Photo via Wikimedia Commons
By Sophie Konrad
(UBC Arts One, Brandon Konoval seminar)
The scale, intensity and longevity of inequality is especially unique and unprecedented in America. This is because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in Between the World and Me, American identity is essentially founded upon oppression, and thus economic inequality is anchored in racial inequality. Indeed, the history of American enslavement and capitalism virtually established racial organization. In the words of James Baldwin, “the crisis of leadership in the white community is remarkable—and terrifying—because there is, in fact, no white community” (Baldwin 1998, 2).That is to say, slavery first facilitated the “belief” in “whiteness” which granted “white people” feelings of supremacy over African Americans. Coates echoed Baldwin’s statement by insisting that “race is the child of racism, not the father” meaning race is merely an American social construct (Coates 2015a, 7). Therefore, whiteness is a state of mind diametrically opposed yet dependent on blackness because superiority requires the existence of inferiority.
James Baldwin, an essayist, playwright and novelist, acted as a voice and “witness to the truth” during the American Civil Rights Movement (Baldwin 2014). Born 1924 in Harlem—home to racial inequality, economic disadvantage and distrust in police authority, all of which provoked the 1935 Harlem race riots—Baldwin became inspired to understand black and white dynamics and, similar to Coates, passionately absorbed reading material about the unjust world around him. Baldwin was alive to witness the racially charged assassinations of Medgar Evers(1963), Malcolm X (1965), and Martin Luther King Jr (1968).These events encouraged Baldwin to articulate his thoughts about the consciousness of race and the convenience of ethnic diversity. In The Fire Next Time, he argued that whiteness was a matter of belief and that, if dispelled, could “end the racial nightmare, change our country, and change the history of the world”(Baldwin 1963). Indeed, Baldwin concludes that it was (and continues to be) merely this belief which has “brought humanity to the edge of oblivion” (Baldwin 1998, 180). Ta-Nehisi Coates evidently adopted Baldwin’s perception that racism predates race in America. Coates writes that “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition” (Coates 2015a, 7). Opposing this understanding, Coates, like Baldwin, claims that whiteness is both a matter of belief and a recent phenomenon. He suggests that,
The process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. (Coates 2015a, 7)
Baldwin wrote: “No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country” (Baldwin 1998, 3). Baldwin explains that European settlers “paid the price” of so-called American citizenship through oppression and exploitation (Baldwin 1998, 178). Thus, racism in American is unparalleled because hierarchical systems are built primarily to belittle others, thereby encouraging separation. Coates remarks that “America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a long champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization” (Coates 2015a, 8). Americans who believe they are white pride themselves on bonding through shared enemies. Might this suggest that the need for racial division is the backbone of American identification? This realization, that racism is especially distinguished in America, dawned on Coates during his trip to France. While in France, Coates did not experience the exclusion he expected given his race. This is because while African Americans were “sexual and obscene” in America, “We were not enslaved in France. We are not their particular ‘problem,’ nor their national guilt” (Coates 2015a, 128). While France has a separate, equally horrendous, “national guilt” from colonialism, America is uniquely founded on the reason for national guilt: slavery, a system based on injustice and violence.
American slavery, established during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, became amplified with the growth of the cotton industry. Cotton production allowed white plantation owners to exert power over African Americans, virtually turning slaves into expendable and therefore seemingly limitless human commodities. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, cotton production was the world’s most important industry. According to Sven Beckert, “on the eve of the Civil War, raw cotton constituted 61% of the value of all US products shipped abroad” and “the livelihood of between one-fifth and one-fourth of the British population was based on the industry” (Beckert 2014). More importantly, Coates notes that at the “onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export” (Coates 2015a, 101). Similarly, Becket argues,
Opulence owed to the toil and suffering of slaves; capital accumulation in peripheral commodity production was necessary for metropolitan economic expansion, and access to labour, if necessary by coercion, was a precondition for turning abundant lands into productive suppliers of raw materials. (Beckert 2014)
The cotton industry, built upon back-breaking slave labour, formed the groundwork of America, thereby tainting American society forever.
