Ta-Nehisi Coates is right: The American Dream is a lie

On Coates' new book, Between the World and Me

Two American flags
(Image credit: Illustrated Christie's Images/Corbis)

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates' slim new volume, Between the World and Me, is that he has written a fresh and vital work on such well-trodden ground. It covers his childhood and early adulthood, about which he's written extensively; his experience learning French (ditto); and the murder of his friend Prince Jones (ditto once more).

Yet the book is simply riveting — I gulped it down in one short sitting, and am still thinking about it days later. Partly it is the different format; the book is set down as an address to his son on how to survive living "in a black body," which casts everything in a different light. Partly it is that a single unified presentation is necessarily different from many disconnected parts. But mostly, I suspect, it is that a single life can be a source of near-inexhaustible riches in the hands of a great writer.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom points out, despite being structured as a letter to his son, much of the text is addressed to white readers, who must feel something of the sheer brutality of living as a black American. Here he describes the waste of Prince Jones' life, a high-achieving black student at Howard University, from a wealthy and successful family, who was shot to death by a police officer:

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And the plunder was not just of Prince alone. Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League... Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry set, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth. [Between the World and Me]

Coates connects this death, and the others much like it happening daily, directly to the American Dream. Gruesome human sacrifice is what undergirds the picket fences and ice cream socials of the "people who believe they are white."

Many critics took issue with this point, insisting that the Dream was still present and real. Among them was David Brooks:

[A] dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility, and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past... It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future. [The New York Times]

It's unclear whether he's saying the Dream is meaningfully true, or a noble lie (one that is exposed by the strange term "excessive realism") that keeps productivity up. Regardless, Brooks is wrong and Coates is right: The American Dream is a lie.

Mind you, that is not to deny the fact that many Americans enjoy considerable prosperity in this country. Many millions do float easily on the tide of America's fantastic wealth. The lie is found in the universal application of the Dream, that America is a place where everyone can get a fair shot at a decent life — "equal opportunity, social mobility," as Brooks puts it.

Inheritance alone can make the case against the Dream. Everyone can agree that, under slavery and then Jim Crow, black Americans were systematically locked out of a fair chance at prosperity. Suppose for the sake of argument that internal, behavioral racism was eradicated by about 1985 (granting 20 years for Lyndon Johnson's civil rights bills to take effect). Also suppose from that time onward, all Americans treated people of all races identically. You would still see massive inequality.

The black-white wealth gap was still very large in those days. In 1983 (the closest year for which there is data from the Survey of Consumer Finances), the median white family had eight times the wealth of the median black family. And the more wealth a family has, the greater advantage parents can transmit to their children. Money is one inheritance, of course, but there is also educational access, social habits that help them fit in at elite institutions and jobs, and so forth. (This is why poor kids who get a college degree do far, far worse than rich ones who don't.)

Even given the perfectly just operation of society, the injustice of the past will be automatically transmitted to the future. Combine that with actual existing racism and you have a Dream in tatters.The supposition granted above is, in fact, ludicrously generous to the Brooksian case for the Dream, even granting a tiny smattering of affirmative action measures. It is a matter of empirical fact that behavioral racism is still a massive problem. And in 2013, the median white family had 13 times more wealth than the median black one.

Coates does not deny that times have changed in some ways — his enormous mainstream success and credibility is evidence that Jim Crow is dead. What he argues is that white Americans responded to centuries of monstrous abuse of blacks with grudging half-measures, quickly followed by denial, myth-making, and victim-blaming.

The American Dream allows us whites to pretend that our relative affluence is the result of our own actions on a fair playing field. But it just ain't so.

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