The Construction of Race.

The concept and construct of race as deterministic, physical, and natural is challenged by Coates as he writes that, “race is the child of racism, not the father” (7). However, as the Thomas Theorem states: “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas, 1928). How do we reconcile the implications of race being simultaneously a social construction and, as is apparent in this book, a material/bodily reality?

9 responses

  1. Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates presents the idea that race stems from a social construction, and this social construction creates the material/bodily reality that one experiences. Early on in the book, Coates points out that racism is not simply “the innocent daughter of Mother Nature” (7). Racism does not sprout from the consequences of genealogy. Instead, the foundation of race and racism come from the human need to create a hierarchy, a social construction to organize the people of the world. Those that believe themselves to be white, or superior, sit at the top of the hierarchy, and they leave those deemed black to the bottom. By creating this hierarchy, people gain the false-knowledge that a bodily reality signifies a deeper, racial truth. With this apparent racial truth, those at the bottom of the hierarchy must suffer this social construction through their body. In the childhood of Coates, he witnesses the fear and control of one’s body that originates from racism. With his life on the streets, he worries constantly over the state of his physical being, especially in the hands of authority, and he proclaims, “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed” (9). The unsettling repetition between “your body” and “can be destroyed” expresses the very implications that come from the hierarchy. The policemen that peruse the streets Coates grows up on convey their false-knowledge through actions, through reality. As blacks strain at the bottom of the metaphorical pyramid, the material reality of their body reflects this. The ideas of organization become the very scars on one’s back, the violence sheening off of one’s skin. But as one witnesses the social construction of racism through reality, how will one be able to trounce racism? Will the end of racism stem from a social construction or a material/bodily reality?

    • If the so called “end of racism” stems from a material reality–by which I think you’re referencing the idea of blending the races until a singular beige group of humans exists–then that resolution remains restrictively far into the future. However, given the past and present inability of humans to put aside their needs for hierarchical tendencies (semmingly inextricably linked to the way their brains function) for the sake of social equity, the blending-of-the-races scenario unfortunately comes off as more realistic. Though social construction will probably not be the undoing of racism, it is undoubtedly the best way we can frame the issue of disparate racial treatment in the short term

  2. The concept of race being a social construct resonated the most with me as I read Between the World and Me. The idea of whether it is instinctual for humans to create hierarchies has always been at the forefront of my mind, as I find social structures fascinating. I agree with Coates in that race is simply a human invention to “organize a society,” (7). Whether it be physical attributes, such as skin color, or other designating factors such as gender, age, faith, sexuality and mental ability, humans always find differences between one another that “justify” upper and lower classes. One of the reasons that this book connects so strongly with people of all backgrounds is that all humans are affected by the hierarchy in which they live. Although humans deemed “white” may not face racism, they are bound to have lessened opportunity due to at least one of the designated factors mentioned previously. Therefore, readers are more likely to emphasize with Coate’s personal history as a black man and racism as a whole, in that they have been mistreated by the concept of society on some level.

    The idea of reconciling the implications of race as a social construction and a reality directly relates to the monumental question of whether a perfect society is truly possible. Hypothetically, an optimal society would have no classism, which is created through racism, sexism, ageism and other designating factors. Humans have experimented with different societal forms for millennia, such as capitalism, socialism and communism. All of these forms have their benefits, but ultimately contain racism and other discriminatory practices. Therefore, one has to perceive racism as a reality, even if it is simply created by humans. In conclusion, as long as there are hierarchies, there will be racism.

    That does not mean, however, that one should do nothing. As humans, we need to realize that all of our decisions have lasting consequences, whether it be the destruction of our environment or the creation of racism. However, they can be remedied by effort, raised awareness and time. Take plastic for example. Most plastic cannot biodegrade and the types that can take hundreds of years. While plastic products continue to be manufactured, mountains of plastic are collecting in our oceans and increasing in mass. Although environmentalists can attempt to clean our oceans, the “effort” is pointless without “raised awareness” of the fact that we should stop creating more plastic. Lastly, we need “time” to let our plastics that can biodegrade begin the process. However, our water ways will never be completely healthy, as most plastics cannot decompose.

