Racial Indoctrination for High School Students?
DISCLAIMER: THIS REVIEW IS NOT SANITIZED. This review reflects the language and tone of the book itself. I did not water down the content to make it easier to read. If this language is being used with our kids, parents and leaders should understand this, and should hear what they are hearing. If you find it offensive, imagine the impact such language will have (or may have already had) on your children.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, is a young-adult novel that can be found in many high-school classrooms today. The story follows the experience of Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the fictional inner-city neighborhood of Garden Heights. On the surface, the novel pulls back the curtain on some of the realities of inner-city life. Having spent most of my childhood in the inner city, I can attest the story does hit on some very valid issues.
But the novel doesn’t just tell a story. Through the narrative of Starr, Thomas presents a world in which black people and other minorities are oppressed at the hands of both white people and the police. This oppressor/oppressed dichotomy is a major theme in the critical social theories, including Critical Race Theory (CRT), and it is a major theme in The Hate U Give. In drawing the reader into Starr’s world, Thomas advances a CRT–fueled mindset, one that looks to potentially violent activism as the solution for the “hate,” or the oppression, forced on minorities by society.
The Setting and Story: Two Worlds
Garden Heights is a lower-socioeconomic area filled with gangs, drugs, drive-by shootings, alcohol, and many people just trying to survive—in other words, your typical ’hood. Even though Starr lives there, she doesn’t fit the “typical ’hood kid” mold. She’s from a decent, hard-working family; her father is an ex–gang member who runs a community grocery store, and her mother is a nurse who has conquered her own past challenges. Starr and her brothers also go to a private school across town, where their parents sent them after Starr’s best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting years before.
Starr finds herself caught between two worlds: that of her inner-city home, and that of Williamson Prep, her wealthy, predominantly white private school. Early in the story, she observes that “There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me. Either version of me.” (pg. 3) Thus, from the very beginning of The Hate U Give, Starr is looking for the place where she belongs. She doesn’t feel like she belongs with the ’hood crowd, though a part of her wants to; she watches them closely and learns to imitate them. She also doesn’t feel like she can be herself at Williamson Prep, where she plays up her learned character as a ‘hood kid:
“In Garden Heights, I learn how to be dope by watching. At Williamson, I put my learned dopeness on display. I’m not even that dope, but these white kids think I am and that goes a long way in high school politics.” (pg. 294?)
The novel’s opening scene is a ’hood party, which Starr has gone to alone, without her parents’ permission. She’s feeling nervous and out of place: “I’m not even sure I belong at this party.” She’s aware that she doesn’t look like any of the other girls there, who “wear their hair colored, curled, laid, and slayed. Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail.” (pg. 3) She tries to take a drink but spits it back out: “I knew there would be more than Hawaiian Punch in it, but this is way stronger than I’m used to. They shouldn’t even call it punch. Just straight-up liquor.” (pgs. 3-4)
She’s self-conscious and reflects on how she fits (or doesn’t fit) in to either of her worlds, and how she has to adopt a kind of double-consciousness to function in either:
“People glance over at me with that ‘who is this chick, standing against the wall by herself like an idiot?’ look. I slip my hands into my pockets. As long as I play it cool and keep to myself, I should be fine. The ironic thing is though, at Williamson I don’t have to ‘play it cool’—I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in Garden Heights, and that’s more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day. Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black. (pg. 11)
Double-consciousness, as explained by W.E.B. DuBois, “a peculiar sensation, … [a] sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” It’s related to “code-switching,” or changing one’s behavior in order to blend in with the surrounding culture. Both of these experiences are common to many African Americans, and Starr is no different—only she must learn to adjust to both of her worlds in different ways. And she does: “Being two different people is so exhausting. I’ve taught myself to speak with two different voices and only say certain things around certain people. I’ve mastered it.” (p. 300)
Back at the party, Starr is talking with a childhood friend, Khalil, when shots break out. The novel makes this seem typical for a ’hood party: “Always some shit,” Khalil says. “Can’t have a party without somebody getting shot.” (pg. 16) Starr escapes with Khalil, who offers to drive her home. In the conversation between them that follows, she criticizes Khalil’s musical taste, and then he educates her about rapper Tupac’s term “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” In doing so, we start to understand the title of the book:
“Pac said, ‘Thug Life stood for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.’ The Hate U—the letter U—Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G L-I-F-E. Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?” (pg. 17)
Moments later, sirens. They get pulled over by a white police officer. Kahlil acts a bit insolent when responding to the officer. (Note: insolence or impudence is not justify being killed.) When asked where he’s coming from he responds, “nunya,” and arrogantly asks why he was being pulled over. He didn’t get out of the car when initially asked by the officer, but he eventually cooperates, as ordered. When he reaches back into the car for a hairbrush, the officer thought he was grabbing a gun and shot him three times. Khalil died by the side of his car. This traumatizing event spurs the rest of the story, which follows Starr’s journey through her personal moments of fear, double-consciousness, regret, and a search for her identity—all while working to understand what it means to be black and to stand for social justice in a world positioned against black people.
