates leaves out any mention of evidence that would temper his sweeping and fatalistic narrative—major events like the abolitionist movement, Reconstruction, or even small phenomena like the fact that black people and white people fall in love and create families. (The percentage of interracial marriages in America has exploded, especially with the advent of online dating). American history is an unruly mistress. A deep dive into any of its topics reveals stunning contradictions, competing trends, and surprising revelations. These complexities operate on both the granular and macro level. They check the temptation toward easy generalization and totalizing reduction. America created the largest slave society in history. It also was the only slave country in the Western Hemisphere that granted citizenship, suffrage, and political power to the newly freed people. This may have been a low bar to clear, and we collapsed back under it within ten years. Nevertheless, our tragic, failed experiment in biracial democracy in the 19th century was unique in the annals of the world. Its real accomplishments deserve mention at the very least—especially since so many people died (W.E.B. DuBois estimated 50,000 Black American deaths during Reconstruction) in the effort.
Coates does not do so. His text, while valuable, overcorrects the standard rose-colored American myth. America, being a human phenomenon, is a complex reality that contains the very best and the very worst that man offers. Our country is one of extremes. It deserves an accounting that honors all of it, in the right proportion. Coates lets his emotional reasoning take him beyond the scope of the personal into the realm of the universal. There, his point of view does not have the final word. Our present political climate suffers from an excess of self-righteousness, tribalism, and militant zeal. A fair number of people use Coates as their inspiration for such zealotry. He may wish to evade responsibility for this behavior by claiming literary license and artistic freedom. He wants to create an impression, he argues, not offer cold analysis. But given our context, we need to do all we can to strike the right balance between passion and reason.
Finally, a word on hope. Here I return to the question of Christianity. Coates’s book is permeated with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and fatalism. This attitude is understandable given the historical record of white racism. This is where Christianity, with its virtue of hope, offers a final contribution to the conversation. The Marxist interpretation of religion, which Coates adopts, views Christianity with suspicion, given its seemingly fantastical superstition and fairy-tale delusions of happy endings and shallow Hallmark cheer. Again, there is no doubt that this perversion has taken hold of major strains of American Christianity. But true Christianity does not ignore the evils of the world. Quite the contrary. Christian realism is just that—realism. It wrestles with the fallenness of man and the sinfulness of society in profound ways. It looks at the ugliness of sin without any blinders. As the saying goes, Christians are an Easter people, but it is still Good Friday.
But that statement also means that realism does not necessarily require a subsequent fatalism. Christian realism responds to sin with the virtue of hope, which is just as legitimate as despair. In fact, it’s both healthier and harder to have hope. Hope is not naive optimism that the world will get better. It is an orientation of the soul, a disposition of the heart, a habit of the mind. It places its treasure in a historical ending that has not yet been written, but is assured of victory. Like forgiveness, it is ultimately a gift one gives to oneself. Hope liberates the mind from depression and the soul from despair. Hope is the engine of endurance, motivation, and positive change. Like all virtues, it does not come naturally, but must be practiced through prayer and internal choice. But when it becomes second nature, it can yield a faith that moves mountains, and a love that never fails. We will never create a perfect social world, though we must try all we can. But with hope, we can guarantee that we will find true inner freedom no matter what.