Ta-Nehisi Coates and his 'case for reparations'

An 1861 newspaper illustration of a Virginia slave auction.

The US was founded, grew and prospered on the back of the black race, writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. And the US will not fully be healed from the legacy of slavery until it confronts this truth and makes amends.

In a much-talked-about 15,000-word cover story for the Atlantic magazine, Coates lays out the case for government reparations to black Americans - for the harms of slavery and for the exploitation of blacks that has continued to the modern day.

In short, slavery, he writes, allowed the US to become a powerful, prosperous nation.

Start Quote

To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte”

End Quote Ta-Nehisi Coates The Atlantic

"The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America," he writes.

Slavery created an "indispensable working class", he says, that left "white Americans free to trumpet their love of freedom and democratic values".

After emancipation following the US Civil War, the harm continued on in Jim Crow laws in the South that denied blacks their vote, their property and even their lives.

When blacks moved to Northern cities as part of the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th Century, they faced a different kind of exploitation, he writes - discriminatory housing lenders and government policies designed to keep blacks confined to certain neighbourhoods with fewer services, substandard schools and less opportunity.

"Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages," he writes. "Police brutalised them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society."

Even on a national level, policies discriminated against blacks. The Federal Housing Authority refused to offer preferred loans to unstable - ie black - neighbourhoods. Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, including Social Security, was crafted to minimise benefits to blacks, he writes.

Although the overt discrimination has slowly been wiped away, by legislation or judicial action, the US is "still haunted," he says.

"It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear," he writes. "The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us."

To Americans who fail to own up to the history of white superiority, taking credit for their nation's achievements but ignoring its failings, Coates says:

Start Quote

An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane”

End Quote Ta-Nehisi Coates The Atlantic

The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism a la carte.

Dismissing the legacy of slavery as something in the past or a stain upon American ancestors and not relevant to those alive today is a cop-out, he says: "A nation outlives its generations."

The problem is that the consequences of slavery and the discrimination that continued after the end of civil war has created an intractable wealth gap between whites and blacks.

"The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago," he writes. "The humiliation of Whites Only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows - and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere."

Blacks in America are "working without a safety net", he argues. "Financial calamity strikes - a medical emergency, divorce, job loss - the fall is precipitous."

Coates lists some of the ways the US has attempted to address the problem and concludes they are not enough.

Black culture, he says, is not to blame. The idea that if blacks could behave more "respectably" is a sham.

"The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable," Coates writes. "The essence of American racism is disrespect. "

And placing the blame on broken homes and the absence of black fathers? The destruction of the black family has been a prime means of white control for hundreds of years.

"From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people," he writes. "Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder."

Liberal proponents of programmes of racial preferences like affirmative action are equally misguided.

"America was built on the preferential treatment of white people - 395 years of it," he writes. "Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this."

Couching preferences as a means of addressing overarching issues of class differences and wealth inequality is fruitless:

To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying. The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same. The lie ignores the fact that closing the "achievement gap" will do nothing to close the "injury gap," in which black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.

And so, he concludes, monetary reparations - closing the wealth gap between white and black - is the only workable solution. It is also the only way to truly put the legacy of slavery behind us as a nation.

"What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts," he writes. "What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt."

He cites as an example the German reparations to Israel following the Holocaust, undertaken despite fierce opposition in both nations:

Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany's reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilisation might make itself worthy of the name.

After laying out his case over thousands of words, and spanning hundreds of years, Coates's call to action is, in fact, relatively modest. He wants the US Congress to pass a bill proposed by Democratic Representative John Conyers of Michigan to study slavery and recommend "appropriate remedies".

Maybe the study won't be able to come up with a number, he writes. Perhaps the number will be so monumentally large that it is unworkable. But he says that the effort to quantify the damages has its own benefits:

An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America's maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

Coates has written a blog post that accompanies his article in which he explains how his views on reparations changed over the last four years, prompted in part by what he sees as the injustice of affirmative action programmes (which he says discriminate against Asian-Americans).

It's an interesting insight into the mind of a talented essayist.