    This idea can be applied to the concept of race. First, people of all ethnicities need to help each other gain more opportunity in all aspects of life. Secondly, we need raised awareness among the populace of what we have to do to combat racism. It is also necessary to educate everyone on their personal biases. Lastly, we need time to recover from the devastating impact of racism that has affected our country for generations. However, racism will never be completely eradicated from our society, as Coate’s explains, as it is built on slavery and the designation of class distinctions.

  3. In the beginning of the book, Coates understands that “race is the child of racism, not the father”(7). He points to humans’ inherent need to organize as validation for his previous statement that “race is the child of racism, not the father”(7). Coates notes that humans desire organization and desire to create a hierarchy in society. The “bone-deep”(7) features of men and women, like hair color and skin color, “signify deeper attributes”(7) that cause certain people to “tragically… believe that they are white”(7). Coates notes the tragedy that is the invention of racism and the fallacy of racism because whites are only white because they “believe that they are white”. Additionally, these “bone-deep” features that ascribe race to humans are compared to the work of Mother Nature like earthquakes and tornados. Americans believe that the “reality of “race””(7) is as natural as the many phenomenon that cannot be explained as the handiwork of men. This allows Americans to separate themselves from the reality of race and its harsh consequences on those at the bottom.

    Later in the book Coates speaks to the struggles of the Irish and notes that there might have been other bodies that were “mocked, terrorized, and insecure”(55). At Howard, Coates searches for answers to why his body was chosen to be the black body and to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy as compared to other peoples, like the Irish. Coates realizes that “being named “black” had nothing to do with any of this”(55) and that race is a social construction, which allows people who believe they are white to name those at the bottom. At this point in Coates’ life, he realizes that he “was black because of history and heritage”(55). Generations before Coates was alive, his people were chosen by the human need to organize, to be at the bottom and to be “black”. The knowledge that Howard provides Coates allows him to realize that race is a social construction that he has to live with, which is why he shares his knowledge with his son, who must also live with their “history and heritage”.

  4. Certain socially-constructed ideas have been around for so long that they have become ideological pillars of society. Race is one such idea that has been around for a longer period of time, and so it is also one that draws the most conflict. Because there are individuals who have been raised to recognize race as a defining characteristic of a person, to make the statement that race is just an idea and not a physical body creates a large divide. It is difficult to be told that the ideas and understandings one has been raised to believe are not what they seem because it forces one to question the validity of their perspective. Race has been a physical barrier for many people over a long period of time, and as a result, it has become a material reality through the actions of these individuals. From slavery in the US and abroad, to various genocides around the world, even to segregation, the disadvantages that have built up throughout history for people of color have become more than a social construct. I understood Coates’ commentary on Race as purely a social thought as a way to say that though Race does not exist in bodily form philosophically, its existence as an ideological pillar has turned it into a reality that many individuals struggle with everyday. The desire to be superior than another based on a physical characteristic, such as the color of one’s skin, was the founding thought behind the idea that we as humans can divide ourselves into subgroups based on race. While it is essential to understand that race was constructed as a social idea, to deny its physical implications today would be to potentially dismiss the struggle and pain of millions of people.

  5. Coates asserts that the differentiation of races is a byproduct of racism rather than the cause and supports this claim through stating that individuals intrinsically “choose” to be a certain race recognized by society. He argues that numerous people “have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, and deceitfully, to believe that they are white” and this belief directly correlates to their rank in a society driven by both a racial and social hierarchy (7). The word choice of “to believe” implies that those who are white or see themselves to be of distinction or separate from those of other races acts as a social construct that shapes the attitudes and viewpoints of people who believe to belong to a different race. Moreover, the implication of social superiority or distance between those considered white and black contributes to the fragility and sanctity of life bestowed on each race. Coates continually comments on the fragility of the black body and how easily life can be removed from it which re-enforces the idea that the classification of people based on race possesses greater and life-threatening consequences. The dangerous and dividing reality of race in society stems from a socially-constructed hierarchy that will be difficult to dismantle due to an innate human need to dominate and control.

