Ta-Nehisi Coates on Not Knowing How Much You Don't Know

"It's really, really important that, you know, if we're going to have this fight, that folks educate themselves on the history," Coates told the audience at an Atlantic event last night.

Last night at the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C., Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down with Jeffrey Goldberg to discuss his recent feature story "The Case for Reparations."

During the exchange, Coates responded to many of the criticisms his piece has received, including the charge that the case for reparations falls apart on the specifics of implementation: How would reparations work in a society of such varied experiences, when many black people don't have in their own families an experience of slavery or other historical injustices but are more recent immigrants?

To this Coates replied:

A lot of people think they are equipped to have this conversation and they are not. I just want to be really clear about this: Anyone who has read Colin Powell's biography—there's an entire section where he talks about experiencing segregation. Colin Powell did not appear when he became head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That's not how it happened. Eric Holder? Eric Holder's family? You're right, his lineage is Caribbean. But his family was here in the 1960s and he 1950s. They were here. Eric Holder didn't appear as ... what was his position ... assistant attorney general or whatever he was in the Clinton [administration]. He didn't just suddenly appear.

It's very, very important ... it's really, really important that, you know, if we're going to have this fight, that folks educate themselves on the history. You can oppose reparations all you want, but you got to know the facts. You really, really do.

I don't want to single anybody out in that but I'm just going to say: We don't understand how much we don't understand.

And it's quite a bit. It's really, really quite a bit.

And I think, when people say, oh, you're just advocating another study because you're punting. No, you just have no idea how much you don't know. You know? We just don't. It's quite a bit.

You can watch the night's entire conversation above.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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