Can a Person Make a Change?

Reviewing for the New York Times, Michelle Alexander writes that Between the World and Me “emphasizes over and over again the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing one person can make a change.” As Coates writes: “still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life” (97). Alexander disagrees with Coates, arguing that believing in one’s own power is the only way meaningful change can happen. Is this tension helpful to the discourse of civil rights? What is your take on this?

10 responses

  1. I believe this tension is neither helpful nor harmful to the discourse of civil rights. Alexander believes one person can make a difference, and Coates does not. In my eyes, this conflict is not an obstacle. Why not? Because even though Coates believes personal efforts against racism are futile, he still believes we should try—that we should struggle towards equality. While Alexander argues that we should fight for racial justice to make a difference, Coates suggests that we should fight to keep our sanity. They disagree about the reason for their actions, but the action they support is still the same. Because of this core agreement between the two, I do not find this “tension” to be a major conflict. Personally, I tend to side more with Alexander’s belief. Maybe it’s because I’m an optimist at heart. I like to think that I can make a difference. Perhaps Coates’ stark view is correct, but the world is a much brighter place when you believe in the power of your actions.

    • I agree that the tension between Alexander and Coates is not especially helpful. I tend to view Alexander’s viewpoint as more productive. Coates firmly believes that an individual person cannot create change. Despite this, I think that his insistence on seeing world without the len of race is actually a step in creating positive change. Reading “Between the World and Me,” has made me realize that my views on this issue are due largely to the fact that as a Caucasian/Asian person I have not experienced many aspects of the struggle that Coastes describes. It make me realize that my optimism is a luxury that “the Dream” has afforded me.

  2. When tension arises within the discussion of civil rights, the disconnect allows people to look more closely at the idea of change and the actions that create specific forms of change. From Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes it clear that change does need to occur to inhibit the social construction of racism. Even outside of the confines of this book, most people can agree that change needs to transpire. The problem lies in what people believe change is and how that change arises. If people do not know what causes change and what actions influence change, people will be left in stagnation. Tension is necessary in constructing the specifics of a viewpoint. Racism won’t be combatted with generalizations.
    In Coates’s views, change goes beyond one individual. With his specific idea in mind, he proclaims, “In every great change in the loves of African Americans we see the hand of events that were beyond individual control” and “You cannot disconnect our emancipation in the Northern colonies from the blood spilled in the Revolutionary War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from slavery in the South from the charnel houses of the Civil War” (96). Coates notes the grand scale of one event to another. Each event of history carries an influence on the control of one’s body, of the social construction of racism. The change that proliferated from these events did not manifest itself from one individual; it came from society and the opinions of the whole. Because of this, Coates does not believe it reasonable to put the weight of change on the individual. The individual does not owe the world anything. The individual has their own body to worry about. With this in mind, Coates has his own specific definition of change, believing that it must occur through collective actions and influences.
    By comparing Coates’s views of change to Michelle Alexander’s individual-oriented claim of change, it becomes clear that people as a whole do not specifically know how to garner the change that everyone desires. The tension that the opposing views create help to begin the thought process that influences specific actions. Although the tension might appear to hinder present change, it allows the people to pinpoint specific, long-lasting notions to dismantle the social construction of racism.

  3. I agree with Laura that since both standpoints advocate real action the tension created is mostly internal. One person believes they have made a difference, another that they are the kind of person who does the right thing even when it is futile. Still, for what its worth, I don’t agree with Coats that one persons impact is meaningless. I think on that point he is his own best counter example. One man puts pen to paper to express his opinion and from this event thousands of students engage with, grapple, and discuss issues of race when they might easily not have. We are the future society and by his very inspiration of us Coats proves himself wrong.