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

    2) Race is, to many parties, perhaps one of the most prevalent issues in American politics, and indeed, to the world as a whole; in reconciling the implications of race being simultaneously a sociocultural construct, as well as a physical reality, it is perhaps prudent—if not outright imperative—to look at the historical and societal developments that have created many of the modern implications of race that we know today. With this in mind, as far as I know, the scientific basis for the notion that race has some sort of direct, deterministic, and deeper-than-skin meaning is nil; as Coates said, “Difference in hair and hue 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. . . ” (7). Indeed, the only material/bodily reality that should accompany race is just that: hair and hue, suggestive only of physical attributes, and nothing more. And it is at this point that I find myself slightly at odds with Coates, as well as his apparent intellectual predecessor, James Baldwin, whose following quote is featured late into the book: “And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white,” (133). In this regard, I find myself at odds with them firstly because of their proposition that people “believe themselves to be white,” and secondly because of the borderline hypocritical racial diatribes that lace some of the more vitriolic pages of book. In regard to the former, in accepting the idea of race as merely a reflection of physical attributes and nothing more (i.e. as descriptors in the same vein as tall, short, blonde, brunette, thin, or fat), as I believe it to be, I feel as though saying people only believe themselves to be white is as useful as saying they only believe themselves to be blonde, or tall, or whatever; at a fundamentally physical level, I am “white,” just as Coates is “black,” but perhaps I’ve misread the intent of his comment—I believe it may refer to those that subscribe to the notion that race and behavior are related by some blatantly unscientific measurement of causation—and therefore, if he meant that those who believed that they were white believed in some sort of inherent superiority was afforded to them by their skin color, then he would be correct in asserting that they were in error. In respect to this, however, I must also make an amendment—if not outright counterclaim—to Coates’ oft-quoted assertion that “ . . . race is the child of racism, not the father . . . ” (7). For, if we take for granted that race is merely a reflection of physical differences, then “racism,” by merit of these variations in hue and hair, could only exist as an unfortunate consequences of both these physical differences and the misattributions that are made in response to them—in other words, the “racism,” or misguided beliefs about the causality between skin color and behavior—and thus the “whites” would treat the “blacks” as lesser and unequal. And this is what I meant when I said that it was imperative to understand the history behind the developments of our perceptions of race, for, as George Santayana famously stated, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Today, most people would balk and gasp at someone remarking that someone was greater or lesser than another by the singular element of their skin color, but, as many tragically know, this was not always the case, and so skin color—and geography, but let’s not overcomplicate things—became “race,” disparaging treatment based on skin color variations became “racism,” and what should have been simply a descriptor of one’s material/bodily self, much like hair color or eye color, became so much more. But it didn’t stop there; like the Ouroboros, perpetually trapped within an endless cycle—much like this seemingly-infinite response—the conceptions of “race” leaked into both those that wished to use it to suppress, as well as those that wished to declare some sort of supremacy. To Coates’ credit, he perhaps diffuses this by stating, “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people,” (149). However, he does the opposite in the next two quotes that I have selected. Firstly,
    “This power, this black power, originates in a view of the American galaxy taken from a dark and essential planet. Black power is the dungeon-side view of Monticello—which is to say, the view taken in struggle. And black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers—lost in their great reverie—feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying. We have made something down here. We have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. . . . As do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon these shores,” (149). And secondly, “In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after. In that single exchange with that young man, I was speaking the personal language of my people. It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured much of the beauty of my black world—the ease between your mother and me, the miracle at The Mecca, the way I feel myself disappear on the streets of Harlem. To call that feeling racial is to hand over all those diamonds, fashioned by our ancestors, to the plunderer. We made that feeling, though it was forged in the shadow of the murdered, the raped, the disembodied, we made it all the same,” (120).

