On Monday Ta-Nehisi Coates appeared at the Lexington-Richland District 5 School Board meeting where the topic of discussion was whether or not his book Between the World and Me would be allowed in the schools.
Coates did not speak at the meeting but was there to support those who did rise to the defense of his book. The meeting was sparked by an incident in February when Mary Wood, a teacher at Chapin High School, used Coates’ book in a lesson after getting approval to do so from school leadership.
As the Daily Mail reported, students at the school said that the lessons made them feel “uncomfortable” and “ashamed to be Caucasian.”
To understand how the book and subsequent lesson could have left the students with those feelings we need to know more about the contents of the book. For that, we can turn to a 2015 Politico review of the book by Rich Lowry titled, “The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates” which detailed some of the divisive issues with the book. Rather than butcher Lowry’s articulate refutation of the core theme of Coates’ book I will give you his words.
Between the World and Me evokes the terror of the upbringing Coates had in West Baltimore in the 1980s with a sickening immediacy. His father beat him. Other kids were a constant physical, perhaps even mortal, threat. Coates lived in perpetual fear — although largely of other black people.
He argues — although that might be too generous a word; it’s more like assertion shrouded in a haze of lyricism — that all that other black people did to hurt or threaten him was ultimately the product of white racism.
Given how large race hatred looms in the world of Coates, I was surprised to find the worst thing that evidently happened to him directly at the hands of a white person is recounted beginning on page 93 of the 152-page book. Coates took his son to a movie theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and when they were leaving and got off the crowded elevator, a white woman pushed his kid and said, “Come on!”
Coates interprets this incident as essentially the telescoping of hundreds of years of racism down to “this woman pulling rank” and invoking her “right over the body of my son.”
With a clear message of “white people are responsible for every problem I face,” it is clear why students were troubled by the message of Coates’ book.
According to The Post and Courier, the South Carolina Freedom Caucus members pointed out that the lesson breached state budget regulations. Under South Carolina law, state funds cannot be used for lessons that induce “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any psychological distress based on one’s race or sex.”
Elizabeth Barnhardt, the Moms for Liberty supported member of the school board, said in an Op-Ed she wrote for the Standard,
Our nation’s children should not be made to feel the division that is prevalent in our society today. The education system was put in place to teach our children things like reading, writing, math and the sciences. While there is an obligation to prepare our students for the world that waits for them upon graduation, our school districts should be using all their time, finances and efforts to EDUCATE our children, not indoctrinate them.
This is the same justification used in lawsuits by members of the Freedom Caucus in the S.C. House against Lexington and Charleston last October and November respectively. The budget provision in question prohibits state funds from being used in the teaching of material that is deemed “partisan curriculum.” These concepts encompass the teaching that any particular race or sex is inherently superior to others, as well as the belief that individuals, whether consciously or unconsciously, inherently perpetrate oppression based on their race or sex.
Despite the high turnout for both meetings on the matter, the meeting ended without the board taking a vote. We will continue following this story as it develops.