The Atlantic allowed me to write a short response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the world and Me. I’m not qualified to evaluate the book’s literary merit, let alone to engage celebrity-gossip regarding Coates’ rank in the pantheon of African-American public intellectuals. I read this book for my own reasons, as one of many researchers who study interventions to reduce youth violence. So much of Between the world and me underscores the necessity and the inherent limitations of our efforts. I make two points.
First I note the sad strategic dilemma in which urban youth have to be tough to deter each other. The game theorists will be unsurprised that the resulting codes of the street easily go awry, and how the memories of youth violence linger into one’s adult life.
Second, I find hope in Coates’ own relationship with his own son. He shows in the living that one can be a righteously angry black man and still be a gentle and loving father to one’s own sons and daughters. There is no contradiction in that.
Physical discipline is a sensitive issue, particularly in black America. The weight of the pediatric and social-science evidence suggests that such practices do real harm. It’s only human that frightened parents would seek the security and speed of harsh punishment to steer their kids from so many dangers and temptations that lurk right outside the front door. Yet what lessons do their children really learn—and at what price? If reaching for the belt were sufficient to deter young offenders, our juvenile-detention centers would be pretty empty already.