During the founding of America, the country was built upon the promises of equality and meritocracy, but the establishment of dehumanizing laws and institutions result in unattainable. The racial hierarchy that was set up to benefit white people allowed for this system of oppression to go unquestioned, leaving black people to internalize their own inferiority. While the Civil Rights Movement hoped to rectify and address this institutionalized sense of inferiority on paper, it did not completely alleviate the discrimination that black people still encounter on a daily basis. In his memoir, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates portrays how race plays a vital role in self identity and dictates the hardships that result from it. Ultimately, Coates discusses the struggles he faces during his childhood in West Baltimore, college years, and writing career in New York, which construct his worldview. Coates reflects on his own experiences to display how the “price of error” is higher for black people because of their blackness, therefore they are judged harshly and deemed guilty before being innocent by the ever-present racist society.
Starting at a very young age, Coates learns what it means to be a black person, from his experiences on the streets in West Baltimore. One incident that sticks with Coates is what unfolds in front of a 7/11 when he is merely eleven years old. He is just an innocent by-stander when a crew of older boys start scowling at a kid who is around the same age as him, and then a light-skinned boy pulls out a gun and points it at the boy. However the kid does not shoot, as his crew of friends pull him back. The insight that Coates gains is that, “he did not need to shoot. He had affirmed my place in order of things. He had let it be known how easily I could be selected” (Coates 19). This is the first time that he comes to understand that there is a racial hierarchy in society that dictates the amount of power one holds. Through this, Coates uncovers that he is at the bottom of this power chain, thus his life and body are on the line every second and his life can be taken very easily. Thus, he arrives at the conclusion that the “price of error is higher” for him, because if the roles were reversed and he was the one with the gun, there would be consequences because he is a black person, but because the older kid with the gun was a light-skinned, he was able to walk away without facing any form of punishment. Just the fact that the gun is even pointed at him makes him grasp the reality that his body can be taken away from him at any second. However at the same time he uncovers that he is not in charge of his own fate and he cannot do anything to protect himself. Therefore, Coates concludes that “the price of error” is higher for him due to his blackness, because if he was holding the gun then the story would be much different.
In due time, Coates goes to college at Howard University, where he meets a diverse group of black students who are unified and connected by their blackness, and this is what society would use against them. At the Mecca, he meets many black people, and one in particular catches his attention, Prince Jones. He is a well rounded student who is liked by everyone, and unbelievably perfect in Coates’ eyes. One day when Coates’ picks up a copy of the newspaper, he finds out that Prince Jones has died. He mentions, “I knew that Prince had not been killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth” (78) demonstrating that his black body was never secure in a racist society. This attests to the fact that even the richest and the most liked black people are still targets in society because of their skin color. No matter how much money a black person has, it doesn’t mean that they get a free pass from being judged. Jones was “murdered by his country” because he was a black man in a racist society. Prince is shot because of the stereotype of seeing black people as criminals, as the cop “mistakes” Jones for another black person who was neither his height nor weight. The price of error is higher as Jones is deemed guilty just because of the color of his skin. There was no probable cause that indicated that Jones was a threat, however in American society, dark skin is associated with threats. Coates concludes that no black body is really ever exempt from violence and in a split second the black body can be destroyed. This is a moment of realization for Coates because he realizes that it could’ve just as easily been him who was shot for being black, thus looking like a criminal by default. Coates also alludes to the idea that society has feared Jones from the moment that he was born, because of his blackness and Jones could never do anything to change that, no matter how righteous he could have been, he would still be seen as guilty of something all under the pretenses of his skin color.
After moving to New York with his wife and son Samori, Coates starts his writing career, and early on he comes to the conclusion that escaping racism is inevitable regardless of where in America black people are. Coates wants his son to be conscious of the world around him, so he takes Samori to work with him on the day that he is interviewing a black woman whose son is killed by a white man, after refusing to turn down his music. The man had claimed to have seen a shotgun, so he “feared his own life” thus shot the black boy. But there was never a shotgun found in the report, however it didn’t matter. “‘I was the victim and the victor’ the murderer asserted, much as generations of American plunderers had asserted before…destroying the black body was permissible” (112). Coates is coming back to this idea that the “price of error” for this boy results from his blackness, as playing loud music was neither threatening nor illegal. The fact that this boy had a disagreement with a white man and the white man didn’t get his way, he asserts his privilege by killing the boy and then proclaims it as self-defense. The fact that the white man can even say that he thought the boy had a shotgun is because of the stereotype of black people being criminal and dangerous. It reiterates that the only factor that got this boy killed was because he is black and would not take the orders of a white man, because throughout history white people always got their way. Coates is trying to get his son to understand that being black was enough for someone to try to assert their power over them and when white people want to justify themselves, they just criminalize the black body, and despite all the evidence against it, society still believes the white person.
Throughout Coates’ lifetime and the multiple experiences he recognizes that “the price of error” is higher for black people because of their blackness and the stereotypes that society creates. From the streets of West Baltimore, Coates faces certain situations that threaten his body because of his skin color. Later, when he leaves Howard University, he becomes aware that even the most noble and perfect black people still deal with being seen as guilty because of the stereotypes that society retains. Additionally, his writing career takes him to New York, where Coates comes to understand that black people face racism everywhere and something as simple as refusing to lower music costs a child his life. At the end of the day, it has been too long that skin color has been used to limit people, thus society is overdue for progress towards true equality.