    I have selected these quotes to juxtapose with Coates’ repetitive assertion of “White America” being a syndicate of oppression (42), as well as his continual reference to “White America” as Dreamers. To avoid sacrificing the readability of my response via oversaturation of quotations, I’ll simply refer to them in my response to the later questions, and proceed with this in mind; anyway, these notions, when taken together, bring forth two admissions on Coates’ part: firstly, that he, and all others aligned under the umbrella term of “black,” are, like their “white” counterparts, part of a grand “racial” collective with a shared blanket history, victimhood, or culpability, depending on the group in question; and secondly, that all members of this group either seem to be equally guilty or equally tyrannized to such a degree as to relegate all of the hardships of one group as mere byproducts of the actions of the other group. This is most aptly stated by the following quote: “But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons,” (42). Historical counterarguments aside—including the oft-cited and yet frankly ignored facts that America, let alone “white” societies insofar as the centuries-old European powers go, were not built solely, or even majorly, on slavery, as well as the indisputable truth that slavery and discrimination were hardly uniquely “white” phenomena over the course of history—there is a certain level of discomfort that is evoked, to me, by Coates’ words; granted, I’m willing to concede that members of a marginalized group, owing to their collective mass oppression, would share a sort of mutual and intimate understanding that could not, by the reality of their shared experiences, be fully comprehended by those that did not also suffer the same cruelties, and even Coates acknowledges this by writing, “You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was,” (39). Nonetheless, in reference to my earlier Ouroboros metaphor, as well as Coates’ scathing remark that the “whites” made the “blacks” into a race, and that they then made themselves into a people, I find this particular line of thought troubling. It’s made even more so when the book itself is marketed and advertised as an insight into what it is to be a black man in America—as if to be a black man meant that, because of your race alone, you could relate to every other black man—just as, by the same philosophical train of thought, every white person, or “Dreamer,” could ostensibly relate to every other white person by the virtue of their race. Yet, in trying to dispel the shadow of racism that looms, and arguably still, to some degree, haunts America, these lines of thinking are not a solution; by broadly casting disparate arrays of individuals underneath the broad swathes of race that Coates so vehemently and passionately rails against, and in labelling White America as a syndicate of oppression, and Black America as, to manipulate his phrasing, a syndicate of victimization, he is not removing the weight of racism—he’s just dictating new supposedly-universal implications and perpetuating it. In simpler terms, “race,” as in hairs and hues, created “racism,” which has now come full circle, through the implications of history and an unwavering philosophically-collective mindset, to sustain “race” in both the minds of the “oppressors” or “Dreamers,” as well as in its “victims.”
    To supplement this assertion, one may also further examine those two extended quotes from earlier, for from them, one may also conclude the following from Coates’ writing: firstly, that his belief in black power has possibly crossed the threshold from simply being a fair response to oppression to something altogether different, radical, and supremacist in its own right; and secondly, that in the terms of his propagation of the implications of race through the lens of its history and perceived modern occurrences—which, to be fair, surely do exist, for nobody could altogether reasonably deny the existence of racism in the modern world—he actually ostensibly shares some of the very qualities that he seems to loathe and detest, namely, a fascination with skin color and physical features. This is not meant as some sort of straw-man attack on Coates, nor am I purposefully veering off-topic, but rather, if one wishes to completely discuss a question in the light of the material that evoked it, I believe one must also dig deep into the implications of the words of the material, and from them, extrapolate some degree of truth through which an answer, in conjunction with other knowledge, may be found. So, we are left with a wide spectrum of tangentially-related questions: when Coates clamors for black power, is this justified as a response to past—or perceived present—oppression? When Coates writes that he feels a sense of belonging at the Mecca or in Harlem, is he simply stating that he feels more at home around his own “racial” group, or could we perhaps more innocently view this as yet another response to past—or perceived present—oppression? And most damningly, is Coates truly right to assert that all members of one “race” must, by the fact of their skin color and the history behind it, belong to a sort of secret and intimate club, or is this just another form of seemingly-benign racism hiding in a masquerade of poetry and good-intentions?
    Regarding the first, I have heard it stated that the fundamental divide between celebrations of black power and white power are the inherent non-equivalencies that are implied within each such celebration, in much the same way one could observe about gay pride and straight pride, for instance. That is to say, that one is the celebration of majoritarian oppression, and the other a gleeful declaration of equality by an otherwise marginalized group; I’d like to acknowledge the tentative merit in this claim, yet in doing so, I would also then, by extension, subscribe to the idea that all members of one group must not only share in the contemporary struggles of other individuals in said group, but also in the past and historical hardships faced by the group—which I will go into in just a moment. As for the second question, I am more-than-willing to give Coates the benefit of the doubt, for his sense of belonging at “black” institutions such as the Mecca may very well originate from his sense of shared victimhood, as opposed to some sort of arbitrary “racial” comfort found in the surrounding of oneself by members of their own “racial” group; in that vein, I