Along with American slavery came self-justification and pardon from guilt: another trait that distinguishes American racism. This notion of “good intention,” which Coates explains as “a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream” exempted people who believe they are white from any responsibility for unjust actions (Coates 2015a, 33). Baldwin comments on this phenomenon: “why do they want to be white? Because it’s the only way to justify the slaughter of the Indians and enslaving of the blacks” (Baldwin 2014, 116). Rationalizing oppression originated during colonialism, when European settlers employed scientific or religious understandings (Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny, respectively) to attain absolution. Colonialists and white plantation owners saw themselves as nobly executing “God’s handiwork,” when in fact, Coates retorts, “the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men” (Coates 2015a, 12). Even now, people who believe themselves white “are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.…There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally” (Coates 2015a, 97). When a woman pushes Coates’ son at a movie theatre, Coates reacts aggressively but neglects to mention that she acted “according to a tradition that held black bodies as lesser” because “her response would likely have been, ‘I am not racist’” (Coates 2015a, 97). Destroying black bodies is so engrained within American society as “tradition” or “heritage” that, for Americans like this woman, racism is second nature. Instances like these illustrate how violence, oppression, and outright racism are not only banal but natural in America.
America quickly gained wealth through cotton production, which gave birth to the concept of the American Dream. The promise of the Dream is succinctly summarized by former President Bill Clinton: “if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you” (Clinton 1992). This pledge implies The Dream is colour blind: available to all people regardless of background. Nevertheless, Coates explains that The Dream was both racially biased and actually achieved at the expense of African Americans. In the words of Coates, “the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies” (Coates 2015a, 11). Indeed achievement and success was made possible through horrendous measures:
The process of washing disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tasting and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labour and land…and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. (Coates 2015a, 8)
Micheal Schudson suggests that during this time period, equality was often omitted “in the headlong pursuit of a mass consumption society” (Schudson 2004). According to Schudson, black male veterans were formally included in the GI Bill (which provided benefits for returning WWII veterans) but actually discriminated against because “the GI Bill operated through state-level regulatory agencies and entrenched private institutions such as colleges, banks, building and loan associations, and the real estate industry where blacks routinely experienced racial prejudice and discrimination” (Schudson 2004). For black Americans, the American Dream was a paradox; the visible and widely accepted prosperity in America actually hid deep illiberalism and racism. The Dream did not represent a land of success nor an open road towards progress but an attractive yet evasive reality.
The appeal of the Dream is feeling included; James Baldwin calls this sense of community or tribalism a “false identity” (Baldwin 1998, 179). Americans who believed they were white established racial barriers which naturally made racism the ticket into the coveted Dream. Coates says that, “For the men who need to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization” (Coates 2015a, 104). The Dream represents a uniquely American paradox of complementarity between seeming inclusivity and actual exclusivity; this dynamic actually extends beyond relations between white and black people. Coates shares,
I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human’s body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe. (Coates 2015a, 60)
Evidently, oppression, as a central tenet of American identity, can be perpetrated regardless of race, gender, or social class. People who believe they are white, in particular, deem African Americans inferior to feel superior. Unfortunately, since “hating the stranger” establishes worth and belonging, people who believe they are white continually strive towards features of division.
Regarding “white” Americans who exploited African Americans for personal gain, the notion of “capitalizing” on opportunity, made famous in relation to the American Dream, assumes a different meaning. Nowadays, being black means living in constant fear, whereas being white involves “capitalizing” on fearfulness for societal advancement. Coates exemplifies this equilibrium through relationships between both black and white families. White people are described “pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts” or “lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles” (Coates 2015a, 89). The diction “lost in conversation” and “commanding entire sidewalks” represents an internalization in the belief of racial dominance resulting in unguarded confidence. Opposite this portrayal, Coates says that “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made” (Coates 2015a, 82). African American communities are rightfully afraid of injustice and take necessary precautions to protect their prized possessions. While white parents allow freedom and forgiveness from missteps or maltreatment, African American children are taught to be “twice as good” (Coates 2015a, 90) because “our errors always cost us more” (Coates 2015a, 97). In this sense, Coates believes that terror is communicated to black children and mastery to white children.
