Thomas Chatterton Williams reviews Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me in the LRB:
Soon after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, a book called The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace was published, describing one New Jersey man’s dual existence as a top student at Yale and an incorrigible drug dealer.1 Peace was an alarmingly precocious black boy whose mother toiled in hospital kitchens to raise the money to send him to parochial schools, where he thrived. His father, a magnetic hustler his mother refused to marry, was an active presence in his early life; he taught his son how to use his fists and decode the logic of the streets. When Peace was seven, his father was convicted of double homicide on circumstantial evidence, and sentenced to life in prison.
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.