would prefer to think of this way, and not, instead, as some sort of black supremacy parallel to individuals that profess a desire for segregated white environments. And finally, to address the last of my three questions, and to highlight the mindset that propelled Coates to draft this very book, I must first reference seven final quotations found within his text. Firstly, “The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the Dreamers . . . To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding,” (111). Secondly, “ . . . when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. . . . this woman was pulling rank. . . . invoked their right over the body of my son. . . . my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history,” (94). Thirdly, “ . . . In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage,” (103). Fourthly, “ . . . I saw white parents . . . gentrifying Harlem boulevards . . . lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children . . . mastery . . . to theirs,” (89). Fifthly, “You and I, my son, are that ‘below.’ That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream,” (105). Sixthly, “ . . . I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth,” (78). And finally, “I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm . . . ” (87).
    And so now, in my conclusory remarks, I must link the first, the second, and the third questions as one: how can Coates simultaneously decry the societal invention of race and yet also broadly generalize millions upon millions of individuals by such a construct? In order, Coates firstly claims that the violence seen within cities such as Chicago and Detroit is not the fault of their inhabitants, but rather, their architects; he secondly claims that a woman pushing his child in New York was clear-cut evidence of racial white supremacy, and not simply an ordinary act of rudeness, as one might very well expect in a city as crowded as New York—though I was not there, and thus cannot comment with certainty; thirdly, he asserts that the notion—no, the right—to destroy the black body is not simply a tragic feature of America, but rather, a moral imperative within its borders; fourthly, he clamors that the simple presence of white people walking down a Harlem boulevard is evidence of a vast and otherworldly divide, so gaping and infinite that little children on a tricycle are not just innocently playing, but rather, being groomed to become conquerors, dominators, and supremacists; fifthly, he once again claims, without any substantial historical evidence, that without a black underclass, the white underclass would not—no, could not—exist; sixthly, he demands that the shooting of Prince Jones was not a result of the actions of an individual police officer, but rather, a manifestation of that very same racism that he believes is perhaps irrevocably woven into the American cultural fabric—from which one might began to see parallels as to his assertions of individuals being nothing more than the byproducts of their societies—a topic that I’ll cover later in the corresponding question; and finally, and maybe most controversially, Coates not only laments the incident with Prince Jones, but, in mourning him, seems to have developed a worldview so stricken by grief and contempt that all individuals are nothing more than unwitting pawns in an otherwise fatalistic, cruel, and calamitous cosmos, wherein every individual tragedy and transpiring of awful events is seen only as a response to the rot that Coates sees as inherent within the American Dream.
    When President Obama was elected, the optimists in this nation began to rejoice at the prospect that America was entering a post-racial era. Eight years later, most would probably laugh at such a claim, but, given all of the evidence above, taken directly from Coates’ quotes, the eternal question necessarily returns: are all whites truly oppressors and all blacks really victims? This is not to say that vast inequality, across broad swathes, does not exist, nor to claim that racism is simply an element of the past, nor to launch any sort of character assault on Coates, nor to whitewash the suffering of black individuals and communities because I’m, as some might say, “blinded by privilege,” nor to sling or incur any other such straw-man arguments, nor to become an apologist for otherwise guilty individuals that commit atrocious and heinous actions in the line of duty or elsewhere, nor to cast blame in any given direction without first consulting the facts of whatever individual case I’m discussing, nor to propel myself onto a partisan bandwagon of blind praise or dismissal simply because such ideas and notions may conflict with my preexisting—and naturally imperfect—worldview, and lastly, nor to instill myself with any sort of authority beyond that which I possess: that of a student, who has not learned all there is to know, and never will, but who may try to learn more with each passing day. No, no—I’m not saying any of that—but what I am saying is that I am skeptical of the notion that we may bridge gaps by entrenching ourselves deeper within them.
    So, to answer the initial question of this blog post, how do we reconcile the implications of race being simultaneously a social construction and, as is apparent in the book, a material/bodily reality? Well, assuming that we’re all in agreement that “race,” as in hair and hue, don’t directly or deterministically influence behavior, we are going to need to disassociate ourselves from rampant collectivist thinking along these paraphrased lines of “all white people exist only to oppress” and “all black people exist only as victims,” whilst noting, of course, that this does not preclude individual people or communities from being oppressed, victimized, or otherwise discriminated against; to relate this back to my musing over Coates’ black power diatribes, as I’ve stated, I’ve heard the arguments that such proclamations, when contrasted with, say, white power diatribes, exist as a response of empowerment rather than one of supremacy, but if people of all hairs and hues are ever to exist side-by-side as equals in the vein of the post-racial era that Americans of many political stripes profess to desire, we must also acknowledge that the eternal perpetuation of any one “race” as an oppressor and any other as a “victim” is irreconcilable with this ambition. Again, just to beat this point home, this is not to declare that racism is nonexistent, nor that “white” individuals cannot be