This month, the book group at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author and journalist whose career has ranged from serving as national correspondent for The Atlantic to writing the Black Panther comic book series that has become a major motion picture. Coates is African-American, and Between the World and Me is his account—told through a series of letters to his son—of the experience of being black in American society. The book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for a Pulitzer.
The book is an eye-opener. While I have read other books about the African-American experience, this was the first time that I had experienced an author speaking directly, intimately, and at length about the many facets of being black in American society. A powerful writer, he brings home the intensity of that experience, which comes into sharp focus when a good friend is gunned down by a policeman.
Between the World and Me contains many references to people who go about their lives, in Coates’ words, “as if they were white.” His point is that race is socially manufactured, that Europeans and European-Americans justified their enslavement of Africans by creating the idea that there are separate races. In other words, they created the idea of “black” as an inferior race and, in the process, created the idea of “white” as a superior race. “Difference in hue and hair,” he writes, “is old. But the belief in the 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” (p. 7).
His comments reminded me of a discussion during the planning of an international conference in Canada a few years back. The discussion centered around the U.S. ideal of a “melting pot” versus the Canadian ideal of a social “mosaic” in which each individual brings his/her own unique characteristics to society. During the Book Group discussion, I noted the common rule of thumb that it usually takes three generations for an immigrant family to fully blend into the general U.S. population—to fully melt in the pot. At that point, people tend to privatize their historical roots and live publicly simply as unhyphenated Americans. Perhaps Coates has a similar idea in mind when he says to his son, “You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was” (p. 39). Each generation lives in a somewhat different context that defines how they see themselves and how they are seen. Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans—despite rough, often violent resistance to their ancestors when they first arrived—fully blend into the crowd after a few generations and use their hyphen as a point of familial pride, not as a public label. But clearly, the value that Americans place on the idea of race as a differentiator of power has made that difficult for African-Americans. As Coates writes, “There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been ‘black,’ and this points to the great difference between their world and ours.”
It remains true that racial distinctions both flow from and reinforce the fact that “whites” enslaved “blacks,” creating a lasting social disparity between the two groups. In the long run, we need to eliminate these artificial distinctions. However, it may be worth noting that it has only been two generations—since the black rights movement of the 1960s—that African-Americans have gained their full rights as citizens in the U.S. Clearly, racism still exists, but, increasingly, it is recognized for what it is.
It has been good in recent months to see the melting pot ideal increasingly featured in television advertising. It is not just that black families are more visible as representatives of the purchasing public, but that mixed race couples and mixed race families are now often seen as models. It is a sign that the mosaic, if not yet the melting pot, is at work. Perhaps Generation Z—the third generation since the civil rights achievements of the 1960s—who have already begun to step up for social change in light of school shootings, is the generation that will see the end to this struggle. It is an ambitious dream, but one worth the effort. It remains for all of us to to embrace all varieties of American as our neighbors, our friends, our extended family. The recent shooting death of Stephon Clark is a haunting reminder of how far we have to go; the news coverage of this tragedy, though, may be a sign that we are nearing a point where racism—and race, generally—is no longer an acceptable excuse for the misuse of power.