  4. I believe that the tension that exists between Alexander and Coates’ aruguments is essential within the context of civil rights and all the other issues that plague society as a whole. In order to promote change within any issue one must simultaneously believe in one’s own power, as Alexander suggests, but one must also acknowledge that change often occurs slowly, and sometimes, even imperceptibly. The two views are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe they are incredibly complementary. I have been reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Posibilities (10/10 would recommend it to everyone) which addresses the need for both of these perspectives beautifully. Solnit uses several radical, positive changes that have occurred during recent history to describe that we need to be both adamantly optimistic and realistically pessimistic when discussing prominent issues. Solnit quotes Fitzgerald who said, “One should be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise” (Solnit 10). Optimism acts as a motivating force. It urges people to take action. It is incredibly easy to get discouraged in the fight for civil rights, because in many cases it feels like we take one step forward and two steps back, but optimism and confidence in our individual abilities to facilitate change helps to fight hopelessness. The loss of hope, or in other words, despair, is an excuse not to act. It is unacceptable. Defeatism can never lead to a civil rights victory. Hope and a persistent optimism can dramatically further the fight for equality. However, optimism itself can hinder progress because ultimately the fight for civil rights will never be done. One victory doesn’t mean that everything is suddenly perfect. Solnit sums this concept up with the simple phrase “It’s always too soon to go home” (Solnit 3). This is where pessimism plays an important role. The pessimist will never be completely satisfied with any outcome. She will never be lulled into the “look-how-much-better-things-are-now” excuse which allows people to quit because things are “better.” It is this dissatisfaction and constant questioning that can act as a motivating force to keep pushing forward. It can stop people from going home too soon. Both the perceived pessimism of Coates on the individual’s power and Alexander’s optimism harmoniously combine to create a stronger civil rights movement. It has been proven again and again that diverse perspectives facilitate creative thought and progress in many different sectors of life. The civil rights movement and any other social movement can benefit by allowing both perspectives and the resulting tension into their organizations. The balance between optimism and pessimism can be difficult to find but if discovered it can be revolutionary.

  5. *note: this is intended as the fifth part of an extended response to all of the questions.