racist against “black” individuals, or vice versa, nor is it even to suggest that in the current sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical climate, the two “races,” or any others, exist on equal footing or share a similar history. However, the liberation of one group—as in, different perhaps in hair and hue, but not lesser or greater because of it, and certainly not inherently and/or intrinsically different beyond such physical attributes and maybe the history of their ancestors—cannot coexist with the mass demonization of one group by another. To clamor, for example, that all “black-on-black” violence is the responsibility of the “whites” is to not only imply that the “whites” are akin to puppeteers of fate and destiny, who are thus entirely, completely, and solely to blame for every individual wrongdoing in the galaxy of America, but to also implicitly state that America can only, by the history of its creation, stand with one “race” on top and the other on the bottom. Alas, such unchecked fatalism paints a grim picture, for it casts “whites” as perpetual oppressors, who cannot, in light of the alleged necessity of their oppression, cease to oppress, lest they somehow descend from their traditional place atop the hierarchy not into equality, but into oblivion itself; if such a mindset is adopted as unequivocal truth, then surely American can never enter any sort of post-racial era, for it will forever remain divided on the lines of oppressors and victims, and to match Coates’ own fatalistic collectivism, change will, by the very nature of his portrayal of American, never arise to such a meaningful point at which “whites” and “blacks” exist as equals, untethered by their historical differences, and they will always be sequestered into groups that are reflected only of their supposed race: white, black, oppressor, or victim. I don’t know that I regard this to be necessarily true or factual; as Coates declared, to be “black” changes with each passing generation, and though we cannot rewrite the past, we can certainly use the present to construct a future in which the perceived need for minority empowerment is abolished and all notions of racial supremacy are erased. Bluntly, whether this idealistic portrait of a possible future can be realized and attained is beyond me; I lament Coates’ fatalism, for progress itself, over the course of history, has demonstrated that history need not rule the over lives of those that exist now, and that however impossible it may seem, with each gradual change over the decades and even centuries, we veer ever-so-slightly towards a society in which race is not the sole deciding factor in an individual’s life. If nothing else, we have transformed from a nation that enslaves those that are “black” to one in which a “black” individual may be elected into our highest office—and this isn’t meant as a way to apologize for, whitewash, or otherwise absolve America of its past misdoings—for, like all states, it has its flaws.
    I know that I said earlier that I was done with quotations, but I’d like to include just two more, near the start of the book, as follows: “But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she talked to me about ‘hope.’ And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail,” (10). Obviously, Coates is declaring here that the host was missing the point—which, I presume, was that she offered a photo as evidence towards the improvement of “race” relations, thereby entirely failing to note that Coates’ entire argument is that such a photograph should not be exceptional, because there should not have been such a division between the “white” and the “black” individuals in the first place—of course, human tribal nature being what it was, I cannot condemn the individuals of ages and eras past by applying my own abstract morality to them; I can only say that we have progressed and that such “racist” actions ought not be repeated, for it is my place to acknowledge history, to remember it, and to learn from it, but the singular judgement that I may cast upon it is just that—we have learned, we will do better—even if Coates finds this lacking, as evidenced, “Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream,” (33). The ultimate truth of the matter is that just as I stated in my answer to the first question, I cannot understand what it is to be “black” by any full capacity or measure; regardless, applying an objective moralistic lens to history and amplifying it by the absolute ethical norms of today is, at best, counterintuitive, and, at worst, psychotic. Virtually everybody today knows that slavery could not be justified by any swathe or array of “good intentions,” if ever anybody did think that such things were adequate defenses or explanations, but the only way to judge history is through the lens of progress, development, and retrospect. It is the acknowledging of the mistakes of the past, the sorrow felt at the bodies broken because of them, and the good intention—and resultant action—that characterizes later epochs; in short, it is the feelings of gladness that arise in individuals that we have changed, and the feelings of guilt that possess more collectivist-minded thinkers in response to the sins of their forefathers and ancestors. But the overall point—and mayhap it’s just a big bout of blind, silly optimism—is that we can reconcile this whole racial debacle by one day awakening and regarding race as a historical—not even contemporarily societal—concept, and one that need not be any more of a material/bodily reality than the hair or hue that was originally used to define it. And it’s the hope, however vain, that one day people of one “race” won’t need to preface their assertions by honestly stating that they cannot fully comprehend the plight of another, and thereby imply that on a massive and broad scale, their experiences are unlikely to be mutual, and above all else, it is the want to see these archaic racial divisions cease to be, so that when one discusses the historical progress of “Black America,” they do not just point to individuals, but talk and speak of it as they would “White America”—not with images of widespread inequality, infuriation, and individual injustices—but as a forlorn relic of the past, because such terms in such an epoch would miss the point. In an equal and post-racial America, there would be no subdivision between “White America” and “Black America,” but only America, with its Dream extended equally for all of its citizens to grasp.

