No one could claim that Peace had an easy path. Yet it’s also hard to deny that the institutions of US society unfailingly worked for him. Jeff Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate at Yale, shows that at every stage of Peace’s life, his gifts were not just recognised but cultivated. He may have started selling marijuana to help his mother pay the rent, but his family didn’t have the crippling debts that frequently end any possibility of class mobility. He was the valedictorian at his prestigious high school, and a wealthy banker, moved by his speech, offered to pay all the expenses at whichever university he chose. He studied microbiology at Yale, but never stopped selling or using drugs. In 2011, at the age of 30, he was the victim of a gangland execution.
In the conversations about the deaths of Brown, Peace and numerous others who have commanded public attention in the US over the past year, there’s often a tension between the desire to attribute responsibility for actions to those who undertake them and the protective urge to downplay those same people’s responsibility for their actions. In Brown’s case, many people, including plenty of blacks, saw the predictable if gratuitous death of a young man who had committed a crime and then defied a cop; others saw this view as naive: it didn’t matter what the 18-year-old had or hadn’t done, because he wasn’t a moral agent in the first place.
In this second view, which is steadily gaining purchase in the US, Brown was a casualty of a centuries-old system of oppression that decided his fate before his parents’ parents had even met. This is the view held by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 40-year-old journalist at the Atlantic, who makes the case most seductively in his recent memoir, Between the World and Me.