Will Starr be a voice for justice against personal and institutional racism and police brutality in a white-dominant society? Or will she remain silent and safe, perpetuating the hate given to her by the society she was born into? These are some of the choices that Starr must make.
Oppression in The Hate U Give
Starr’s struggle to fit in is realistic and believable, and the world of Garden Heights has authentic and compelling details. But I believe the author’s objective reaches far beyond giving readers a view into the life and struggles of blacks in the inner city. Looking at the book’s major themes, I’m convinced that the author’s intentions are to perpetuate an oppressor/oppressed worldview and to encourage young people to engage in knee-jerk advocacy against the “oppressors.” As the story progresses, we are expected to join the characters in decrying racial injustice, even before evidence has been released. Doing anything less is seen as undeniably racist.
The book’s themes, and the basic foundational beliefs of Starr’s ’hood community, include the following:
Systemic black oppression is an ever-present reality in a white-dominant society, and the true cause of poverty, gangs, and drug abuse is the oppression, or “hate,” given to black people by society.
There is one black identity.
Blacks cannot trust the police.
When hate is fully manifest, activism is the way forward.
Other themes include double-consciousness and code-switching, whites’ emotional fragility, the normalization of sex and LGBTQ ideologies among teens. However, I will only look at the four listed above, and how the author uses them in Starr’s story to encourage readers to respond to a world in which blacks are oppressed by society.
Systemic Black Oppression in a White-Dominant Society
America is familiar with the narrative: a white police officer shoots and kills an unarmed black man. Starr is portrayed as having the scars of yet another “modern-day lynching” at the hands of white people and white systems. As Khalil’s shooting makes national news, there’s the burden to “say their name” and the calls from social-justice advocates to protest and stand in solidarity.
And, as Thomas shows us, police brutality isn’t the only hate given to blacks by a white-dominant society. There is also poverty. Failing schools. Drugs. These injustices, she notes, are the “hate” inflicted upon inner-city communities from infancy. This hate is what prevents many blacks from succeeding. The story puts forth the idea that a society dominated by white oppressors is directly responsible, intentionally or unintentionally, for the conditions and failures of its oppressed black citizens. We hear from the story’s black characters, who refer to themselves as the “oppressed,” who remark that “even if you do have a high school diploma, so many of the schools in our neighborhoods don’t prepare us well enough.” As Starr’s father states, “That’s the hate they’re giving us, baby, a system designed against us. That’s Thug Life.” (pg. 170)
This “oppressed vs. oppressor” narrative is a key feature of the critical social theories. In CRT, for instance, whites are seen as oppressing blacks through social systems (such as education and banking) and power differentials (such as policing and the judicial system). The “hate” given to people of color isn’t necessarily personal or one-on-one; it also refers to systems that are built to keep people from achieving based on race. And this framework is a major theme in The Hate U Give.
Black Identity: What It Means To Be Black
The idea of black identity is woven throughout the book. While individuals may have different experiences, black is presented as more than just skin color. In the ’hood, being black is your essence. It’s a vibe. It’s not just who you are; it’s how you are. It determines how you see the world and how the world sees you. The black identity is a shared communal experience.
In The Hate U Give, black identity is shaped by the fact that blacks are the oppressed ones, the ones at the bottom—those who perpetually get the “short end of the stick.” But this black identity also encompasses power; there is the idea that blacks are feared most by society, not because of their violence but because of their potential:
“‘Black people, minorities, poor people. Everybody at the bottom in society.’ ‘The oppressed,’ says Daddy.’ ‘Yeah. We’re the ones who get the short end of the stick, but we’re the ones they fear the most. That’s why government targeted the Black Panthers, right? Because they were scared of the Panthers?’” (pg. 168)
(Note: This same idea was stated by Louis Farrakhan in his famous 1990 interview with Phil Donohue. Don’t skip over this brief clip! You can watch the full interview here. I recommend everyone watch it.)
The black identity, then, is presented as strong, communal, and family-oriented, but also as a power held back by the external conditions that have been handed to it. The novel goes further and presents black identity as the perpetual victim of whiteness and oppression, and as something that cannot be clearly understood by those outside of the black community:
“This is bigger than me and Khalil though. This is about Us, with a capital U; everybody who looks like us, feels like us, and is experiencing this pain with us despite not knowing me or Khalil.”
In Garden Heights, black identity is “Us,” and anything else is “them.” Black identity is both victimized by and stands in opposition to “them”—specifically, to white people and the police.
Blacks and the Police
In Starr’s community, the police are not to be trusted, as they are part of the system—the hate—that kills blacks, the poor, the oppressed. There is violent rage in Garden Heights surrounding Khalil’s murder. People are fed up with police violence. Lyrics from rap group NWA (“Fuck the police!”) are repeated. Police are seen as crooked and referred to as pigs.
