Throughout his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at the current situation of minority groups in the US relative to white people and honestly assesses the history that lead to our current moment. Our country focuses on personal responsibility, hard work, and overcoming obstacles, but we fail to recognize we as a society have created many of the obstacles that people from certain minority groups face. Not only do we forget the obstacles that we created, we seem to be unable to understand how limiting, painful, and exclusionary our past decisions were for so many Americans. Coats calls the world we live in when we forget about our past decisions and assume than anyone can be industrious and achieve the same level of success The Dream.
In his book Coats writes, “The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of The Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down her in the world.”
When we do not acknowledge the true cost of slavery, of discriminatory segregation, or the true cost of our stereotyping we fail to see the impact that our choices and decisions have on the lives of so many black people. At the founding of our nation white people reached success and economic prosperity through the forced labor of human beings and creating excuses for their Dream by labeling black people as inferior savages. A war was fought to end the practice of owning another human being, but coming out of that war was the idea that black people were still below white people. Stereotypes grew to suggest that biological differences explained a white superiority and black inferiority across the country, limiting the opportunities for black people to participate in society and build financial bases for themselves and their families. Economic segregation was also at play when restrictive housing policies limited where black people could live, creating ghettos and only allowing black people to settle in isolated areas. At the same time, white people moved outward, buying expensive land and building expensive homes that would become valuable assets appreciating in price overtime. The black people who were economically segregated could not purchase such valuable land and were denied a chance to build wealth through home equity.
Coats calls the world of white people The Dream because this history is lost for so many. It is easy to look at poor black people today and assume that is their personal choices that lead to their current lifestyles and their challenges in building wealth and achieving legal and social parity with white people. When we begin to look at how the situation of today was shaped by the decisions of yesterday, the Dream begins to crumble. We see that restrictive housing practices forced black people into communities built in less valuable and more vulnerable land, making natural disasters like hurricanes more costly to black people than white people who live in houses and communities built for them years ago on more valuable land in higher and safer areas. Looking at our decisions helps us to also see the way that wealth has persisted among white families through smart financial decisions, but decisions and opportunities that were afforded to them at the exclusion of black people.
To have a better understanding of our racial tensions today we must understand the decisions that created and supported two different worlds for white and black people. White people were able to create a safe and comfortable world for themselves, while the world of black people was held back and limited. We cannot honestly discuss the challenges of implicit bias, of unintentional discrimination, or of cultural differences between white and black people if we cannot understand the choices of those who came before us and how they shaped their futures. When we honestly assess the ways in which we legally or culturally advantaged whites and white wealth building while excluding black people, we can begin to discuss what can and should be done to reduce discrimination and racial tension today.