'So That's Just One of My Losses'

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World War II veteran and Mississippi native Clyde Ross (Carlos Javier Ortiz)

Last year, I went to visit the home of Clyde Ross in North Lawndale. I was there to research an argument for reparations. Ross had just turned 90. I asked him why he'd come from Mississippi to Chicago. He told me he came because he was seeking "the protection of the law." I didn't understand what he meant. He told me there were no black judges, no black police, no black prosecutors in his hometown of Clarksdale. For a black man living in that town it effectively meant that there was "no law."

This was a particularly illustrative example of why it is always important to report. Talking to Ross clarified something I'd been thinking aboutspecifically that being black was not a matter of white people thinking you had cooties. It was something deeper and more mature. It was the branding of black people as outside of American society, outside of American law, and outside of the American social contract. And this branding was done even as black people pledged fealty to the state, paid taxes to the state, and died for the state. This was high-tech robbery, plunder at the systemic level. White supremacy was not about getting black and white people to sit at the same lunch table, it was about getting white people to stop stealing shit from black peoplelabor, bodies, children, taxes, lives. 

Liberals, intellectuals, and pundits have spent the past few years dancing around this historically demonstrable fact. I rarely hope for my writing to have any effect. But I confess that I hope this piece makes people feel a certain kind of way. I hope it makes a certain specimen of intellectual cowardice and willful historical ignorance less acceptable. 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.

For two years now people have asked me for an answer. You now have it. For that you should thank The Atlantic, for its largess. Specifically, you should thank Scott Stossel, Sam Price-Waldman, James Bennet, Ellie Smith, Billy Brennan, Joe Pinsker, Darhil Crooks, John Gould, Bob Cohn, Paul Rosenfeld, Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, Clare Sestanovich, Janice Cane, Karen Ostergren, Carlos Javier Ortiz, Corby Kummer, and many more.  

I hope this is the start of a long conversation. I made my argument from the perspective of housing, but I strongly suspect that reparations arguments could be made from the perspective of criminal justice, education, health care, or from any number of angles. For writers out there interested in this I can only quote the words of a brave man: Drop it now. The people are ready.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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