In The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs often takes the view that Robert Peace is the architect of his own downfall But in other ways, Hobbs argues, Robert is a victim of racism throughout his life. Over the course of the book, Hobbs examines the racial prejudice, both personal and structural, that exists in all sectors of modern American society. In doing so, he shows how racism, much of it directed at African Americans, prevents Robert and many others from realizing their potential.
Hobbs’s book begins with a general look at the history of racism in Newark, New Jersey, one of the most racially divided cities in the United States. Beginning in the late ‘60s, the influx of African Americans to Newark triggered a “white flight,” during which upper- and middle-class white families moved to suburban neighborhoods. The white flight coincided with, and in some ways caused, an escalation in police brutality in Newark, as well as a series of changes in real estate and the credit system that made it increasingly difficult (and were in some cases designed to make it difficult) for black families to live in desirable neighborhoods. The problem escalated still further in the 1980s, the decade in which Robert was born, when the War on Drugs led to a rapid increase in incarceration rates, particularly for black males. In short, Robert grows up at a time in Newark’s history when black people have a highly antagonistic relationship with the police, when their families are being torn apart by prison sentences, and when it’s difficult for them to live in safe neighborhoods. Even before he can talk, racism is a huge part of his life.
When Robert’s father, Skeet, is arrested and convicted of murder, the racism of Newark society begins to hurt Robert more than ever. While Hobbs never says whether he believes Skeet to be innocent or guilty, he emphasizes the racial divide surrounding Skeet’s prosecution. All nine of the police officers who testify against Skeet are white. Furthermore, Skeet spends three years in prison before being tried, as a result of the enormous incarceration rate at the time. Because of the delay, key witnesses that could conceivably have cleared Skeet’s name die. Hobbs’s point isn’t simply whether Skeet is innocent or guilty. Rather, Skeet is mistreated (his right to a speedy trial is arguably violated) in a manner that reflects the overall racial divide in Newark at the time. Furthermore, Robert grows up highly conscious of this racial divide, and the injustices that arise from it. He develops a deep sense of anger that, Hobbs suggests, is mostly directed at the racial injustices he perceives all around him.
Finally, Hobbs shows that Robert endures racial prejudice during his time at Yale University. Though Yale has been celebrated for its diversity and tolerant, enlightened atmosphere, Hobbs suggests that the students make embarrassingly little effort to move across racial lines. Robert himself sees Yale as a place that implicitly favors white students and white culture, and treats black students with condescension at best and contempt at worst. He points to his interactions with professors and students, and the Yale administration’s refusal to fund events like Af-Am week, as signs of the prejudicial atmosphere. On one humiliating occasion, while Robert is working in the cafeteria, some preppy, white students refuse to bus their own trays. When Robert politely asks them to do so, the white students don’t even make eye contact with him, and show every sign of treating him as a second-class person. Overall, Hobbs paints a depressing portrait of college life. Elite colleges are said to lead by example, showing the rest of the country how things should be. But instead, college life seems to mimic the racial divisions of American society in general. (However, some Yale alumni have criticized Hobbs’s characterization, either because they deny that their school is so racially divided, or because they interpret black students spending the majority of their time with other black students as a sign of solidarity and racial progress.)
Robert goes through life experiencing the effects of racism again and again. Sometimes, these effects are painfully concrete: his father is arrested and sentenced to jail time by a criminal justice system that overwhelmingly favors whites. At other times, the effects are more psychological: at Yale, he’s made to feel like a second-class student, an outsider at his own university. The influential social psychologist Claude Steele has written about the effects of racism on talented black students: the constant pressures of racism leave these students frustrated, angry, and often deprived of the drive they need to succeed. Robert demonstrates Steele’s theories all-too well: his anger and resentment make him into an underachiever and influence him to return to the Newark neighborhood where he feels most comfortable. When seen in this light, Robert comes across not simply as a victim of his own personal flaws, but of a society that discriminates against African Americans.
Race and Racism ThemeTracker
Race and Racism Quotes in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
As he did so, his confidence grew that not only would this evidence lead to a conviction, but also that a conviction would represent justice in the world. In other words, the defendant was guilty. He did not overlook the many loose ends presented within the story: the single witness who had been inebriated, strung out, severely overtired, and hungover at the time of the murders, and who had identified a suspect, by voice only, whom she had encountered once in her life and never spoken to directly; the very odd time lapse between when the murder was said to have taken place—seven thirty—and when Georgianna's roommate had first called the police two hours later …
White students went to frat houses, one of five popular bars, outdoor quad parties; black students did something else, of which we knew little except that rap music was most likely playing very loud.
This word "fronting" was important to Rob. A coward who acted tough was fronting. A nerd who acted dumb was fronting. A rich kid who acted poor was fronting. Rob found the instinct very offensive, and in college he saw it all around. He felt as though people were in a constant state of role-play before teachers, before each other […]
So what if it's annoying as hell? Instead of sitting around here bitching about it, maybe we just accept that it is what it is, and know that we have the capacity to get way more from them than they’ll ever get from us.
I was still struggling to equate the irritating but unremarkable encounter he'd described (I had doubtlessly forgotten to bus my own tray once or twice, though I didn't admit that now) with the profound anger still coursing through him, a few hours and a few joints later. I felt guilty for being unable to do so, for lacking the empathy required to connect a careless prep school slight to a fundamental flaw in the social construct in which we lived. All I said was, "That sucks, dude."
Though he hid that anger well behind the grin and the laughter and the marijuana, Arthur felt it in the jokes Rob made to Laurel and others about their privileged upbringings, in his heavy quietude whenever socioeconomic topics came up in conversation, and in his general disdain of Yale and Yalies. Arthur saw a closed-mindedness that was, he felt, self-propagating and innately limiting. More broadly, he believed these qualities explained precisely how an intelligent guy like Rob would always make life harder on himself than it needed to be.
And yet they still rendered the predictable media spin of potential squandered, the gift of education sacrificed to the allure of thug life, etc., not only simplistic but offensively so.
At a certain point, the lights disappeared from view beyond the trees and eaves of the neighboring homes, leaving the Burger Boyz to sit down once again in the plastic fold-out chairs and wonder how long it would be before the flames flickered out and the lanterns began their descent. And once that happened, they wondered where each would fall.