It seems like everyone is talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World And Me. Written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, the book includes insights into Coates’ experience of being a Black man forced to negotiate the effects of America’s brutal racism.

While some books refuse to call America out for its systematic oppression of its Black citizens, Coates’ book is unrelenting. He talks at length about what this country has done to Black bodies, both through chattel slavery and later through policies like redlining and racial profiling meant to oppress Black America.

Since Between the World And Me was released on Tuesday, Critics have been lining up to call Coates the second coming of James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison praised the book, calling it “required reading.” Still, not everyone is a fan.

Thursday, Cornell West took to Facebook to deliver a scathing critique of Coates’ work and to defend James Baldwin’s legacy, and on Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks published an open letter to Coates that has many talking.

In “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” Brooks says the “disturbing challenge” of Coates book is his “rejection of the American dream.”

My ancestors chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.

Your ancestors came in chains. In your book the dream of the comfortable suburban life is a “fairy tale.” For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption. America is Egypt without the possibility of the Exodus. African-American men are caught in a crushing logic, determined by the past, from which there is no escape.

Brooks admits he read Coates’ book as both “a slap and a revelation,” and then goes on to wonder if a white person should respond to Coates’ indictment of his beloved country.

“Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?” Brooks wonders.

Instead of understanding that the lived experience of Black folks who are descendants of those dragged to America in chains is very different than the offspring of European immigrants, Brooks asserts Coates has America all wrong.

I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.

In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But 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 abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow. 

Many found Brooks’ critique–that Coates’ book is not hopeful enough or kind enough to America–the embodiment of white privilege and took him to task for it on Twitter.

Though Coates’ book is not perfect, Brooks’ critique reinforces just how different the experiences of white and Black America truly are.

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