Mother's Younger Brother travels regularly to New York to see Broadway shows. He begins to attract a fair number of women, but he cannot afford to live his lifestyle on his salary. He seeks out prostitutes in the streets, usually not making love but simply enjoying their company. Mother's Younger Brother comes across the offices of Emma Goldman's magazine, Mother Earth; he returns there over the course of several nights. Eventually a man emerges and invites him in; apparently they have mistaken him for a police spy. After some time they attend a meeting about the Mexican Revolution, about which Mother's Younger Brother had known nothing. Following the rally, Mother's Younger Brother waits for hours as the party dies down; he wishes to speak with Emma Goldman. Finally she approaches him, and tells him she does not know the whereabouts of Evelyn Nesbit. Criticizing him for his self-pity, Goldman conveys to him her prediction that if they were to reunite, their love would not last; Mother's Younger Brother concedes that she probably speaks the truth. She expresses to him her belief that friendship and shared ideals matter more than romance. On the way back to New Rochelle, he fleetingly considers suicide.
One day, Coalhouse Walker drives to New York in his Ford and passes, as he often does, the Emerald Isle firehouse and its volunteers. On this day, however, the firemen demand a toll from Coalhouse in order to travel the road. Coalhouse refuses to pay this toll, and attempts to drive around the barrier they have established. When the firemen prevent him from proceeding, he calmly weighs his options and decides to ask two black boys to watch his car while he seeks help. The policeman to whom he launches the complaint has little sympathy and dismisses the situation. Upon his return to the scene, Coalhouse notices that the road has cleared and his car lies off the road; dirty and torn, it also contains a pile of fresh human excrement. Coalhouse approaches the fire chief, Willie Conklin, as a police van appears. The policemen respond to Coalhouse's demands that the car be cleaned and the damage repaired by arresting him. Father posts bail so Coalhouse may be released; Coalhouse later recounts the incident. Mother's Younger Brother is engaged. Meanwhile, Sarah listens in on the conversation from the hallway, aware as no one else of the enormity of the situation. Coalhouse dedicates the funds he originally intended for his wedding toward securing a lawyer. The following day, Mother's Younger Brother visits the site of the incident and remarks upon the degree of the vandalism.
Mother's Younger Brother falls into a sort of manic unhappiness, and determines he must be on the verge of a nervous collapse. In an attempt to counter his depression, he engages in a rigorous exercise routine. Mother and Father, mystified by his odd behavior, understand his eccentricities no more than they ever have. Having surveyed the damage to Coalhouse's Model T, Mother's Younger Brother realizes that the anger Coalhouse feels about the incident must be much greater than his own. Coalhouse, having contacted three different attorneys, remains unsuccessful in his efforts to convince them of his case; even Father's phone calls do not improve the situation. Coalhouse even contacts a black lawyer in Harlem, and considers representing himself. The family often discusses his efforts at the dinner table; one night, Sarah confesses to Mother's Younger Brother that Coalhouse has told her they cannot marry until his car has been restored to its original condition.
The character of anarchist leader Emma Goldman plays an essential role in the novel, as she represents many principles that gained prominence at the turn of the century and would influence twentieth century ideology. First, her unconventional views on relationships and marriage resonate with Mother's Younger Brother, despite his infatuation with Evelyn Nesbit. Wallowing in self- pity over his heartache for Evelyn Nesbit, Mother's Younger Brother ultimately admits that he cannot reasonably expect the relationship to end happily or to last. In her attempt to console Mother's Younger Brother, as well as to convince him of her perspective, Emma Goldman give him some advice: "Friendship is what endures. Shared ideals, respect for the whole character of a human being. Why can't you accept your own freedom? Why do you have to cling to someone in order to live?" Not only do these probings challenge Mother's Younger Brother to earnestly observe his love for Evelyn Nesbit, but they also challenge the reader, and society as a whole, in its conception of heterosexual love. In a time when feminism had just begun to gain strength in Western civilization, Goldman brings into question the traditional model of love and marriage. She believes that men and women should base their interactions on similar interests and sets of values rather than on sexual relations. She has also dedicated much of her life to the fight for the rights of oppressed populations, thereby coming to appreciate the value of personal freedoms.
Ragtime addresses the concerns and hardships of many oppressed groups, including African Americans. Through Coalhouse Walker's character, Doctorow establishes a commentary on race relations during this time in American history. Since Coalhouse conducts himself with pride atypical of African Americans at this point in history, his expectations of how he should be treated repeatedly come into direct conflict with others' expectations of how African Americans should be treated. Doctorow writes, with heavy irony, of Coalhouse's stubborn sense of conviction, "Apparently it did not occur to him to ingratiate himself in the fashion of his race." Because Coalhouse refuses to adhere to the social norms for his particular race, whites often react with resentment and indignation. Doctorow employs irony to express his disapproval of such prejudice. Doctorow writes, "The officer had now begun to appreciate Coalhouse's style of speech, his dress, and the phenomenon of his owning a car in the first place. He grew angry." Despite their mostly good intentions, Mother and Father also react similarly to Coalhouse's mannerisms. In commenting on their perspective, Doctorow writes, "It seemed like such a foolish thing to have happened. It seemed to be his fault, because he was a Negro and it was the kind of problem that would only adhere to a Negro. His monumental negritude sat in front of them like a centerpiece on the table." Rather than seeing Coalhouse's struggle as a symptom of a fundamentally racist society, Mother and Father lay the blame on Coalhouse.