It occurred to Father one day that Coalhouse Walker Jr. didn't know he was a Negro. The more he thought about this the more true it seemed. Walker didn't act or talk like a colored man. He seemed to be able to transform the customary deferences practiced by his race so that they reflected to his own dignity rather than the recipient's.
In Chapter 21, Father has what he considers an important revelation: he believes that Coalhouse has no awareness of his race, or of his place in society. 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. Because Coalhouse refuses to adhere to the social norms for his particular race and challenges racial stereotypes, whites often react with resentment and indignation, especially in the case of the New Rochelle authorities which whom he interacts. Doctorow employs an ironic tone to express his disapproval of such prejudice. Despite their mostly good intentions, Mother and Father also tend to endorse the racial attitudes of their time. The above passage demonstrates the extent to which Coalhouse's mannerisms struck Father as highly unacceptable; and, because Father represents the typical white male at the turn of the century, Doctorow thus makes a larger statement about the nation's racial attitudes.