    5) In both extending this rambling treatise beyond all rational limits and fulfilling the cliché of every self-aggrandizing aspiring writer, I’m going to begin to respond to this question by referring to an outside concept of which my understanding is as deep as that gained by skim-reading a Wikipedia article: the “Great Man” theory. In the most basic and essential terms, as I understand it, this was a 19th century postulation that history is effectively dictated by heroes and great divinely-inspired individuals; it was promptly counterclaimed by a more-or-less contrasting assertion that it was the society of the individual that allowed them to be great, and that a so-called great individual could only exist as such, and have such an impact, after coming to be within their respective society—basically, it’s an exercise in individualist versus collectivist thought—how much of us is individual, and how much is owed to our backgrounds, whether sociopolitical, socioeconomic, or sociocultural? My personal take on this matter is that individualism is as possible as the framework of the surrounding society; that is to say, we essentially possess as much freedom as the stable infrastructure around us permits. In theory, by way of extreme example, we could ostensibly be born, locked in a small room, and left to die en masse, with our “liberty” and “freedom” limited only to whatever was physically possible within that confined space; arguably, such a society would be counterproductive, and such strange draconian measures entirely counterintuitive, but hey, it’s a thought exercise. With this in mind, I’d wager that history, which is always in flux, owes itself largely to individuals, because the societal measurement has two apparent limitations to me: firstly, that it presumes that those factors alone determine greatness; and secondly, that it underplays the role of the individual whilst simultaneously overplaying the role of the factors of their societal background. Let’s first link this back to Coates with a quote of his that is largely related to this topic, as follows: “ . . . responded to Bellow’s quip. ‘Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,’ wrote Wiley. ‘Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.’ And there it was,” (56). My problem with this statement is not one born out of “racecraft,” as Coates labels it, nor am I going to deny the existence of “universal properties of mankind,” which I’d broadly endeavor to define as such things as love, fear, hope—whatever—but that it almost completely disregards the role of a society in shaping an individual. Originally, the quip that was responded to, as Coates writes, went as such: “‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?’ Bellow quipped,” (43). Hilariously enough, I’m about to argue against myself to some schizophrenic capacity, but let’s begin with the questions posed: is history impacted to any substantial or significant degree by individuals? Are these individuals cut from some, for lack of a better term, cosmic cloth, or do their own sociocultural backgrounds help to explain them? Why do I disagree with Coates’ assessment of Tolstoy as the Tolstoy of the Zulus? Is the tension created by the debate over individual influence helpful to the discourse of civil rights—which is, by its nature, an extension of history—and what is my take on all of this? Let’s begin. For starters, I’m a staunch believer in the capability of an individual to make a sizeable difference—good or bad—on the world; for easy and overused examples of this, I’ll point to the names Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong, not because they were a positive force on the world, but because they massively changed it. Personally, I also believe the relationship between cultural background and individual achievement is correlated, but there are two underlying beliefs that exist underneath my assessment: firstly, that not all cultures are equally great; and secondly, that just because a culture is greater, and thus one could therefore predict a greater concentration of great individuals, insofar as greatness can be defined as overall impact, it is not the only bedrock in the foundation of a great individual, for if all it took for a great individual to be produced was to be a part of a great culture, then surely a great culture would only produce great individuals. And so, to summarize my views, yes, sociocultural influences may absolutely play a role—perhaps even the dominant role depending on how far one wants to stretch—in the development of a great individual, but ultimately, one would also need to take their own individuality into account to generate a complete picture of their origins and impact; in other words, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong were all products of their nations and epochs, but their own presence also impacted these eras—and all future ages—by the virtue of their own individual—and entirely regrettable—influences. For a more light-hearted example, by way of parallel, one might expect that given its progression and popularity as the 21st century began, hip-hop music could expect a great individual to emerge and change things up, a bit; as far as I know—not being a huge hip-hop fan—Kanye West came into prominence at this time and impacted and influenced the genre of hip-hop as a whole. To sum it up: by the virtue of its existence, one could regard with inevitability the emergence of a figure such as Kanye West, but the fact that it was Kanye, and that he added his own individualism into the mix, altered the history of hip-hop in precise ways that, ostensibly, only he could do. This could be said about Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong—that influential individuals, for fear of having people misread the words great and Hitler in the same sentence and entirely misunderstand my meaning in ways I’d prefer they didn’t—could be expected as products of their time and place, but that the particulars and specifics are what leads to individual personality-driven change on a large scale. And so society produces individuals, who then change society, and so forth—who came first, the great individual or the society that birthed them, I cannot exactly say—but the point of the matter is that even if individuals exist somewhat as products of their time and place, they are still, by the merits and virtues of their individuality, both instrumental and capable of enacting change on a broad societal level. And in the Civil Rights movement, this tension—this interrelationship between society and the great individuals that it more-or-less spawns—plays a significant role for precisely the same reasons as it does in the rest of history, and so we regard such great individuals as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks not merely as expected byproducts of their particular backgrounds, but also as fully-fledged individuals in their own right, and without whom, the world would not be the same. Now, as a side-note, I’ll wrap this up by responding to Coates’ remark about the response to a quip about Tolstoy—phew—and it goes as follows: as I’ve said, there are certainly “universal properties of mankind,” but if we acknowledge the indisputable role of a society in shaping, forming, and otherwise constructing an individual, then it is a mistake to act as if Tolstoy is universal. This is not to say, “he’s white and therefore different” or anything of the sort; no, but because even nations themselves are geographical and social constructs, and because nations largely possess cultures of their own, which does, of course, change over time, Tolstoy is not—nor could he ever have been—of the Zulus. After all, Tolstoy’s “universal properties” were harnessed and magnified through both the individual lens that he possessed as, well, an individual, as well as through the specific sociocultural lends that characterized his time and place—namely, Russia in the 19th century and early 20th century. If we accept that an individual is influenced to such a significant degree by his society, then Tolstoy can only be of the Russians, and of that time, just as Hitler can only be of the Nazis, and of that time, or as Stalin and Mao could be of the Soviets and of the Chinese in their respective times; I see no profit in acknowledging this beyond merely the truth that I honestly feel it conveys—that is, to embrace the backgrounds of these individuals, and to identify them as products of their geography and of their epoch—for Tolstoy is the only Tolstoy to anybody, but if he is “of” anybody, it’s himself, his time, and his place, just like Kanye, just like Hitler, and just like Coates.

