"You must always remember," Coates writes to Samori, "that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body."“ ” From Between the World and Me as excerpted in New York magazine
Between the World and Me adopts the structure of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. The latter is directed, in part, towards Baldwin's nephew, while the former addresses Coates's 15-year-old son. This letter contemplates the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being black in the United States. Coates recapitulates the American history of violence against black people and the incommensurate policing of black youth. The book's tone is bleak, which is guided by Coates's experiences growing up poor and always in the way of bodily harm. He prioritizes the physical security of African-American bodies over the black, Christian tradition of optimism, "uplift", and eventual justice (i.e., being on God's side). His background, which he describes as "physicality and chaos", puts more emphasis on the daily corporeal concerns of being an African-American. Coates's position is that absent the religious rhetoric of "hope and dreams and faith and progress", only systems of white supremacy remain along with no real evidence that those systems will change. In this way, he disagrees with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s optimism towards integration and Malcolm X's optimism towards nationalism. Coates does not believe there is reason to be optimistic, and does not expect the association between America and white supremacy to ever change. He feels that even the death of white supremacy would just lead to "a new peon class".
Coates gives an abridged, autobiographical account of his youth "always on guard" in Baltimore and the fear he felt towards both the police and the streets—both of which threatened physical harm. He also feared the rules of code-switching to meet the clashing social norms of the streets, the authorities, and the professional world. To this experience, he compares neat suburban life. Coates calls this life "the Dream" in that it is an exclusionary fantasy for white people enabled by and largely ignorant of their history of privilege and suppression. To become conscious of their gains from slavery, segregation, and voter suppression would shatter that Dream. The book ends with a story about Mabel Jones, the daughter of a sharecropper who worked and rose in social class to give her children comfortable lives with private schools and European trips. Her son, Coates' college friend Prince Carmen Jones Jr., was mistakenly tracked and killed by a policeman. Coates uses his story to argue that race-related tragedy affects black people of means as well.