I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates read Between The World and Me a couple of times before I felt comfortable writing a review. I have been told, and it makes sense to me, that if I want to be an ally against racism, I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I am white. Or has Ta-Nehisi Coates might put it, I think I’m white. I am a beneficiary of white supremacy. If I want to help smash the white supremacist patriarchy (I do, I really do), I need to listen and allow myself to be uncomfortable with the experience and world view of people of color without becoming defensive. I need to be able to listen to someone else’s anger at white people without interjecting my feelings and without being coddled. I listened to Between the World and Me twice and was uncomfortable.
Between my listenings to Between the World and Me, I watched last year’s mini series The People vs OJ Simpson. I was in law school when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, and all through the trial and acquittal. I was shocked when the jury reached their verdict, and I could not understand why the black community was so certain of his innocence. I heard the Mark Fuhrman tapes, and it still didn’t occur to me that there might be good reason to distrust the LAPD and the justice system as a whole. Being white and from the South, it wasn’t even the first time I had heard that malignant racism expressed out loud. What was clear to me as I watched the miniseries was that Marcia Clark thought her case was about a rich man who had a history of domestic violence. She thought black women would be her allies because she had prosecuted so many domestic violence cases on their behalf. She didn’t take into account the fathers, brothers and sons that were the victims of police brutality and mass incarceration. What Johnnie Cochran knew was that his case was about systemic racism in the LAPD. He didn’t have to disprove the evidence or the timeline, he had to discredit the LAPD, who had already discredited themselves. I absolutely believe that OJ Simpson murdered his ex-wife and her friend. I don’t think the LAPD had the intelligence or competence to plant that much physical evidence in one night. I also understand now why it was so easy to ignore all the physical evidence and the history of domestic violence, why it was so easy to believe that the LAPD could and would frame OJ Simpson.
A few years earlier I had been shocked by the acquittal of the four police officers in the Rodney King beating and sympathetic to the ensuing riots. In the last 20 years, I have been repeatedly shocked that police officers have been acquitted in cases that were so clearly police brutality. You know who wasn’t surprised by those verdicts? Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m not going to make any claims that Coates has tapped into The Fundamental Truth, but he articulates A Fundamental Truth about race in the United States.
Coates frames a lot of his discussion on two different levels. One is the social construct of race. The other is the reality of black bodies. Americans believe that race is a thing that exists, that skin color comes with a set of qualities and worth. Biologically, there is no such thing as race. It is a made up social construct. But it’s a social construct on which the United States is built. Race allowed immigrants to seize land from the indigenous peoples. Race allowed the kidnapping and export of people into slavery, and allowed indentured servitude to become generational slavery. The idea of race allows those of us who think we are white to participate in, and uphold, the structure of racism. The idea of race allows the State to assume it has rights over black bodies in a way it does not over white bodies. But blackness and whiteness are mutable ideas. This is why racism is still the root cause for police brutality, even when the police officer and victim are both black. Race is less important than authority. Recognizing that race is not a scientific reality does not mean that there is not a black culture that is separate and distinct from white culture.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing about his own journey and the experiences that shaped his views. I think it’s worth listening to him. White Supremacy has never gone away. Right now it is having a resurgence. I was raised to believe that the goal is equality between the races. I am considering reframing that as equality among cultures. The surest way to reject white supremacy is to reject the very idea of whiteness. But I am not interested in a bland, beige society. I want to be able to look at a photo of pregnant Beyoncé and know I’m missing a whole lot of references, but still think she’s beautiful.
Some videos that you might find interesting.
Ta-Nehisi Coates talking to Jon Stewart about the book on the Daily Show
Ta-Nehisi Coates National Book Award acceptance speech.