On Friday I'll dig into some of the responses to Coates's piece.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    @208 Kingsley O
    No one is denying anything...we've heard nothing but and quite frankly most of us have had enough. btw how does any of the things you cite affect you today. They don't...so get a grip and get on with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    I remember a tongue in cheek piece by a Jewish American in response to the idea of compensation to Afrcan Americans.
    He was asking for the pyramids in compensation for the slavery of the Hebrews before Moses led them out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    All the USA needs at this point is someone beside the present administration trying to stir up a race war. America is not as bad as the so called president says. It is not as bad a the so call attorney general say.
    I grew up in a foriegn land and I was spit on and beat up because I was American. I know what it feels like. BBC MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    It is difficult to continue to find people who have negative views about what actuality happened in the past. But let us push forward to a brighter tomorrow and lift up one another and try to teach the future generations what the value of love and concern will mean for the survival of mankind. One Garden many flowers all different colors. God loves us all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    I have been to the Ghana slave castles. It would be quite difficult to ID decedents of slaves at this point? Chinese railroad workers? Would descendants of slave runners/plantation owners pay? Programs in place handing out cash, housing, education/affirmative action? Africans captured in warfare, traded/shipped to the Americas, look to the origin of the crime and it is in Africa.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    #193: The debt has being paid by Union Soldiers? Blacks not only fought in US civil war, they fought gallantly in Word Wars I & II in a segregated US Armed Forces to liberate Europe, only to return home to be treated as subhuman. They were not even allowed to vote, get a room in hotels, enroll in public schools.The list goes on. Denial solves nothing. It only sweeps racism under the rug.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    138. John Nicholoft -- In the Book ROOTS Alex Haley does address the slavery in Africa issue as it was at the time and in area his ancestor was kidnapped by African Slave Catchers. In that area destitute persons could sell themselves - and not be sold without their agreement unless they committed a crime and greedy owners suddenly saw crime where none was in order to sell that person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    It is racist to clump people together by a large group. Native Americans belong to many tribes with different languages. Fun hollywood moment - the producers of the movie Cherokee Dawn hired Navajo indians to play Cherokees, didn't give them any dialogue, just told them to speak some Indian. When their words are translated to English-its all rather rude or insulting comments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    It seems black activists like Coates want "a conversation about race." Only they want to do all the talking. Anyone who counters their narrative is a racist. Sorry, that's not a conversation. I will opt out until people like him grow up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Native Americans already receive some privileges, especially on health care. I agree they also should receive some compensation, especially because some of what was their land has a real state value that is up in the sky.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    This is all fine and dandy IF they ALSO reperate all the Native American nations who's property and real estate was used to create this nation.
    As it stands there are two Supreme Court judgements ruling that Macon,Georgia,Huntsville,Alabama and Chattanooga,Tenn. STILL belong to the Cherokee nation.
    Cherokee Nation v.Georgia and Worcester v.Georgia
    Join the club. We have jackets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    For real? This was a hurdle in our history, not a problem of the present! Everyone who suffered slavery during America's slave years is...dead. Black citizens, just as white citizens, have freedom today to make their own choices, whether they be right or wrong. Forgive me, but we shouldn't be revisiting the dreaded halls of yesterday, but rather, we should be molding a preferable tomorrow!

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    @200 Liberty
    The examples you give..........everyone died !! We are talking about reparation to blacks who are very much alive... we aren't laying a wreath. Most of us get on with our lives.....they apparently think $ will solve the past ....nope, 100 years from now their offspring should ask for reparation from their own ancestors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    Almost all of the excuses given by people commenting here for why reparations should not be paid have been addressed by the writer. So it happened 150 years ago, so is the first World War but the Western nations each year remembers those who died in that war for their sacrifices. The Germans are forever reminded of their sin of holocaust, why can we not move on, it happened more than 50 years ago?

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    Theres no denying African americans have had it tough over the centuries but why no mention of native Indians? Strange that

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    @portladem at least you are not still taunted by your distance history and your job prospects and overall quality of life doesnt depend on this. Think before you speak.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    There wouldn't have been any black slaves in America if they hadn't been transported there in the first place. The least (and perhaps the best) that one could do would be to pay their fare back. Far better for today's African Americans (I'm an Anglo-Saxon Briton - what stupidly artificial phrases) to stop harking back to the unchangeable past, look to the future and make the best of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Some of my distant relatives were raped by vikings, some were taken as slaves by the Romans. Please can I have some compensation please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Blacks need to stop blaming everyone else for their problems. The Asians encounter even more racism and they do just fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    @192 Kingsley O "Most whites............"
    That bit of holier than thou wisdom you spout might have had merit if you had written "Most people.."


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