Early in the novel, right before Khalil is shot, Starr recounts the talk her father gave her in dealing with the police. This passage seems to reinforce the notion that every black person should interact with the police from a position of suspicion. While the story recognizes that not every cop is bad, it affirms the idea that black people can’t trust the police, and that they must be careful when interacting with them. According to this perspective, police in black, poor, and oppressed communities are not there to serve and protect but to enforce and uphold power dynamics that offer hate through the killing of the community’s residents. This narrative is another tenet found within the CRT framework and in Starr’s neighborhood. Even her father partially adopts it: “I ain’t say every cop is a bad cop,” he says, “but I ain’t gonna stand here like no fool, thinking that some of them don’t do dirty shit.”
Another perspective from CRT is to view non-blacks exclusively through the lens of where they stand in relation to blacks or blackness. This even happens with Starr’s friend, Maya, who is Chinese. Because Maya has experienced racism, she’s seen as closer in social position to Starr than Starr’s own uncle, who is a police officer. Because of their power and their social position, police cannot be trusted.
In Garden Heights, as in many inner cities, there is an expectation of activism. Often social activist leaders will declare it unconscionable to decry the evils of riots without first castigating the oppressive society that led to the riots. Dr. Martin Luther King put it this way:
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally and irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.”
Today, more than fifty years after that speech, activist pedagogy is being embedded in school curricula, and children are being taught to be activists on behalf of BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) communities, LGBTQ+ communities, and disabled communities—in other words, the oppressed. Children are trained to be activists and allies by the time they graduate from high school.
(For example, check out this link to the National Sex Education Standards for comprehensive sex education. Draw your attention to the far right-hand column, and the expected outcome that children will understand and participate in activism.)
Today activism is being taught as the method of resolving injustice, and things are no different in Garden Heights. “Fuck this. Starr, whatever you wanna do, I’m down,” says Starr’s brother, Seven. “You wanna burn some shit up, we’ll burn some shit up. Give the word.” (p. 389) When a group of people see themselves as the “unheard,” the language of riots becomes common speak. And this idea is endorsed through the words and actions of Starr’s community.
It is important to note the difference between this kind of activism and a stand for biblical justice. In The Hate U Give, activism says, "Burn some shit up." It works toward social justice on behalf of those who are deemed marginalized by social-justice activists, groups like felons, minorities, or LGBTQ+ individuals.
Biblical justice calls us to use our voice on behalf of the voiceless and those biblically defined as being at risk of marginalization: the poor, the disabled, the widow and orphan. Biblical justice protects the innocent from unrighteous behavior.
Activism isn't always a bad thing. But, instead of “burning shit up,” destroying neighborhoods, and stealing, Christians can use their voice, their vote, and their dollars to be a stand for biblical righteousness.
Addressing the Hate
The Hate U Give highlights some of the real issues young people must navigate when growing up in an impoverished inner city context, issues such as drugs, gang violence, and the struggle for identity. The storyline also parallels events and related narratives we’ve seen in our own culture in recent years.
But the author’s presupposition that whites or the police automatically have a societal power that systematically oppresses blacks and other minorities is an assertion left to be proven. And it is harmful to young-adult readers of both races. For instance, when this ideology is accepted full-scale and promoted to uninformed white youth, it has the potential to build a burden of unnecessary guilt for the misdeeds of any racist who shares their skin color. It teaches white people to believe that they are responsible for all racial injustice. They aren’t.
Likewise, adopting a posture that the life circumstances someone is born into will automatically determine their outcome is also an error that must be corrected. The idea that blacks are somehow ill-equipped to change their life position—to rid their communities of violence, drugs, poverty, and single-parent homes—because of the hate from outside societal influences is untrue. However, as long as blacks continue to blame our issues on white “hate,” the implication is that it will always take the influence of white people to eradicate the problems found in our communities.
Finally, it’s also important to understand that sometimes the hate experienced doesn’t come from things outside of us, but comes from our worst enemies—ourselves. Consider the story of Cain and Abel. “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen. 4:6-7) The very thing that sought to “have” Cain was the thing inside of him, sin. We all must guard our hearts against sin that seeks to overtake us. As Christians, we can fight against unjust systems and structures, but if our hearts are overruled by bitterness, jealousy, envy, or hate, we will be overtaken by the sin we were meant to rule over. Likewise, we must teach our children to do the same.
Parents of children who are being exposed to The Hate U Give should be aware of the worldview that is offered in the novel. They should know that it may encourage your children, black or white, to become activists or allies in the oppressor/oppressed framework that is depicted in both the novel and our culture. In a future article, I will discuss how Christian parents can respond if and when they learn that a book like The Hate U Give is being taught at their child’s school, appears on the school’s reading list, or is added to the school’s library.