August 28, 2015

The Horror of Race in the United States

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

I’m not a big fan of horror stories. I’ve never read Dracula, Frankenstein or even a Stephen King novel, and I don’t regularly watch movies full of chainsaws, ghostly figures, or creepy twins. But recently, I read a sociological horror story that I couldn’t put down. I was engrossed with it. It was beautifully written, painstakingly told, and depressingly disturbing.  Although it did offer details of death and destruction, these were not the scariest passages. What made this story so frightening and unsettling was the plain, unadulterated sociological truth it told.

The book I’m referring to is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Published in July 2015, the book quickly rose to number one on the New York Times bestsellers list (for August 16, 2015). Written as a letter to his son, Samori,  Between the World and Me details in stark, candid language, what it means to live in a black body in the United States. Employing historical narratives, personal experiences, and journalistic reportage, Coates offers his son a glimpse of his country, his world, and his body so that Samori can “find some way to live within the all of it.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, courtesy of Eduardo Montez-Bradley, Wikimedia Commons

Race is a topic that all sociologists, no matter what level of proficiency they are at, have discussed and studied at some point in their lives. The sociological discourse on race usually revolves around race as a social construction. Coates shares this view and like most sociologists he argues that “what constitutes ‘white’ and what constitutes ‘black’ is a product of social context; there is no fixed sense of ‘whiteness’ or ‘blackness.’”

Although seeing race as a social construct may be the norm for sociologists and writers like Coates, it is not the prevailing view in society at large. As he argues at the beginning of his book, “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.” Creating a racist societal hierarchy based on “hue and hair” is what gives birth to race and, subsequently, to the horrors of having to live in this society in a black body.

But this is just the beginning of the horrors. When people fail to see race as a social construct and “believe themselves to be white”—as Coates suggests throughout the book—then they become “obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” What we are then left with is the ultimate horror show with smoke and mirrors, what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva called in his book of the same name, a society of Racism without Racists.

Although black bodies are being continually destroyed, and racist ideologies are in the DNA of the police, the courts, the schools, the lawmakers and all other gatekeepers and social institutions, the fabric of racism is often not blamed for this widespread destruction. Instead, as Coates warns his son, the prevailing sentiment is that black bodies are destroyed by their own doing:  “Should you fall victim to such an assault and lose your body, it somehow must be your fault. Trayvon Martin’s hoodie got him killed. Jordan Davis’s loud music did the same. John Crawford should never have touched the rifle on display. Kajieme Powell should have known not to be crazy. And all of them should have had fathers.”

By emphasizing the “language of intention” and “personal responsibility” for black bodies while simultaneously ignoring the “criminal irresponsibility” on which white people founded and from which prospered in this country, we end up with a twisted and perverted sense of justice. Victimizers are innocent not until they are proven guilty; rather, they are presumed, and ultimately proven, to be innocent because the victims are more-often-than-not presumed and found to be guilty. In other words, “the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined.”

The assault and destruction of the black body is a central theme of Coates’s book. And much of what he writes on this topic reflects that one ingredient that is central to all horror stories: fear. Horror stories make us afraid, they terrorize us, and growing up in a black body in the United States was (is) terrifying for Coates. He fears for his body, his son’s body, and all black bodies, and this fear has been with him his entire life. As he tells his son, “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”

On the hardcover edition of Between the World and Me, Toni Morrison, one of the world’s greatest contemporary writers and herself an authoritative voice on race in the United States, hails the book as “required reading.” Although I agree that this book should be read widely, and I’m sure I will require it to be read by students in my classes, the real challenge is to make this book required understanding.

This is where I feel the horror of the story seeping back in. As an educator, I’m not quite sure how to achieve this level of comprehension. And like Coates, I am not overly optimistic that our collective ignorance will be overcome any time soon. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to try. As an educator, and a citizen of this world, what choice do I have? I will determinedly reach into my bag of pedagogical tricks, I will regularly assign readings like Between the World and Me, and I will unabashedly challenge students (and myself) to be reflexive sociologists.

Before we wake up from the nightmare of race in the United States we must first all agree that we are actually having a nightmare. Coates’s book, and his other writings, help us considerably down this path. But unfortunately, many people continue to believe that we live in a blissful color-blind society of equal opportunity. Until this dreamlike state is shattered and the nightmarish reality is exposed the horror story will continue.


If the above named author, and other sociologists (black, white and other) want to see an example of where I think youth should be directing their attention (especially African American youth), regarding acknowledgement of or denial of their racial status in this country, read a book entitled, "The Great Africa Mass Exodus of 2050" The author of this book has envisioned a time where African people of the world have unified themselves and secure the entire continent for themselves. Ultimately, they give it all up, for a "no-return" voyage, by the entire race, into space. A book like this, with ideas of empowerment, that can actually happen, in our time, is what young people need to cut their teeth on today.

Keith Hall

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