By Jordan Wood, Manager, Strategic Design, M.S. Hall & Associates, LLC
The 2021 Syracuse Citywide Book Club includes selections that reflect quality of life themes of diversity and infrastructure for healthy urban cities. The City welcomes group involvement in this year’s book club by engaging with community partners who help make civic dialogue and program delivery possible. To learn about how to read along or become a partner, contact Emma Spector at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow along on the Syracuse Citywide Book Club page at facebook.com/syrbookclub. We welcome commentary from residents, such as below, and can share posts here in our blog.
At the risk of beginning this piece like a high school book report, I want to start thinking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me by spending some time with the title. We all feel from time to time, at least, that there is something in between whatever it is we think of as our selves and whatever it is we think of as everything else. A veil, a surface, a fog – something that keeps us from accessing the world around us in the way it seems other people do.
This is a fact of life, to an extent. We move through our worlds in a fuzz of misunderstandings and noise – more so every day. To be in this world is to labor, constantly, to overcome this fuzz, to make ourselves known to other people and places and to have other people and places make themselves known to us. This is, under the best of circumstances, difficult and trying work. I think the question of justice – that is, the question of living justly and equitably, the question of bringing more fairness about than unfairness – revolves around how readily we can recognize the unequal distribution of that fuzz. Its texture, thickness, and opacity varies with our place of residence, the wealth of our parents, the conditions of our homes, the color of our skin, and a great many things besides these. For some of us, what comes between the world and me is a gentle and gauzy fabric – for others the weight of it is enormous. It itches and strangles.
This is the thing that Coates has described for his 15 year old son in Between the World and Me. It is a book that considers Coates’ own life in light of the barriers between himself and the things he might do, the people he might love, and the places he might go. The metaphor to which Coates returns over and over is that of space, as in, outer space. He meditates on how the worlds he has lived in, first in the heart of Baltimore, then at The Mecca of Howard University, then New York, and finally, briefly, in Paris, have always been astronomically distant from the worlds of his white counterparts. Coates spends little time trying to convince his son that this distance has closed in the intervening years between their respective childhoods. He’s clear, in fact, that precious little has changed at all for Black Americans over the years and what justice has been won continues to sit on the knife’s edge, precarious by design.
We are, at this moment, in the midst of a swelling panic stoked by a collective anxiety that to speak truthfully about our history, and the dynamics of racism that underwrite so much of it, is to lose something fundamental to the American way of life. Coates talks about this anxiety when he says:
“The people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.”
Personal exoneration is a useful obsession for avoiding the incrimination of systemic racism, which of course, is the name we have given to the network of pressures and prejudices that constitute all the things between Coates and the world. The politics of personal exoneration are the politics of blaming a Black teenager for his own violent death at the hands of a police officer, a passerby, or neighbor. They are what animate the verbal shrug, “why should I be accountable for crimes my ancestors did? It is not as if I have ever owned another person.” Coates tells us that to believe you are white is to believe that your access to good things, personal safety, economic success, and social legitimacy is your birthright, and that if anyone lacks access to those things it is their fault and to look for other explanations is to undermine the social order. The politics of personal exoneration are the ground-level expression of manifest destiny – people get what they deserve, what they’re entitled to. If they are stopped and frisked over and over, there must be legitimate cause. If people live in neighborhoods where the murder rate is high, the social supports are few and unemployment is persistent, then they should simply move, stop complaining, and take responsibility.
For this piece, I was asked to reflect on Coates’ work in relationship to quality of life – and it is certainly a useful text for considering what exactly it means to live a good life, a full life, a rich life. As a consultant, I work regularly in spaces that are directly concerned with improving the quality of life – hospitals, non-profit service organizations, charitable foundations. These organizations often work at the point of crisis – they encounter people after something has already gone wrong; a broken leg, a foreclosed home, an abusive family member. The lesson of their work is about the clear limits of personal exoneration, the way that harm often arrives as a product of probabilities and systems, not individual malice. “Forget about intentions,” instructs Coates. “What any institution or its agents ‘intend’ for you is secondary.” Which is why the pursuit of a more equitable world, where the intervening fuzz of economic barriers and social prejudices are leveled, no longer privileging those of us with less melanin, must begin by telling a different story about who we are, a truer story that rejects the politics of personal exoneration and builds something that can reckon with the systemic violence of plain old, everyday white supremacy.
“And so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined – with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words (“You’re gonna die tonight”), with Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd, with me standing too close to the small eyed boy pulling out.”
That is what stands between Coates and the world – the stories we tell that justify and sustain centuries of profit and comfort on the backs of Black suffering. Nothing more or less than that. It is time to begin our stories with a different error.