Americans confident in their “whiteness” feel comfortable in “schools, portfolios and skyscrapers,” whereas these institutions, founded upon racial bias, threaten African Americans (Coates 2015a, 85). Black Americans face constant reminders of race through law and educational institutions, both of which are systemically racist. Coates depicts the education system as unnecessary because, specifically for African American students, it teaches compliance instead of methods to combat “whiteness.” Black children are meant to quietly read history books that speak “of black people only as sentimental firsts” because “serious history was the West, and the West was white” (Coates 2015a, 43). Coates says, “I sensed the schools were hiding something, drugging us with false morality so that we would not see, so that we did not ask: Why—for us and only us—is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies?” (Coates 2015a, 26). For this reason, Coates compares his French class to Jupiter because school represents an entirely different (and effectively racially biased) galaxy.
Given that school represents indoctrination with false portrayals of history, Coates explains that black people seek safety “in men with guns who could only view us with the same contempt as the society that sent them” (Coates 2015a, 85). Therefore, fearfulness is converted to violence that, while broadcasted as “black-on-black” violence, is actually preparation and/or defence against white forces. Coates believes that,
The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T-shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired. (Coates 2015a, 14)
Coates’ description of gang culture represents the ceaseless cycle of violence even perpetuated by parents who beat children as inoculation against dangerous streets. Coates explains that his father “beat [him] as if someone might steal [him] away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us” (Coates 2015a, 15). Fear manifests itself through violence which serves to warn black children of people who believe they are white.
Furthermore, issues associated with white superiority are projected through police brutality. Police abuse is “the purposeful practice of unwarranted coercion, frequently physical, also verbal assaults and psychological intimidation” (Lyle and Esmail 2016). According to FBI statistics, “African-Americans represent 31% of all shooting victims by police while representing 13% of the entire United States” (Lyle and Esmail 2016). Activists, such as Coates, claim that people who believe they are white integrate racist attitudes, which characterize African Americans as homogenous and criminal, into police work. Following this line of argument, Coates explains that “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” (Coates 2015a, 42). Coates lists the following cases as examples of police brutality:
Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes…Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help… John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store…. [M]en in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve year old child whom they were oath-bound to protect…. [M]en in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road. (Coates 2015a, 9)
The shocking similarity between these cases begs the question: can wearing a badge or uniform serve as an avenue to convincing oneself of whiteness? Perhaps police officers do not necessarily need to be Caucasian to project “whiteness” because officers actually derive power from the police institution alone.
Police officers, like American Dreamers or anyone who believes they are white, crave the feeling of belonging. Police department culture stresses loyalty and group solidarity, so perhaps officers overlook miscarriages of justice solely to gain acceptance. In this sense, the police department could be infused with racist values which cannot be easily remedied with racial diversification in the workplace. This solution overlooks “black-on-black” violence, which provides evidence that racial problems are systemic instead of individually based. Maybe the socialization process in the police department is more powerful than skin colour? On the other hand, Coates might argue that in the same way that the American Dream alleges ‘colour-blind’ social mobility, police officers are “not police at all but privateers, gangsters, gunmen, plunderers operating under the color of law” (Coates 2015a, 53).
This being said, it is not only certain American institutions that are corrupt but the entire bedrock of America’s economic and political system. New York Times writer Matthew Desmond wrote that “historians have pointed persuasively to the gnatty fields of Georgia and Alabama, to the cotton houses and slave auction blocks, as the birthplace of America’s low-road approach to capitalism” (Desmond 2019). While the nineteenth century railroad industry generally symbolizes modern business development, this “protects the idea that America’s economic ascendancy developed not because of, but in spite of, millions of black people toiling on plantations” (Desmond 2019). In reality, modern management techniques were invented and implemented on American plantations. Record keepers meticulously noted inputs and outputs, worker productivity and depreciation, all of which reduced humans to mere data points “turned to fuel for the [profit-oriented] American machine” (Coates 2015a, 70). Slave-keeping was an extremely calculated business: plantation owners swapped advice, from the “minutiae of planting, slave diets and clothing to the kind of tone a master should use” (Desmond 2019). In this sense, while it seems slightly comforting to believe slave beatings were administered randomly through acts of sheer racism, in reality, “violence was neither arbitrary nor gratuitous; it was rational, [and] capitalistic, all part of the plantation’s design” (Desmond 2019). Indeed, people who believed they were white harnessed productivity through the anguish of the enslaved.
This endeavour towards economic progress at all costs continues today. Despite American emancipation (1863), racial tension continued after the Civil War (1861–1865) and the 13th Amendment (1865) because the oppressive capitalist system endured. Hence, while abolition is thought to mark the development of “new kind of moral consciousness,”perhaps “all that changed was a growing need to scrub the blood of enslaved workers off American dollars” (Desmond 2019).In the same way nineteenth century American citizens overlooked where their lavish linens, petticoats, or corsets came from, modern consumers ignore the reality of offshore sweat shops. In a word, capital always has, and always will, trump moral commitments in America. Desmond summarizes this phenomenon with the remark:
If today’s America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism—a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider—one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is (Desmond 2019).
In the same year that he published Between the World and Me, Coates wrote an article titled “What This Cruel War Was Over,” which argues that Confederates who were “bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery” still rule the American South nearly one century post American Civil War (Coates 2015b). He quotes Florida Democratic Senator Duncan Fletcher (1931), who claimed, “The Lost Cause [of attaining “supremacy of the white man’s civilization”] was not so much ‘lost’ as is sometimes supposed” (Coates 2015b). Even as “bold defenses of slavery became passé,” there emerged a progression towards the “Heritage Not Hate” argument (Coates 2015b). Newfound proponents understand the Confederate flag not as a “conquered banner” but “emblem of freedom,” and “it just happened that those who praised the flag, also tended to praise the instruments of white supremacy popular in that day” (Coates 2015b). Coates concludes with the statement: “The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why” (Coates 2015b). Whether consciously or unconsciously, some Americans blatantly ignore the brutal historical significance of the Confederate flag; this ignorance is an essential characteristic of people who believe they are white.
People who believe they are white have developed and widely adopted an extremely sanitized and selective version of American history. This version disregards previous injustices or twists historical facts using religious or economic excuses. In the words of Baldwin, “because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history” because, heaven forbid, this might taint America’s image (Baldwin 1998, 180). This is evidenced with the current American Presidency, which campaigned in 2015 using the disturbingly targeted slogan “Make America Great Again.” What time period exactly, Mr. Trump, does “again” mean to you? When the economy boomed at the expense of slave labour? When progress could be measured by the number of slash marks on an African American’s back? When black people didn’t have the lawful right to vote? Years after cotton production, slavery, and the American Dream heyday, Americans still do not realize they are marching in the footsteps of their ancestors who exploited, harassed, and bullied African Americans, all to achieve “whiteness.”
Between the World and Me, while confessional and cathartic, is designed to inspire and mobilize action within Coates’ son and black Americans. Coates clarifies that while the unjust circumstances his son will face are not his fault, they are his responsibility. Just as Price Jones’ mother encourages Coates’ son to be proud of his loud music, or Malcolm X who renamed himself and reclaimed his heritage, Coates advocates methods to resist people who believe they are white. Many Americans are blissfully ignorant, but Baldwin and Coates, as witnesses to the truth, use the power of words to expose American racism. With the help of authors and activists, who have created “a new story, a new history told through the lens of our struggle,” the Dreamers (those who need to think, talk and be white) might awaken from the Dream to realize that the foundation of American society continually destroys black bodies (Coates2015a, 44).
Baldwin, James. 1998. “On Being White and Other Lies.”Black On White,Schocken Books.
Baldwin, James. 1963. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial Press.
Baldwin, James. 2014.The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Contributions by Quincy Troupe et al, Melville House Publishing.
Beckert, Sven. 2014. “Empire Of Cotton,” The Atlantic. archive/2014/12/empire-of-cotton/383660/
Clinton, Bill. “A Call for Responsibility.” Campaign Speech, Washington, DC. June 24 1992.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015a. Between the World and Me. Speigel & Grau, CNIB.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015b. “What This Cruel War Was Over.” The Atlantic. https:// www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/.
Desmond, Matthew. 2019. “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That To The Plantation.” Nytimes.Com. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/slavery-capitalism.html.
Lyle, Perry, and Ashraf M. Esmail. 2016. “Sworn To Protect: Police Brutality,” Dillard University Department Of Justice23 (3/4). doi:1899014782.
Schudson, M. 2004. “American Dreams.” American Literary History16 (3): 566-573. doi:10.1093/alh/ajh032