  6. I am torn between the validity of points made by both the author and reviewer. On one hand, I am initially shocked, saddened, and confused by Coates’ assertion that the individual cannot make a change. The ability for individual power to make a difference has been pounded into me my whole life. I was taught that every person is special and has a role to play in creating the change they want to see in the world. I want to help make that change and so initially I feel drawn to Alexander’s claims about the importance of believing in one’s own power to make a difference.
    However, upon more reflection about my privileged role as a “white” person in the United States, I realized that I am not in a position to truly deliberate between the best methods of achieving change. I am especially drawn to one quote regarding this from Between the World and Me: “Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen” (96). I have never had to worry about my body being of equal worth to everybody else’s bodies. Again, I was always taught I was special and could achieve anything. I never had to be concerned about police bias or worry that my errors would cost me more than someone of a different color.
    Therefore I do not feel I have the right to judge how Coates feels about his own power to make a change, as his power has been constantly stolen by my “white” America. Reading a book about his lifelong experiences with race has given me insight into why he sees racial injustice as such a difficult issue to change, be it by one person or an army of people from all different races and backgrounds. So while I hold onto the idea of change from an individual level and the optimist in me prays for an end to racial discrimination through the work of many people united, I can also respect how near impossible that must seem to a man who has dealt with racial discrimination his whole life.

  7. The tension between Coates and Alexander does not affect the discourse of civil rights. Both agree that it is imperative to fight for rights within society, yet have different reasons why to do so: Coates believes it is for personal sanity while Alexander believes it can make a difference. Varying reasons for the same action occur everyday, yet does not affect the actual action taking place. The disagreement is not as simple as it seems though; neither is completely correct or incorrect. Coates is correct in the idea that one person cannot change societal norms. Change occurs when many people gather together with the same goal in mind, therefor one person alone cannot make a large impact. However, it is important for people to believe their individual actions will affect society. Without this belief there would be few people speaking out against injustice and working towards improvement. Each individual’s reason for participating in social activism will be unique, yet the impact made on society will be beneficial.

  8. I believe that the opposing viewpoints on racial injustice in America is helpful to both the individuals fighting for a change and the discourse of civil rights as a whole. Coates believes that every sacrifice that one makes in order to get equal civil rights for all races is just contributing to the sacrifices of millions of others who have done the same, all providing little change in society. Alexander on the other hand believes in the power of an individual that it just takes one person to make a difference. Both Alexander and Coates have opinions that can spur a person to protest and fight for change more vigorously which in the end helps the discourse of civil rights. In my opinion, the bottom line is that anyone striving for a change in racial injustice, either with the mindset of individual power or as just being another number in the fight for justice, is important. If no body fights at all, it is guaranteed that no alterations will be made in society.
    I understand the points made by both Alexander and Coates. In the real world context, although it is heartbreaking to hear, one person can’t always make as large as an impact as we would like and sometimes it does take more time and more people to finally see a change in affect. But, I also strongly believe that individuals who believe that they can are what helps change happen at all. As Confucius said, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones” and by more men helping carry those small stones will make the mountain move even faster.

  9. This prompt immediately imposes the question of tabula rasa into my mind. Tabula rasa is the idea that people are born with a “blank slate”, with no prior knowledge. In the phrase given, Coates is assuming that every human will continue to practice the same racial beliefs for the rest of history. Considering the same ideas of John Locke, a philosopher who believes that the human senses let us acquire our knowledge after birth, if people began to start “believing in one’s own power” (Michelle Alexander) and let their children grow in an environment that taught acceptance, perhaps a change in racial injustice could occur.

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