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.