Between the World and Me: Saving the Next Generation

Why America’s inner-city youth need not inherit all of the burdens of the past

Lee Celano / Reuters

Over the next few weeks, The Atlantic will be publishing a series of responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. (An excerpt is available online.)

This is the fifth in a series. Readers are invited to send their own responses to, and we will post their strongest critiques of the book and the accompanied reviews. To further encourage civil and substantive responses via email, we are closing the comments section. You can follow the whole series on Twitter at #BTWAM, or to read other responses to the book from Atlantic readers and contributors.

I’m not qualified to judge Between the World and Me on its literary merit. I read this elegant little book for what it says about my own work and that of others who labor to reduce youth violence.

Much of its account of the causes and impact of street violence was sadly familiar. I was more startled by the long shadows cast by these memories, by the reflexes still occasioned in Coates’s adult life by the violence he witnessed and feared in his younger life. So many years later, in so many ways, this violence has left its mark. Between the World and Me contains one hopeful thread that is easily overlooked. Memories of violence impose real burdens. But these burdens need not be entirely passed down to the next generation.

Researchers collect reams of social-science and administrative data following youth into their early-adult lives. They can examine the impact of community violence on high-school graduation rates, employment, health status, and the commission of crime. It’s much harder to ask how the fears of what might happen to young bodies have burdened the minds of young people subjected to them, how men and women process these memories for the rest of their lives. The saddest, yet most hopeful, passages in this book concern what Coates is pondering as he puts his own precious child to bed at night. As a father myself, touched in my own, different life by memories of tragic violence, these were the passages that stayed with me after I put down this slender volume.

The omnipresent threat of street violence affected every aspect of Coates’s upbringing in a tough West Baltimore neighborhood: “Before I could escape, I had to survive,” he tells us. Coates did both, and then some. But he did not emerge entirely unscathed. Of course, the challenges he describes are ones faced by tens of thousands of young men in similar communities across America. Some of these youth participate in violence-prevention interventions that I help to research in Chicago.

In this book and other writings, Coates notes many examples of apparently pointless violence committed both by and against inner-city young people. He identifies one tragic dilemma at the heart of things:

If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield ... [O]nce I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn’t just about yourself, it’s a signal to your peer group.

Young men must project strength to deter potential assailants. Sadly, these potential assailants are other frightened young people, who travel the same tough streets and face precisely the same dilemmas. None of this would surprise the game theorist, who would also be unsurprised that the resulting street codes easily go awry. “The fearless boys and girls,” Coates writes, “who would knuckle up, call on cousins and crews, and, if it came to it, pull guns seemed to have mastered the streets. But their knowledge peaked at seventeen.”

Coates describes several episodes in which his life might have been permanently harmed. In one terrifying episode, he is confronted on the street by a teenager brandishing a gun. At one point, Coates himself was kicked out of ninth grade for threatening a teacher who berated him in front of his friends.

Such incidents underscore the necessity but also the inherent limitations of violence-prevention interventions. Cognitive-behavioral interventions can help young people respond less automatically—and thus more safely—to situations of potential conflict. Our randomized trials of one such intervention, “Becoming a Man,” found that these interventions produce large declines in the rate of arrests for violent offenses.

It’s a mistake, however, to regard such violence as entirely impulsive, or as just the mutually assured destruction that results when deterrence goes awry. Chance confrontations escalate through carelessness or unfortunate reflexes, but they can also escalate when otherwise trivial fights become struggles for respect and manhood. Whatever the nominal stakes, it’s frightening to see how easy it is for someone to explode if he sees no dignified middle ground between violence and public humiliation.

Responses engrained on the tough streets of one’s youth are not easily left behind, either. Several years ago, Coates almost came to blows with an angry man who got into his face because he didn’t take kindly to something Coates had written. A husky 6’4”, Coates responded in kind. The smaller man had to back down.

I think as a younger man, I would have been proud of that moment. For surely, I had adhered to Article 2 of the Code Of The Streets—"Thou Shalt Not Be Found A Punk.” ... Perhaps as 14-year-old, on the streets of West Baltimore, back at Mondawmin Mall, the response would have been correct. In fact, I was a 33-year-old contributing editor at a well-regarded magazine who’d just implicitly threatened someone on the property of my brand new employer.

Between the World and Me recounts a discomfitting incident on New York’s Upper West Side, in which Coates confronted a white woman who felt comfortable “pulling rank,” by being physically disrespectful to his son. Things got ugly, and could have gotten worse.

Courting this confrontation wasn’t the wisest thing Coates could have done. Indeed he was ashamed of his bad practical judgment in that moment in front of his child. He is not ashamed of his anger as he confronted this woman’s racial presumptions.

Coates sees urban violence as a predictable, perhaps intended by-product of discrimination, segregation, and neglectful social policies.

A society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you through the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.

This stark framing underscores how our history places police, courts, and correctional institutions in an impossible bind. We must wield that club of criminal justice to protect people in tough locales. We can certainly wield that club more sparingly and more precisely. Even wielded with the greatest tactical skill, that club will never resemble a surgeon’s scalpel. The criminal-justice system can never be fully legitimate so long as millions of Americans reasonably conclude that our society will not address their basic needs, and that our nation only responds effectively when the men of their communities commit serious crimes. Coates presents these points with such genuine anger, without euphemism or apology, that it’s easy to overlook the sweetness also to be found in these same pages.

Coates describes the physical discipline meted out by parents of West Baltimore, so desperate to protect their children from the dangers and temptations that lurk outside their doors. He describes his grandmother’s stance as she held his hand when he was a small child: “If I ever let go and were killed by an onrushing car, she would beat me back to life.” He adds, “The violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit.”

This is a sensitive issue, particularly in black America. The weight of the pediatric and social-science evidence suggests that such practices do real harm. It’s only human that frightened parents would seek the security and speed of harsh punishment to steer their kids from trouble. Yet what lessons do their children really learn—and at what price? If reaching for the belt were sufficient to deter young offenders, our juvenile-detention centers would be pretty empty already.

Coates’s son Samori is growing up in a safer time and a more privileged environment than Coates himself did. In some of the book’s wisest passages, Coates tries to tell his son that something else is different, too:

We are entering our last years together, and I wish I had been softer with you. Your mother had to teach me how to love you—how to kiss you and tell you I love you every night. Even now it does not feel like a wholly natural act so much as it feels like a ritual. And it is because I am wounded. That is because I am tied to old ways, which I learned in a hard house. It was a loving house, even as it was besieged by its country, but it was hard.

This passage is a shattering acknowledgement of Coates’s burdens, but it’s a hopeful passage, too. Coates is bluntly skeptical about forgiveness and non-violence as foundational political values in the search for racial equality. He is more enamored of these values within his own home, with the people he loves.

Coates can’t protect Samori against every danger. He offers instead a precious gift which may be more valuable. Coates shows, in the self understanding he brings to the winding trajectory of his own life, that one can be a strong, sometimes-angry black man while being a gentle and loving father. There is no contradiction in that. Learning to be tough is sometimes essential for the young man navigating the mean streets of inner-city America. Learning to be gentle is equally essential for the grown-up, who desperately wants to avoid passing on more of that pain than is absolutely necessary for a young black man in America.

It’s a hard body-mind problem that Coates is wrestling with. Millions of other fathers, some bearing similarly painful scars, might take heart from his example.