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Baltimore, Maryland, USA - December 20, 2016: View to the streets of West Baltimore, typical row houses and a pizza place.

On the physicality of racism

This piece is adapted from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s address at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “Sharing Knowledge to Build a Culture of Health” conference in 2016, which is featured in the new book Knowledge to Action: Accelerating Progress in Health, Well-Being, and Equity. It has been edited for length.

When I woke up in the morning as a kid who lived in Baltimore City, I wasn’t thinking about whether I had finished my homework. I wasn’t thinking about whether I had my assignments in order. I wasn’t thinking about playing basketball after school.

I was thinking about how I was going to dress. I was thinking about how I was going to cock my hat. I was thinking about which jacket I was going to wear, and what colors were going to be on that jacket. I was thinking about how I was going to carry my book bag. I was thinking about how many young boys I was going to walk to school with. I was thinking about where those young boys were from. I was thinking about what path we were going to take to school.

When I got to school, I was thinking about who I had problems with in my classroom. I was thinking about where I was going to sit during lunchtime, whether I was going to go to lunch at all.

After school, I was thinking about when I was going to leave school, at what point and at what time. Who was going to be walking with me, where were they from, which path we were going to take home?

Each of these decisions were part of my attempt to secure the safety of my body. For kids who lived where I lived, there was a dawning awareness of the world in which we lived. And that world was violent. And that world was a world where our bodies could be threatened, where things could be done to us, and we couldn’t depend on any sort of authority figure, any sort of force within society to protect us. Our personal safety was up to us.

Conversations about race are filled with words and euphemisms to describe the impact of racism on people and communities

The summer when I was nine, my older brother and I were outside waiting for a ride when we were jumped by a group of boys we didn’t know. It never occurred to me that they would be violent towards us, but when one of them punched my brother in the face, my brother took off running; he immediately grasped the situation. I was punched too, and my brother was chased and hit some more. And as I stood under the awning of Lexington Market in Baltimore, I saw waves of young black boys coming down the street, jumping and beating on whoever might be unlucky enough to go past.

Later that summer, my 13-year-old brother bought a gun. In hindsight this fact is not as extraordinary as the fact that, for me, knowing he had a gun felt un-extraordinary. I was ultimately accountable for my own protection; I was ultimately accountable for my own physical health.

When you talk about how the young boys that I grew up around walked through the world, when you talk about the fact that my brother had made a decision at 13 that he was going to carry a handgun, when you talk about the fact that that wasn’t even unusual, you are talking about the physical safety, the danger, the very health of the body.

Conversations about race are filled with words and euphemisms to describe the impact of racism on people and communities. These ideas—about affirmative action, about job discrimination, and housing discrimination, about racial justice—all cycle back to this physicality of racism, its impact on the actual body. When we talk about racism, inequity in health is ultimately what we are talking about.

I am not confident that these conversations will change because people acquire knowledge or willpower or are spiritually moved. I think conversations change because a previous conversation becomes too expensive and unsupportable.

Featured image credit: ‘Streets of West Baltimore’, by Peeter Viisimaa, (c) iStock Photo

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