US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Writing to his nephew in December 1962, on the 100th anniversary of emancipation, James Baldwin said, "You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon." That letter would become the preface to Baldwin's trenchant examination of American racism, "The Fire Next Time."

In his just-released book "Between the World and Me," Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests Baldwin's timeline was too optimistic. Modeled after "The Fire Next Time," "Between the World and Me" is an extended letter to Coates's 14-year-old son Samori, written as police brutality against young black men has captured, at least for the moment, the attention of white Americans. For Samori — and for the reader — Coates has little comfort to offer. He describes his reaction when his son broke down crying at the news that the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown would not be indicted: "I didn't hug you, and I didn't comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you."

It would be wrong, he explains, because it would be based on a lie: that it will all be okay. And he believes that lie is the foundation for one of the most pernicious fantasies in modern culture, the American dream. (He never pairs these words, simply calling it "the dream" throughout, perhaps in an attempt to strip it of some of its myth-making power.)

As he lays out the history of racism in America, as well as his own experiences as a black man, Coates makes clear he has little use for the American dream and other fairy tales. He writes in the tradition of black writers who have held the American dream up to the light and exposed its barrenness: Frederick Douglass asking, "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?", Malcolm X proclaiming, "I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare."

Though the American city is the setting for much of Coates's discussion of racism — he hails from West Baltimore, went to school in D.C., and now lives in Harlem — he hints that the American dream is projected onto a different landscape, what the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1961 called the "white noose" of suburbia. The dream, he writes, "is perfect houses with nice lawns," "Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways," "treehouses and the Cub Scouts."

The suburbs are, at least in part, a key to understanding Coates's deep disillusionment with the American dream, and why his might be sharper than Baldwin's. Baldwin largely wrote about the "cities of destruction." "This innocent country," he wrote to his nephew, "set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish." The cities of destruction abound in Coates' writing. Much of his work, including his widely read essay, "The Case for Reparations," focuses on the exclusion of black Americans from suburbia.

But the reality is, black Americans have never been entirely absent from the suburbs. During the Great Migration, when black southerners moved north for work and rights, about one in every six migrants settled in the suburbs. And as the Great Migration from the South wound down in the late 1960s, the Great Migration to the suburbs revved up. As historian Andrew Weise describes in "Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century," between 1960 and 2000 the black population of suburbia grew by 9 million.

Yet the American dream — equality, prosperity, independence — didn't follow. No matter the exodus, whether from slavery or from Jim Crow or from the cities of destruction, the dream never followed. As black Americans moved first into freedom and then to the North, new forms of racism bloomed: Jim Crow laws, restrictive covenants, redlining. In those periods and places where suburbs yielded to black homebuyers, racism stalked the curved avenues and green lawns just as it had stalked the cities of destruction.

For black Americans, the suburbs are no refuge. Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis. Miami Gardens, Trayvon Martin's home, is a suburb of Miami. McKinney is a suburb of Dallas. As the assaults and killings of these children of the suburbs show, the cities are not the destructive force. Nor are their black inhabitants. The destructive force is the racism that values a black life — or a black body, as Coates would write — less than a white one.

The clarity with which Coates explains all this makes the criticism from writers like David Brooks all the more frustrating. Brooks, in a much-discussed column, called "Between the World and Me" "a great and searing contribution." But after the accolades, the exceptions: "I think you distort history," he tells Coates, countering that the American dream "is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide." This is not an argument but an assertion, one that doesn't refute Coates so much as it illustrates his point.

Brooks doesn't see the exclusion that makes that so-called secular faith possible. I've seen in my own life the way the white race card — a trump card that returns to your hand the moment you play it — can turn felonies into misdemeanors, and in the process keep open access to job opportunities, bank accounts and ballot boxes. Second, third, fourth chances — these are part of the American Dream, too, a part that white Americans see as a right and black Americans rarely see at all.

If Coates presents the American dream as a mirage, it's because he has reached the desert oasis and filled his mouth with sand. The grit in his writing is firmly grounded in that experience, and it makes "Between the World and Me" vital reading at this moment in American history.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report