Wednesday, May 28, 2014

*The Case for Reparations* by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Part 1

Last week, the Atlantic's newest cover issue came out. It was the much buzzed about essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, entitled "The Case for Reparations."

Though this piece has been much buzzed about, it seems like it's been little read, and even less understood. So I thought I'd break this into two posts. This one will summarize the argument. The next will give my thoughts on the argument itself.

The argument:

Coates' essay takes an interesting approach. He focuses much of the essay on the Federal Housing Administration's (FHA) 'redlining' policy in the post WWII period.

According to Coates, from 1934 until it was outlawed in 1968, the FHA's 'redlining' policy prevented blacks from getting normal mortgages. Instead, white speculators would spook white homeowners in a neighborhood by making them think blacks were buying into the neighborhood. The homeowners would then sell their houses at below market rates to the speculators. The speculators would then sell the houses to blacks with a very disadvantageous contract specifying that the buyer would forfeit everything if they didn't make all their payments. If they didn't, speculators would repossess the house and be able to resell it. So the speculators were able to profit off of the white homeowners (because of the homeowners' prejudices) and the black buyers (because of the FHA policy and the inability of some of them to make their payments).

Coates traces these events through the heart-breaking point of view of Clyde Ross, who'd moved from the deep south to Chicago to avoid the heavy racism faced in Mississippi. Along the way, he loses nearly everything.

Coates goes on to argue that America's strength and economic system was founded on the plunder of blacks, as the cotton produced by slaves accounted for nearly 60% of exports and slaves were one of the country's largest assets in 1860, as well as the continued racism of Jim Crow and things like the FHA 'redlining'.

As a result, he argues that 'black poverty isn't like white poverty', since white supremacy is "a force so fundamental to America that it's difficult to imagine the country without it." So he dismisses attempts that try to help the poor regardless of their color. Similarly, he dismisses Affirmative Action, since he says that its goals are unclear.

For Coates, the wealth gap is the best statistic to illustrate "the enduring legacy of our country's shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans". Reparations, which Coates defines as "the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences," would "seek to close this chasm" in the wealth gap. Coates asks Congress to pass a bill to study reparations, for he thinks the discussion of the calculation of the number is at least as valuable as the number itself.

Indeed, his stated goal for the piece: "More, I hope it mocks people who believe that a society can spend three-and-a-half centuries attempting to cripple a man, 50 years offering half-hearted aid, and then wonder why he walks with a limp."

In essence, Coates sees white supremacy as one of the defining characteristics of America and the cause of the plunder of black people, which has resulted in a large wealth gap. Coates calls for reparations (broadly construed) as a practical and moral remedy.

(Continue on to part 2.)


  1. I read this piece by Coates, and it has gnawed at me since. I had to try to read it without emotions, which was difficult. I am a white, middle aged man who has worked very hard. I never hurt anyone, and certainly had noting to do with what happened to Mr. Ross or anyone else for that matter. Despite this, I try not to be closed minded even though I think that seems to be the most common of human behaviors. I look forward to part 2 of your blog entry on this subject.

    1. Christopher,

      You're right- this is a very polarizing piece. And that makes writing part 2 all the more challenging. Not only do I have to keep my biases in check, but I also have to be very careful about the writing. Readers will be quick to jump on whatever I say and accept or dismiss it because it aligns (or doesn't) with their own biases.