  7. Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts to explain what it is like to occupy a black man’s body in a letter to his son, Samori, in Between the World and Me. Coates constructs a piece of literature that pushes the readers understanding of race and their unique place in such a construction by intertwining history with his own personal experiences. The letter specifically focuses on the dangers than come along with having a black body, and Coates’ attempt to navigate a world that is taught to destroy his body. His arguments root themselves in the American Dream, specifically how society’s understanding of race skews this dream to privilege specific groups. Between the World and Me diverges from the common understanding of the construction of race. Coates presents the idea that “race is the child of racism, not the father and has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy”. His argument revolves around how society’s understanding of race as a mark for the safety of one’s body stems from the idea of “whiteness”. As the definition of whiteness shifts from those of a caucasian descent to one of a person’s ability to pass as white, Coates argues that then those who are newly considered to be white are a modern example of the invention of race. This modern understanding of whiteness “has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myth”.

  8. As Coates points out, when his elders would tell him to ‘make the race proud,’ he knew he “wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race’ as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform color or any uniform physical feature.” (119) He goes on to describe that the shared trait of the ‘race’ turns out to be the suffering they endured, because of the Dream and because of the people who perpetuate it. The thing linking them is the way that ‘people who believe themselves to be white’ (as Coates puts it) and other parties in power lump them together. Too often the subtleties of different cultures are wiped away in order to make the categorizing process easier. It would appear, then, that the material/bodily reality of race can span many varieties – the distinctions we think defining these physical races (skin color, heritage, genetic background) blurring at the edges over time.

    The social construction of race attempts to gloss over the way physical race expands past its boundaries. As a population, the ones in power prefer to be able to classify others in swift, harsh terms, and in doing so keep the social hierarchy as is. On an individual level, race can be interpreted with some variations. A person can only experience reality filtered through their sole perspective, which is influenced subtly (and otherwise) by the prejudices and inclinations passed down to them. These shaping experiences are implemented by the environment (parents, peers, etc.), but can be un-done to some extent. Thus, while the social construction of race is rigid overall, it varies from person to person in slight ways based on personal experiences and beliefs.

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