The foundation and success of America was built off of the exploitation of African Americans by promoting a hierarchical system to enforce the concept that white folks were superior over people of color. 1
After the Constitution was written, immigrants believed that America promised equal rights and protection to all citizens, yet it failed to acknowledge that the color line was drawn to enforce a structure, which gives power to some and takes it from others. 2
Although the Civil Rights movement created change and challenged this unfair system, it is still prevalent in today’s society due to fact that most people are socialized to uphold the social construct of race. 3
In explaining this, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes Between the World and Me as a letter to his son to teach what he has learned throughout his lifetime about his identity as a black man.
This memoir analyzes the racism Coates faces being black within his time as a child in West Baltimore, his college year at Howard University, and living in New York.
Due to these harsh realities, Coates recognizes that “the price of error” is higher for black people because they are criminalized by society, never allowing them to ever feel secure in their own bodies.
As a child growing up in West Baltimore, Coates learns at a very young age the criminality that comes with being black due to his unforgettable experiences on the streets. At the age of eleven, Coates was walking outside of a 7-11 when a group of older, boys approach another boy his age. Coates watches as the crew surrounds this boy and one of the older guys slowly pulls out a gun. He puts it away after threatening this young boy’s life and then leaves. In this moment, he realizes, “He did not need to shoot. He affirmed my place in the order of things,” demonstrating how Coates understands that he will never have the power these situations (Coates 19). He recognizes that his body could be taken away by anyone and that he is not the one truly in control of his life. Because he can never feel safe, this forces him to always question his actions. In addition, these black boys are being told by society that they are the problem, thus resulting in aggression. This makes the price of error much higher for black people than others due to the stereotypes that surround them. Specifically, the messages they hear allow them to accept their role in society as thugs, keeping them from thriving and having the opportunities that white people have. In addition, if a black person were to do well, they would be challenged because of the generalization that black people cannot be successful. Due to this situation, Coates figures out that he will always be at the bottom of the power dynamic and that there will always be someone above him. Coates witnessing such horrifying aspects of society at such a young age causes him to be pessimistic about how the world treats black color.
Being able to endure life on the streets and going to school in West Baltimore, Coates enjoys attending Howard University, an all black college, yet is challenged when a cop takes his friend’s body. He calls this place the Mecca because he notices that people of color can show their abilities and talents, which is where he meets Prince Jones. After a few years pass, Coates reads an article revealing that Prince Jones was shot to death by a black cop from the PG County police. The cop was supposed to arrest a man who was much heavier and shorter than Prince; yet shot him multiple times because he assumed it was him. From this sad and innocent death, Coates comes to an understanding that all the police reforms do not do anything for minorities. As Coates analyzes this further, he adds, “…The police reflect America in all of its will and fear…it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority,” depicting that this institution is represented by the minority, yet they still target people of color (78). Coates realizes this idea that he could be completely innocent, but if he is perceived as “looking” suspicious, his body could be taken away from him. The police are no different from anyone, except that as a whole, they are systematically oppressing black people. Also, they can use their prejudices to determine whether a person is innocent or guilty. In addition, the fact that the cop who shot Prince was also black shows how strong the social construct of race is. This cop shot Prince because he gave in to his own stereotype, that all black people are felons. This causes the price of error to be very high because it has forced black people to fly under the radar. In this case, the error is just being noticed because Prince did not have to do anything wrong for his body to be taken. Furthermore, since black people are always being told that they are less than everyone else, they have internalized these ideas, allowing them to be defined by their stereotypes.
After moving to New York with his wife and son, Coates realizes that no matter where he goes, he can never escape the stereotypes that make him seem like a criminal in America. After the play ends and Coates, his wife, and son, Samori, begin to leave, Samori runs excitedly through the crowd as they start to pile out of the theater. As a white lady is pushing her way through, she touches Samori and in the heat of the moment, Coates stands up for his son. Another white man hears how he is reacting to this woman and says, “I could have you arrested,” showing his power over Coates. After Coates talks back to the white woman, he recognizes, “I had forgotten the rules, an error as dangerous on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as on the Westside of Baltimore,” showing that no matter where he goes, he will always have to deal with his race first (95). If he were a white person who questioned the woman who touched his son, he would not have received a threat to have his body taken away. Being a person of color, his price of error is high because it is necessary not to make mistakes since he would not receive a second chance if he were actually arrested. Because he is more likely to be charged as a black man, he is forced into silence. He cannot speak up for what he believes because white people do not care about his opinion due to the fact that he is black. Because many people often view black men as aggressive and threatening figures, they lose opportunities in many fields such as: housing, jobs, and/or bank loans. In addition, the man demonstrating his superiority shows that white people see him as a criminal and will use every opportunity to prove them guilty. Knowing this stereotype around being a black man, Coates is aware of the importance of being conscious of one’s surroundings and actions at all times. This is proven to him when he accidentally slips, thus reminding him that there is no one there to back him up and that he is very alone.
Through all of Coates’ experiences, his “price of error” is higher because of the stereotype that black men are criminals, never being able to find security within his body and others. As a young boy on the streets, Coates realizes that he is not in control of his life because he will always be questioning if he is doing the right thing. After Coates graduates college, he deals with the pain in understanding that a black person does not have to do anything to have their body taken from them. Always thinking about the death of his friend, he becomes more aware of his silence as all white people surround him. He writes this letter to his son to show him the effects of being black where white is the norm.