Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me
Category: Sociology
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Published: 7/14/2015
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and,…

Book Summary - Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Key Insights

You’ve probably heard of the American Dream. The idea that no matter who you are or where you come from, you have the opportunity to succeed in America. But that is not always the case.

In a letter to his 15-year-old son, Ta-Nehisi Coates shares his experiences as a Black man in America. Between the World and Me is a memoir and a commentary to help guide his son and other young Black people growing up in America.

From Coates’s experiences, you see that the American Dream is a myth. Specifically, for Black people, the systems are set up for failure. There are race-based differences in poverty, incarceration, and violence. If you are Black, racism can affect every part of your life.

There is a gap between the country that Coates has grown up in and the country that America is on paper. That observation and why he feels that way are what he’s sharing with his son.

Key Points

Being Black in America means living with the reality that you are never safe.

Coates was born in 1975 in Baltimore, Maryland. Growing up in Baltimore, he experienced dangers and fears that are common if you’re Black in America. There were numerous experiences that demonstrated this, but there was one event that stood out from his childhood.

After school one day when Coates was 11 years old, he was outside a store. Another boy was across the street. He called Coates over. Without saying anything, the boy pulled a gun out and waved it at Coates before putting it back.

He didn’t know the boy and nothing else had transpired to prompt the threatening act. It was this moment that Coates pins as realizing there was always the possibility of unprompted or unexpected violence looming over him.

Even doing things “right” is not enough to protect you from violence.

In college at Howard University, Coates met Prince Jones. By all accounts, Jones and his family were doing things the “right” way to try and improve their lot in life.

His mother was born poor but had worked hard to give Jones a better life. She was willing to spend what it took to provide Jones with more opportunities. Now, he was at college. Jones had a reputation as a kind and religious person. He was also a father and engaged to be married.

Jones was on his way from D.C. to Virginia one night to visit his fiancee. On his way there, a cop from D.C. began following him. The officer crossed state lines out of his jurisdiction. It ended in Jones being killed outside the home of his fiancee.

This tragic killing reminded Coates of the danger he was always in. Without breaking the law, without provoking anyone, he can be killed. Just for being Black.

Even worse than senseless violence? There was no justice. The story is the same as it has been so many times before and since. The cop claimed that Jones tried to hit him with his car. Despite the fact that the officer had a reputation for lying, he was cleared and returned to duty.

Traditional education is not always relevant to the Black experience.

Coates expresses the distance he feels in many aspects of society, including education. Curriculums are designed at state and federal levels. The subjects and materials used to teach in schools are based on this setup.

The result is a homogenous education that doesn’t account for the unique experiences of individuals. As a Black man, learning from an education system designed largely for and by white people is largely irrelevant.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there was no value in education. Coates just went about it in another way. He learned independently by reading.

Malcolm X was very influential on Coates. He would listen to his speeches and read his writings. Malcolm X actively fought against the white-run system.

His ideas were not always well-received in the mainstream. But the point wasn’t for them to be acceptable to the white majority. Instead, Malcolm X argued that a racist white society requires retaliation by Blacks. The messaging was direct and tackled reality in a way that Coates couldn’t get in traditional schooling.

College was also a deliberate effort to break away from the limits of traditional education systems. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are an alternative to the institutions dominated by white students, professors, and administrators.

Coates went to Howard University, which is an HBCU and a private university. The focus is on a liberal arts education and preparing its graduates to go to law school. Howard has no shortage of well-known alumni: Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neal Hurston, to name a few.

At Howard, the most impactful thing to Coates was The Mecca. This is the whole spirit behind the college. It seeks to offer a well-rounded education to the people that have historically been denied access to other, established institutions.

The culture of Howard is to find your identity in a way that is not just a counterpoint to white culture. Instead of seeing Black identity as a reaction to white society, you’re learning who you are as an individual. That’s the point of The Mecca, and it gave Coates the full education he needed.

The color of your skin can affect more than you think.

Coates shares the first reality of being Black: You have a Black body. This may seem obvious, but this simple fact is what creates vast disparities in quality of life.

Daily, there is racism that affects how you’re treated if you’re Black. First, police violence against Black boys and men is a regular occurrence. People that are supposed to protect do more harm than good if you’re Black.

Second, there is a disproportionate incarceration rate for Black people versus white people. Black men are more likely to be locked up or face more severe sentences for the same crime. This creates further gaps in quality of life and the ability to lift yourself up.

Finally, poverty and other social issues disadvantage Black communities. And where these problems exist, they aren’t offered sufficient resources to improve on the issues. This adds to the risk of crime and that is compounded by the racism in the justice system.

If you’re white, you can’t know what being Black is like. It is a fundamentally different experience to walk through life with the systematic prejudices, disadvantages, and dangers that present themselves to Black people.

America and, as a result, the American Dream was built on slavery.

At the very start of the United States of America, there were founding fathers that were also slave owners. The men that created the government of this country are men that thought people could be property.

Slavery only increased after the Revolutionary War. The wealth of America was built using slave labor from Africa. In total, an estimated 1.5 million people were brought to America and enslaved.

The dependence on slave labor to build the country up shows that slavery built America. The original American Dream relied on Black bodies as property. So the American Dream is, by design, for white society.

Racism isn’t over.

Of course, slavery became illegal with the Emancipation Proclamation. But just because they couldn’t be treated as property didn’t mean Black people were treated as equals.

