Earlier this month, at a progressive rally in downtown Seattle, I watched from across the street as hundreds of allegedly liberal Seattleites booed the suggestion that Black Lives Matter. I saw a middle-aged preppy married couple raise their middle fingers in the air during a moment of silence in memory of a young black man who was killed by police officer. I saw angry white grandmothers beg officers to arrest the two young black women who took the stage, and I heard a small group of hip Capitol Hill dudes, horrifyingly, chant “tase those cunts.” Media outlets have since parsed every second of this event, and hundreds of thousands of internet comments have been tossed into the ether trying to determine who deserves blame.
Smarter people than I have written extensively about this moment, so I certainly don’t have anything to add that hasn’t already been said. I’m not interested in re-litigating this case. I know Seattle loathes rudeness above all else. I know people felt entitled to hear a stump speech that they had waited all day to hear. But nothing justifies the booing of a murdered young man. No crowd is entitled to call for blood because they feel inconvenienced.
After I left the scene, people — to be clear, white people — on Twitter tried to engage with me for calling Seattle a racist city. Not all Seattleites, they insisted, are racist. Mostly, these people were arguing for their own lack of racism. This is maybe the most foolish argument of all. If someone accuses you of racism, your first response should not be to defend yourself. Your first response to being called racist should be serious introspection. Like any moment when you throw reason overboard in favor of blind emotion — when you scream at the counter person for enforcing a store policy that they had no hand in making, say, or when a bartender tells you you’ve had enough — you are not always the best judge of your own behavior.
As someone on Twitter put it that day — sadly, I’ve lost track of who it was — “racist” as it appears in most contemporary conversations should not be considered a noun but as an adjective. Generally speaking, when someone accuses you of racism, they’re not calling you an irredeemable Nazi. They’re telling you that something you said or did enforces racist institutions. Many racist acts are passive, caused by lazy thought or a lack of consideration. Often, racism can be as simple as perpetuating the status quo of a deeply racist nation. But nobody likes to be called lazy and nobody in the early 21st century likes to think of themselves as defenders of the status quo, because we’re all special in our own estimation and to suggest otherwise is insulting to our egos and our very identities as consumers.
And so here we are. We’re stuck. Any attempts at conversation, at pointing out racist behavior, are mostly met with offense and outrage. And unless we acknowledge the racism in our institutions and in our daily lives, we’re never going to be able to fix them. It’s the same ugly impasse that we’ve been stuck in since the late 1960s. For a brief moment, with the dawning of the internet and smartphones, when every white person could suddenly see real-life examples of the persecution and violence and outright executions that black American face in the streets every day, it seemed as though we were going to act, to work to solve the problem. But apparently, white Americans have decided that action is too hard, that self-reflection is a bridge too far. White America knows we have a problem, but we’re just too goddamn lazy in our contentment to try to fix it.
For days after watching that rally turn into a spectacle of hatred, my sleep was haunted by nightmares. In some of my nightmares, I’d be stuck in never-ending Twitter arguments with smug, unblockable white people who demand that I pay attention to their conspiracy theories. In other nightmares, I was in the middle of the crowd and they were shouting at me to shut up and telling the police to arrest me and they closed in on me with their snapping teeth and wringing hands. I was chased across my subconscious by the ugliest parts of Seattle I had ever personally witnessed, a gallery of horrors that made me ashamed, for the first time in my life, to call myself a Seattleite. I couldn’t sleep or else they’d be there in the inky depths of my eyelids, baying for blood and demanding that I be publicly flayed to appease the mob’s inflamed will.
Asleep or awake, I couldn’t think of anything other than that sea of angry white faces, hear their cries for justice, see their red-faced temper tantrums when they realized they weren’t going to get the progressive, pro-Social Security speech they had been expecting. They looked like hateful toddlers in my nightmares, and during the day I regarded every face with suspicion — was that old white guy with the goatee and ponytail on the bus one of the men who called the activists “bitches” who ought to know their place? Did that frail old lady with the PCC tote bag bellow a vulgar term when she was asked to take part in a moment of silence for the dead?
Seattle was ugly to me. I couldn’t find any kindness in this city. As newspapers played out the story for days following the rally, the comment sections filled with the same kind of ugliness I saw in person. Nobody wanted to talk about racism; everyone wanted to talk about good manners. Soon, I couldn’t tell the difference between nightmare and reality.
I couldn’t change the city, so I had to look elsewhere for change. I bought a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and I poured it inside myself. It burned red-hot, a beautiful blade, and it cut something important.
Let’s be clear: I didn’t read Between the World and Me because I wanted to be soothed. I read it because I was sick to my bones of the fairy tale that white America tells ourselves about race. It’s a gauzy and syrupy sweet bedtime story, and it claims that a bunch of white people marched with Dr. King and then black people became Free At Last and that’s the last time we needed to have a serious conversation about race in America. That fairy tale is the reason why entire crowds of Seattleites can simultaneously applaud themselves for being such forward-thinking progressives and feel smug about silencing a pair of protesters who dare suggest that they’ve failed to do enough on racism.
And this is why Coates’s book is so important. Framed as a letter from Coates to his son, it plainly diagnoses our collective sickness. Here, read this:
America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.
Considering segregationist senator Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon concluded, "Strom is no racist.” There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally. In the era of mass lynching, it was so difficult to find who, specifically, served as executioner that such deaths were often reported by the press as having happened "at the hands of persons unknown.” In 1957, the white residents of Levittown, Pennsylvania, argued for their right to keep their town segregated. “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens,” the group wrote, “we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep the community a closed community.” This was the attempt to commit a shameful act while escaping all sanction, and I raise it to show you that there was no golden era when evildoers did their business and loudly proclaimed it as such.
In other, less elegant words, there have always been cries of “I’m no racist but…,” of telling black people to sit down and shut up and mind their manners. This is nothing new. Coates’s words could have been written and crafted directly in response to the Seattle rally that turned brutal. They could have been written in response to any number of incidents. They will apply to many dozens more incidents in the days and months and years ahead.
Between the World and Me is a small book, but when you open it you unleash oceans. Coates, in beautiful crystalline writing, dismantles assumptions about what people used to call America’s “race problem.” Early on, he explains that “race is the child of racism, not the father.”
I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you-but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real, when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.
I could just keep going like this, dropping paragraph after paragraph into this review and standing back and gaping and pointing at it with a dumb sense of awe. But I won’t do that, because I want you to read this book in whole, from front to back. Maybe more than once. I want this whole city to read Between the World and Me, to have spontaneous conversations about it on the bus and to gather in rallies at Westlake Park to hear portions of it read aloud. Instead of one more foolish piece of clickbait commentary about what Black Lives Matters protesters need to do in order to gain popular acceptance, this is what you should read.
Once I read Between the World and Me, my nightmares went away. Not because I felt any better about the Seattle that I saw that day, but because it helped me to understand that this is the Seattle that some people see every day, that my nightmares were other people’s reality. In the face of that realization, I couldn’t feel burdened by my fear and disgust anymore. Other people can lay real claim to those emotions; I was just a Saturday tourist, poking my head into someone else’s daily experience.
What Coates does in Between the World and Me is he shakes out the vocabulary of racism, discards the metaphors and definitions that no longer work, and offers up a new framework for talking about race. This is a book that will alter the course of conversation for decades to come; people will be inspired by it and argue with it and learn from it and reassess it for generations. it’s not every year — hell, it’s not every decade — that you can comprehend a new book’s importance on a first reading. This is one of those books. You will not like what Coates has to tell you, but you will be so grateful to him for sharing it.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant