Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Power of Perception

Rashad’s beating is the central event that drives every aspect of this story, including the readers’ perceptions of his innocence. By beginning the novel with Rashad’s narration, the authors leave no doubt about Rashad’s innocence. Rashad’s perspective shows how other characters jump to conclusions based on their perception of his appearance. Rashad’s father understands this tendency in people, but he nonetheless sees his son through the same lens as others when he considers that Rashad might be at fault.

By the time the day of the protest arrives, the way that Rashad perceives himself and his place in society has changed. He makes the active choice to remove the bandage from his damaged nose and show everyone in attendance—friends and strangers alike—that he has survived this injustice and is not afraid to stand up for himself. When he sees his father at the police station, Rashad knows that his father has finally stopped allowing perception to get in the way of supporting his son.

Self-Interest versus the Greater Good

Both Rashad’s and Quinn’s fathers served in professions that required them to put the interests of public safety and national security above themselves and their own families. Rashad’s father retired from the police force but he still possesses the same adherence to discipline as an active-duty officer, and he expects his son to make the same sacrifices as a student in ROTC. Quinn’s father was killed in the line of duty, but his entire community assumes that Quinn will assume the responsibilities of caring for his brother and keeping his head in the game so that everyone on his basketball team can impress the scouts.

For Quinn, deciding whether or not to attend the protest is the ultimate test of what, for him, constitutes the greater good. To protest would supposedly let down his teammates, but it would also lend his voice to a cause that he now knows to be critically important. As the son of a fallen military veteran, Quinn is weary of the notion of sacrifice and living up to his father’s legacy, but when he takes the risk of choosing Rashad’s side, he does precisely what he believes his father would want him to do. When Quinn stands up for his beliefs and puts others’ needs before his own, it benefits society as a whole, not just a single basketball team.

Race and Social Class

On the surface, Rashad and Quinn have much in common: they both attend the same school, go to the same parties, and are active in extracurricular activities. However, they don’t know one another because most people in their school divide themselves socially among racial lines. Quinn doesn’t know Rashad, but he does know Paul, so he makes certain assumptions in the beginning about Rashad’s beating based upon what he sees, while remaining conveniently unaware of his own privilege.

Rashad’s father is Black, but his time as a police officer in uniform placed him in a different social class where he often viewed other Black people as potential criminals. Even after he makes a grave error in judgment during a situation involving a white boy and a Black boy, Rashad’s father continues to view young Black men who do not project a clean-cut image as asking for trouble. He would rather insist that his sons project a respectable image than accept that a class system that values appearance over truth is deeply flawed. Over the course of the novel, many characters, such as Rashad’s father and Quinn, are forced to examine their roles in this flawed system.