The Other Wes Moore

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Race, Inequality, and Injustice Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Luck vs. Choice Theme Icon
Friendship, Family, and Brotherhood Theme Icon
Inclusion vs. Exclusion Theme Icon
Race, Inequality, and Injustice Theme Icon
Discipline and Violence  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Other Wes Moore, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Race, Inequality, and Injustice Theme Icon

Perhaps the most important parallel between the two Wes Moores—even more significant than their shared name, age, and birthplace—is the fact that they are both black. This creates a bond between the two men that endures even though almost everything else about their lives is in stark contrast. At the same time, the two men do not share the exact same ethnic identity; whereas Wes is entirely African-American, Moore’s mother and grandparents are immigrants from the Caribbean. Joy’s family are thus more obviously “outsiders” to American life, and Moore describes his mother’s studied efforts to integrate into American modes of behavior. On the other hand, both Moore’s parents are college graduates, and thus experience less of the marginalization that results from being poor, non college-educated African Americans like Wes’s family members.

Although Moore does not necessarily focus on racial injustice explicitly in The Other Wes Moore, it is a theme that runs throughout the book. Moore notes that though Johns Hopkins is only five miles away from his and Wes’s homes, “it might as well have been a world away.” The lack of opportunities and resources in both their lives (and particularly in Wes’s) is undoubtedly fuelled by the impact of racial discrimination, which Moore hints at by referring to the impact of poverty, drugs, and cuts to public assistance on both his Baltimore neighborhood and the part of the Bronx in which his mother grew up. Similarly, Moore details many moments in which he and Wes are subject to racially-charged police brutality.

One of the passages in which Moore addresses racial inequality most explicitly is in his description of his visit to South Africa. He notes: “It was obviously a far more egregious situation, but I could sense faint echoes of Baltimore and the Bronx in the story of these townships,” thereby highlighting the fact that the United States is afflicted by the same problems of stark racial segregation and inequality as South Africa, even if they may seem less apparent on the surface. It is in South Africa that Moore is also confronted with a new image of his own racial identity. His host, Mama, explains that in South Africa he would be considered “colored,” not black, due to his light skin. This realization—alongside Moore’s awareness of even more drastic poverty in South Africa than what he witnesses in Baltimore—suggests that all inequality and injustice is flexible and relative, even if it works according to similar logic and intersects all over the world.

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Race, Inequality, and Injustice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Race, Inequality, and Injustice appears in each Chapter of The Other Wes Moore. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Race, Inequality, and Injustice Quotes in The Other Wes Moore

Below you will find the important quotes in The Other Wes Moore related to the theme of Race, Inequality, and Injustice.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Johns Hopkins University was only five miles from where Mary grew up, but it might as well have been a world away. To many in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins was the beautiful campus you could walk past but not through. It played the same role that Columbia University did for the Harlem residents who surrounded it, or the University of Chicago did for the Southside. It was a school largely for people from out of town, preppies who observed the surrounding neighborhood with a voyeuristic curiosity when they weren't hatching myths about it to scare freshmen. This city wasn't their home. But after completing her community college requirements, Mary attempted the short but improbable journey from the neighborhood to the campus. Her heart

jumped when she received her acceptance letter. It was a golden ticket to another world.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), Mary
Related Symbols: Johns Hopkins University
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Moore has introduced Wes’ mother, Mary, who is the first in her family to enroll in college. After earning her associate’s degree from the Community College in Baltimore, she moves on to fulfill her “longtime” dream of earning a bachelor’s. In this passage, Moore describes the tense relationship between Johns Hopkins University—a prestigious institution located in Baltimore—and the city that surrounds it. It is not proximity that separates Mary’s world from the world of Johns Hopkins, but rather race, poverty, and other forms of social inequality. Although there is no physical barrier telling Mary that she doesn’t “belong” on the Johns Hopkins campus, other, more subtle signs indicate that it is a world for white “preppies” and not single, black teenage mothers from West Baltimore.

Mary’s miraculous acceptance in spite of this barrier indicates that such barriers can be overcome, and foreshadows Moore’s acceptance to Johns Hopkins later in the book. However, although Moore describes Mary’s admission as “a golden ticket” in this passage, the reality turns out not to be so magical. The forces dividing the elite world of Johns Hopkins and the impoverished reality of West Baltimore turn out to be more stubborn than Mary anticipates.

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Chapter 2 Quotes

The walls and floors were coated with filth and graffiti. Flickering fluorescent tubes (the ones that weren't completely broken) dimly lit the cinder-block hallways. The constantly broken-down elevators forced residents to climb claustrophobic, urine-scented stairways. And the drug game was everywhere, with a gun handle protruding from the top of every tenth teenager's waistline. People who lived in Murphy Homes felt like prisoners, kept in check by roving bands of gun-strapped kids and a nightmare army of drug fiends. This was where Tony chose to spend his days.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), Tony
Related Symbols: The Murphy Homes Projects
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Moore has explained that Tony, who is six years older than Wes, is the closest thing that Wes has to a father figure. However, Tony isn’t around all the time because he lives with his father and grandparents in the Murphy Homes, a notorious housing project nicknamed the “Murder homes.” Moore’s description of the Murphy Homes brings to mind a warzone more than a residential community. It emphasizes the extent to which West Baltimore is a neglected, forgotten community forced to deal with living conditions that would horrify many affluent and white Americans.

Although many in the Murphy Homes Projects would undoubtedly rather live elsewhere, Moore emphasizes that the Homes are “where Tony chose to spend his days.” This comment illustrates the way in which luck and choice intermingle in the cruel environment of West Baltimore. While Tony likely doesn’t enjoy spending time in “urine-scented stairways,” he has made the decision to participate in the drug trade. The consequences of his role as a drug dealer can never be blamed on either choice or luck alone, but rather a combination of the two.

Chapter 3 Quotes

I was becoming too "rich" for the kids from the neighborhood and too "poor" for the kids at school. I had forgotten how to act naturally, thinking way too much in each situation and getting tangled in the contradictions between my two worlds. My confidence took a hit. Unlike Justin, whose maturity helped him handle this transition much better than I did, I began to let my grades slip.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), Justin
Page Number: 53-54
Explanation and Analysis:

Moore has been struggling to hide his family’s lack of wealth from the kids at Riverdale; meanwhile, the neighborhood boys in the Bronx tease him about attending a “white school.” Increasingly caught between these two worlds, Moore struggles to cope. This passage illustrates the ways in which Moore’s academic performance is inherently tied to his social status and confidence. While Moore’s concerns might seem childish and frivolous (especially compared to the more driven and mature Justin), they are in fact caused by the very serious issues of racism and inequality. It is easy to dismiss Moore’s neglect of his schoolwork as irresponsible; yet the reason why Moore and many children like him fail to succeed is because they are suffering from the effects of social inequality and exclusion.

Later in life I learned that the way many governors projected the numbers of beds they'd need for prison facilities was by examining the reading scores of third graders. Elected officials deduced that a strong percentage of kids reading below their grade level by third grade would be needing a secure place to stay when they got older. Considering my performance in the classroom thus far, I was well on my way to needing state-sponsored accommodations.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prison
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Due to his feelings of social inadequacy, Moore starts to perform badly in school. His grades slip to Cs and Ds, and in third grade he is reading at a second-grade level. Moore notes that third grade reading scores are in fact often used to determine the amount of prison space that will be needed in the following generation.

Immediately, Moore’s casual anecdote of his slipping grades becomes much more sinister. If third grade reading levels can be used to accurately gauge the number of prison beds needed, what does this say about the possibility of second chances, personal improvement, and social mobility in American society? While it is true that Moore does not end up incarcerated, this passage emphasizes the extent to which he truly is the exception to the norm. His observation proves that many children’s fates are sealed by the time they are 10 years old.

Part II Interlude Quotes

From everything you told me, both of us did some pretty wrong stuff when we were younger. And both of us had second chances. But if the situation or the context where you make the decisions don't change, then second chances don't mean too much, huh?

Related Characters: The Other Wes Moore (Wes) (speaker), Wes Moore (Moore/The Author)
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

During prison visitation, Wes has asked Moore when he felt like he first became a man. Moore replies that it was when he felt he was accountable to people other than himself; Wes responds that “providing for others isn’t easy,” and that it can be difficult to get second chances when you mess up. In this passage, Wes further explains that it seems like both he and Moore made mistakes when they were younger. While they both got second chances, Wes’s second chances were not really meaningful, because they had no impact on the circumstances in which Wes made the decisions in the first place.

Wes’s understanding of second chances places a heavy emphasis on the influence of external circumstances rather than people’s individual choices. This foreshadows his and Moore’s conversation in the third and final interlude in which Wes argues that people’s destinies are shaped by the expectations of others. Wes’s observation also suggests that he has a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of second chances, perhaps more so than Moore. Whereas Moore places a heavier emphasis on people’s ability to autonomously make the right decisions and turn their lives around, Wes emphasizes the importance of external change, which in turn allows people to change internally.

Chapter 4 Quotes

I found in hip-hop the sound of my generation talking to itself, working through the fears and anxieties and inchoate dreams—of wealth or power or revolution or success—we all shared. It broadcast an exaggerated version of our complicated interior lives to the world, made us feel less alone in the madness of the era, less marginal. Of course, all that didn't matter to my mother. All she knew was that I could effortlessly recite hip-hop lyrics while struggling with my English class.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), Joy
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Moore has been performing badly in school, a fact that is causing Joy to be increasingly concerned. One day while Moore and Joy are in the car together, a hip hop song comes on the radio and Moore starts rapping along enthusiastically. Joy is furious; while Moore’s teachers at Riverdale have suggested he might have a learning disability, Moore’s mastery of the lyrics indicates to Joy that he has simply been focusing his energies in the wrong direction. In this passage, Moore explains that—rather than being a frivolous diversion—hip hope gives him a sense of meaning and community, particularly in the context of the pressures he experiences as a young boy growing up in the crack epidemic-era Bronx.

Chapter 6 Quotes

I had to let this one go. I had to look at the bigger picture. My assailant was unknown, unnamed, and in a car. This was not a fair fight, and the best-case scenario was nowhere near as probable as the worst-case scenario. If I was successful, who knew how the fight would've ended? If I failed, who knew how the fight would've ended? I thought about my mother and how she would feel if this escalated any further. I thought about my father and the name he chose for me.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), Joy, Westley, Colonel Bose’s Son
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

During a trip to town with his fellow cadet Dalio, Moore is attacked by a group of drunk teenagers, one of whom identifies himself as Colonel Bose’s son. As the teenagers’ aggression escalates, one of them shouts a racist slur at Moore and throws something hard at his face. Although Moore is tempted to retaliate, he reasons that this is too great a risk. The kind of reasoning Moore displays in this passage is a direct contrast to Wes’s reaction to the conflicts with the young boy during the football game and with Ray. In these cases, Wes leaves no time for rational reflection, but simply recalls Tony’s advice to “send a message” and grabs a weapon.

Moore’s words in this passage emphasize the extent to which he is able to make rational, responsible decisions because of the love and support of his family. Rather than fixating on his own pride, Moore’s thoughts immediately jump to the impact his injury or death would have on his family. This moment thus reveals a turning point in Moore’s maturity, in which he has left behind the desire to prove himself and is more focused on the responsibility he has toward others.

Part III Interlude Quotes

"I think so, or maybe products of our expectations."
"Others’ expectations of us or our expectations for ourselves?"
"l mean others' expectations that you take on as your own."
I realized then how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.
"We will do what others expect of us," Wes said. "If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we will get a job. lf they expect us to go to jail, then that’s where we will end up too. At some point you lose control."

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), The Other Wes Moore (Wes) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prison
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

During one of his visits to prison, Moore has asked Wes whether he thinks that people’s fates are determined by their external circumstances. Wes replies that he does, and that he thinks people internalize others’ expectations. Once again, Wes reveals a notably sophisticated understanding of the way in which people are influenced by external circumstances. While some may argue that Wes shifts the blame too far away from personal responsibility, his words are also supported by much of the evidence in the book. Although both men make mistakes when they are young, Moore is consistently surrounded by people who hope and expect him to achieve great things. Meanwhile, no one seriously expects Wes to achieve much at all.

Chapter 7 Quotes

"Fuck God," he said, drawing in a lungful of smoke. "If He does exist, He sure doesn't spend any time in West Baltimore."

Related Characters: The Other Wes Moore (Wes) (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

Wes and his friends have gone to get tattoos together. When it is Wes’s turn to decide which design to get, he opts for a black devil’s head. Although Wes attended church services occasionally when he was younger, he now no longer believes in God—or at least, doesn’t believe that God is present in his own community. As a young man, Wes does not often vocally express his feelings and beliefs and thus this is one of the only points in the book in which he provides any insight into his personal view of the world. Where most of the time Wes projects a kind of tough apathy, in this passage it is clear that beneath that apathy is a deeper and more painful form of anger and resentment.

It is difficult to blame Wes for having such a bleak view of the world and of God. Throughout his life, he has been surrounded by injustice, poverty, violence, crime, and suffering. Even people who try desperately to improve themselves—such as Wes’s mother Mary—rarely succeed. Rather than channeling his anger at this injustice in a constructive way, Wes becomes increasingly cynical and indifferent to his own fate. Yet can we really blame him, considering how powerless life in West Baltimore makes him feel?