Between the World and Me is a letter that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his teenage son Samori. Coates begins by describing an interview he did for a news podcast. The host asks Coates what it means to “lose his body” and why he thinks that white America’s progress is built on looting and violence. Coates clarifies that white America is really “those Americans who believe they are white.” His short answer is that American history explains white America’s progress. Then he gives a complex overview of American history and its relationship to race, racism, and the violent physical extortion of black peoples’ bodies. He believes Americans have made democracy into a god and use it to forgive themselves of the nation’s enslavement and torture of black people. When Abraham Lincoln declared everlasting “government of the people, for the people, and by the people” in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, the country did not define black individuals as people.
When Coates finishes his attempt at an explanation, the host shows a picture of a black child hugging a white police officer, and asks Coates whether there is hope. At this moment, Coates is sad because he knows he has failed to articulate his point. He has to search internally to understand why he is feeling saddened. The host is essentially asking him to awaken her from the “dream” of an innocent America and its white culture. He realizes his sadness is for all the people who are brought up believing they are white and reveling in superficial hope. However, he is mostly sad for Samori. Though Coates himself has long wished he could escape into this dream, it is not possible for black people because the dream itself rests on their backs.
Coates writes to his son when Samori is fifteen. In this year, Samori has seen several cases of undeserved police brutality against black individuals. Samori now understands that police have been given the authority to destroy his body. Coates reminds Samori that this is the week he learns that the killer of Michael Brown will go free. Samori stays up to watch the indictment and upon learning the police officer will go unpunished, goes to his room and cries. Coates sits with Samori but doesn’t try to comfort him, instead telling him the reality of the situation. This is his country, he is in a black body, and he has to figure out how to live with it. At any point, a black person’s body can be destroyed or assaulted for any reason, and the guilty parties are rarely held responsible.
Coates has spent his whole life trying to figure out how to live in a black body in the midst of the American Dream. His parents taught him to reject the idea that America had a preordained glory and never consoled him with a belief in religion or an afterlife. Accepting that this is his only life, he asks: “How do I live freely within this black body?” He has sought to answer this question through reading, writing, music, arguments, and school, and has concluded that it is unanswerable. However, his constant struggle to come to grips with the brutality of his nation and his lack of control over his own body have freed him from his biggest fear—disembodiment. In this way, the struggling and questioning is worthwhile, though Coates knows there is no answer.
The first several pages of Coates’ letter set the tone and basis of his viewpoint. He introduces ideas of “those who believe they are white” and “the Dream,” which seem opaque at first, but Coates considers them to be an essential part of America’s history. Coates posits that Americans think of “race” as one’s inherent feature, given to them by Mother Nature. “Racism” is the need to assign this feature (color) to people and then use it to humiliate or destroy them. Therefore, Americans widely believe that racism follows race. But if race is inherent, this allows people to view racism as an unfortunate external consequence of Mother Nature—like a natural disaster—instead of man’s handiwork. Coates argues that racism actually comes before race. Deciding who counts as a person doesn’t depend on genes or physical features but on the belief that these features can indicate a hierarchy within society. Humans have always had different hair and eye colors, but it is a newer belief that these differences can indicate how to correctly organize a society or can decide who has more and less worth.
This new idea is at the heart of a group of people who have been brought up to believe that they are white. But “white” as a race in America doesn’t really mean anything. All white people were named something else before they were named white, such as Catholic or Welsh. Those who believe they are white are those who grew up in a nation founded on the belief that it had a right to choose which inherent traits indicated a correct ordering of society. Coates says that unlike “black,” the term “white” is tied to criminal power. The “elevation of the belief of being white”—white progress—has nothing to do with the things that are culturally associated with white people in America. White progress isn’t innovation, Memorial Day cookouts, or football. White progress has been accomplished through violent acts against slaves. Coates emphasizes that all our current phrases to describe this problem—such as racial profiling, racial justice, and white privilege—are all meant to obscure that the problem is really physical, visceral violence against black bodies.
Coates points out that this problem isn’t unique to America. All powerful nations have become powerful in part by violently exploiting others’ bodies and forcing them into labor. However, Coates believes America should be held to a higher moral standard because America claims that it is a great and noble champion because of its democracy. This claim is hypocritical because slave labor “built” America, and that is not real democracy. Now, many white Americans in the generations after slavery do believe slavery is wrong and reject the idea that race has anything to do with a human’s worth. However, it is much easier for white people to ignore the past and believe that the current America is innocent of the sins of the past. Coates contends it is not sufficient to disconnect oneself from the dead white people who perpetrated slavery.
Applying a truly moral standard would mean facing and questioning the evil things that our nation has done, and it would be painful. It would mean accepting the fact that today’s white individuals are still profiting from past evils and cannot be declared innocent. Meanwhile, black people cannot turn a blind eye to America’s history simply because the injustice was committed against their ancestors. Slavery persists today in the form of fear for one’s body. Coates says the American Dream is the naïve or willfully ignorant belief that America is now innocent and forgiven of its past. For Americans who believe they are white, the Dream is a blissful lie.