Coates’ understanding of the price of being black in society can be seen through his experience at his school in West Baltimore during his childhood years. In his seventh-grade French class, he finds it completely ludicrous as to why he is taking this class. His curiosity about why he is taking the course is never answered and he feels that his school is hiding something. Through this, Coates gains an insight that schools are not a place of learning, rather a preferred institution than prison as “60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail” (Coates 27.
) Schools are a place where truths are concealed and where compliance is wanted. He learns from a very young age that there are truly two options for a black man —staying in school or ending up in prison. School is a necessity since the “price of error” is higher for Black people as the alternative is prison. A single mistake can result in a Black man going to jail since they are stereotyped as dangerous and criminals and therefore, he/she must be twice as good because their actions are judged twice as hard than whites. One’s blackness triggers questioning by others which leads to horrible consequences for a black man. Being black in schools is difficult as their race is constantly pinned against them. Coates comes to a notion that education perpetuates racism and injustice as schools offer false morality that the Dream is obtainable by Black People. The Dream is romanticized through meritocracy in which if one works hard, then they will obtain success.
In reality, this is not the case as the Dream is built on the oppression of Black people and requires blindness to the racial divide within society in order to believe that it is accessible to all. Ultimately, Coates concludes that schools do not reduce the distance between him, a black man, and the world, rather it just furthers the distance between both. Furthermore, during Coates’ college years, he gets exposed to the diverse campus of Howard University, which ultimately influences his mindset and becomes aware of the price of error for Black people. At Howard, Coates becomes fascinated by Malcolm X which shapes his perspective on being black in a white world. Coates devours himself in books that Howard’s University offers while learning about Malcolm X who “pledged …to protect, black beauty, that was never celebrated in movies, in television, or in the textbooks I’d seen as a child” (43.) Malcolm X’s beliefs, which he expresses through music, sparks Coates’ understanding of the racial injustice present in society. Malcolm X teaches him that black bodies are sacred and precious which is a message that Coates has not been exposed to because in American society black bodies have no value and their history is never discussed.
The cost of white domination in American society results in Black people not valuing their blackness, rather finding themselves trying to assimilate into white society. Through his work, Malcolm X goes against the messages of society and tries to get people to see the beauty of the black body. Malcolm X is working against internalization as he refuses to accept this message, even though the “price of error” is much higher because Black people are seen as worthless. Blackness is utilized as an oppressive tool to form a racial hierarchy where whites are on top and blacks are at the bottom.
White, being the norm in society, blackness is never discussed and is viewed as an “other.” Because of this, Black people internalize the messages that they obtain from society, which causes them to believe that they are not worthy of attaining the Dream, although the Dream is based on the persecution of Black people. The “price of error” is higher for Black people as they are regarded as “other” and thus, being recognized as this, any action that they take, is going to be judged twice as hard.
Being the target group, results in the “price of error” to be higher as Black people must always be vigilant because they are systematically oppressed by the darkness of their skin color. Malcolm X’s work allows Coates to appreciate and find the beauty his blackness, which is not accepted in a white society. Coates moves to New York to pursue a writing career after dropping out of college, but he quickly realizes that life in New York is no different from life in West Baltimore, as the lasting effects of racism is felt everywhere.
He takes his son, Samori, to see a movie and as Samori walks down the escalator, a white woman pushes him out of the way which causes Coates to share some harsh words. A man overhears this confirmation and defends the woman by saying, “I can have you arrested.” In the heat of the moment, Coates does not realize the weight this statement holds, however recognizes it when he arrives home. The statement truly means that a white person holds a claim over his black body. Coates grasps that, in that moment, he violates the sacred rules of living in a white society which is “One must be without error out here…make no mistakes” (95.) Because society is socialized to believe that Blacks are inferior and whites are superior, Coates’ life is vulnerable at all times and can be taken away in an instant.
This action by Coates, a black man, is questioned, however the action by the white lady goes unquestioned. Coates’ actions are judged harder than the white woman’s, even though his actions are completely valid and expectable from any parent. This experience reaffirms where he stands in a white society, as someone who is at risk at any given moment. Thus, the “price of error” is higher for Coates as his blackness plays a significant role in his life and the treatment he faces by other people. The threat over a black body is always present and will always be there as society views Black people as less valuable.
As race is a prevalent issue in society, a black man’s race works against him in all aspects that the simple act of protecting one’s own son can lead to death, leaving their son fatherless. Racism is woven into society that it is normalized when Black people are treated as “lesser” or even invisible. Racist actions is performed in much subtle ways as the notion that whites are better than blacks is still on the forefront of society’s mindset.