During Reconstruction after the Civil War, Blacks were subjected to the Jim Crow South. Segregation was used to keep Black people from accessing the same resources, creating an unequal society. Discrimination and violence were commonplace.

Then, the Civil Rights Movement came along. In 1964, the passage of the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. But illegal things happen every day. Discrimination is no exception.

While institutions may not blatantly say that they are treating certain groups differently, it happens because of intentional and implicit biases. Law enforcement racially profiles and the association of Blacks with criminality is only reinforced by the media and justice systems. State and federal governments don’t provide the resources needed to lift up Black communities. The institutional racism persists even if it is not explicit.

Coates shares how his experiences, including the killing of Prince Jones, affects his perception of police officers. He and his family moved back to New York City just before 9/11. Coates didn’t share in hero-worship of the first responders.

Fear is a major driver of behavior on the streets of poor Black communities.

Coates highlights a theme of fear in Black lives. There is a fear in the streets of his own community. You can’t connect to the systems that exist outside of your community so you do what you can to survive.

In poor communities, the streets have a law of their own. Gangs run different sections and you have to navigate carefully to avoid crossing their paths. This fear is a regular part of life.

But Coates doesn’t fault the gang members either. He sees that they are also operating from a place of fear. White institutions hold most of the power in the broader world through police and politicians. Gangs are a reaction to being neglected by those systems. They look out for their own in the way they know how to.

Blacks are left to fight for themselves in a world where the systems are set up against them.

Young Black people have to face racial injustice from an early age.

Violence against Black boys and men is a recurrent theme Coates discusses. Even the young aren’t safe from such violence. Shooting unarmed Blacks is a pervasive problem.

Coates struggles with feelings of futility in trying to protect his son in a world that is so dangerous for him. He remembers his son being pushed out of the way by a white woman when he was just 5. But the woman threatened to call the cops on them.

The 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin brought national attention to this issue. George Zimmerman decided Martin looked suspicious and called the police because there had been robberies recently. Zimmerman and Martin had some sort of altercation that resulted in Martin being shot and killed.

Martin was unarmed. Still, Zimmerman was acquitted after a trial for murder and manslaughter. He claimed he’d been injured in the altercation.

Trayvon is not a rare case. In 2014, an unarmed Michael Brown was shot by a police officer. Like the retroactive justification for killing Trayvon Martin, Brown was alleged to have shoplifted. This seemingly justified a death sentence.

Presuming that Black people (and men in particular) are criminals is what makes these tragedies so frequent. Racial profiling by cops and civilians leads them to assume the worst. This racism pushes them to respond with violence.

But Coates does not just want racial injustice to be something that he consoles his son over. He wants his son to help push the country forward. It is about joining the fight to make things better. There has been slow progress, but the next generation has to keep working at it.

Success under the American Dream is defined by white society.

The American Dream is a myth. If it is an idea that was created under a country powered by slaves, the dream is not for everyone.

Some of the ideas behind the American Dream are not the issue. Coates agrees that you can seek more for yourself and your family. But the problem with the American Dream is that success under its vision is defined by white society.

Blacks will never have the same level of access to the American Dream as whites. As you’ve seen, the institutions are biased against Blacks. They are viewed as criminals, education systems aren’t inclusive of them, resources aren’t available to their communities, and the justice system treats them unequally.

Even if a Black person succeeds, it is defined by white society. The successful Black is put in the context of white institutions. There is no American Dream that fits everyone.

A “Black American Dream” isn’t the solution.

Coates considers the notion of a Black American Dream that adjusts the white norm. But he points out that this would still be problematic.

Black people are diverse. They come from all over the world. They look different, worship differently, and have different perspectives. How are they supposed to have one dream?

Dreams are, by their nature, an individual exercise. Redefining the American Dream to something else would just be painting with another broad brush. It would also not fit all of America.

There is no singular dream. You can’t define success for everyone. If the cards are stacked against someone, their dreams and success will look different from others. Instead, the most powerful thing is to recognize the American Dream is a myth.

The Main Take-away

Unless you’re Black, you cannot truly know what it means to be Black in America. Coates shares the distance between his experiences as a Black man and the white world that sets the rules and norms.

Even though slavery was abolished and racial discrimination is illegal, racism still exists. Just because something doesn’t specifically use race as a reason doesn’t mean it’s not racist.

The traditional education system is usually white-run and not relevant to the Black experience. Places like Howard University offer a small sanctuary for Black people to find their own identity that isn’t just a reaction to how white culture defines them.

The justice system disproportionately impacts Black men. Incarcerated more often and assumed to be criminals without having broken any laws, institutional racism is present in policing, courts, and prisons.

Violence is a constant in Black lives. There is always a threat of unexpected and unwarranted violence. And it does not come with the protection of justice.

But Coates wants his son to join the fight. Rather than give up or accept the woes of mistreatment, he sees the potential for better. But it is a fight that must continue.

About the Author

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a Baltimore native. His mother was a teacher and his father was a librarian and publisher.

An interest in writing and publishing blossomed at an early age. As a child, his mother made him write essays when he behaved badly. His father worked with Black Classic Press and was a former Black Panther.

Despite attending Howard University, Coates never got his degree. Despite being the only member of his family without a college degree, he has received the MacArthur Genius Grant.

Between the World and Me was his second non-fiction book and he won the 2015 National Book Award for it. Coates wrote a novel The Water Dancer and has written for the Marvel Comics series Black Panther and Captain America.


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