“150 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors, America will never be whole,” reads the cover of this month’s issue of The Atlantic. These sobering numbers are drawn from the issue’s leading story, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case For Reparations”—a meticulously-reported exploration of the history and legacy of institutional racism in the United States. Last night, Coates joined fellow Atlantic National Correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg on stage at DC’s historic Sixth & I synagogue to discuss the genesis of his work.
In his introduction, The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief James Bennet revealed that Coates had been working on the story for two years, though he noted that, “a lifetime of reporting and reflection went into it”—a fact which quickly became clear in the discussion that followed. In his conversation with Goldberg, Coates charted his changing evolution of thought on reparations, from opponent to apostle.
Coates said his mind began to change when he started to understand how decades of economic policies—redlining, gentrification, segregation, and other practices that have systematically excluded blacks—have fueled the significant wealth gap between African Americans and other groups.
“[The wealth gap] is at the root of so many of our problems, and when you take that and compound it . . . with the fact that African Americans are the most segregated group in the country . . . you have this population of people who have less and live their lives among people who have significantly less,” he explained. “How did that happen?”
Coates reached his tipping point after he read about a lawsuit contesting the admissions requirements at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, which relies solely on test scores for entry. Many Asian and Asian-American students breezed through the rigorous entrance examination for the prestigious public school, limiting the opportunities of other students, particularly African-Americans, to attend.
“At the end of the story, there was an African-American mother who said, ‘I don’t feel like my daughter should have to study Sunday to Sunday for a test to go to a good school,’” Coates recalled. “And this enraged me.”
Initially, Coates’ anger was directed at the mother, whose comment struck him as irresponsible. He soon reconsidered: “It occurred to me that, actually, in fact there are places in this country where people don’t have to work Sunday to Sunday to take a test. And those people tend to live in places that if you went back, thirty, forty, fifty years, African Americans were barred from [living] . . .as a matter of government policy.”
With the idea for a magazine story on reparations taking shape, Coates soon ran into what he called a “narrative challenge.” How could he tackle the piece without focusing on the centuries-old injustice of slavery? He decided the best way to give the story a sense of immediacy would be to focus on what—and who—came next.
Coates anchored the story around the life of Clyde Ross, an elderly African-American man who left behind a childhood in Mississippi—where his family had been stripped of their land and consigned to sharecropping—only to migrate to Chicago and again confront state-sanctioned bigotry. This time, it came in the form of predatory real estate agents, who sold Ross a home on a contract which required unreasonably high monthly payments and afforded no forgiveness for missing an installment. “Tell him he’s not owed anything,” Coates said. “And the fact of the matter is, there are tons of African Americans like this.”
Goldberg wondered why, after such meticulous reporting of racist injustices throughout the story, Coates didn’t “pull the trigger” and propose a total monetary cost of reparations or a policy for dispersing them. Saying that he looked at the problem as a “journalistic challenge,” he emphasized the importance of deep investigation as the foundation of smart policymaking. “I would want to go to South Africa and see, you know, how did it work out? What did other countries do?” he suggested.
In fact, Coates came back to the need for intensive and holistic study multiple times during the interview. He wondered, for instance, why dialogues on racism and inequality have consistently focused on African-American culture.
“We have tons of academic research on the impact of redlining, on the impact of not being able to get the GI bill, on the impact of lynching, on the impact of terrorism—we’ve got tons of academic literature on what that did and what that does to community. Culture not so much. It’s a little harder to quantify,” Coates said. “So why do we spend so much time talking about the thing that we have the hardest time quantifying, and so little time talking about the thing that we know?”Why indeed? It’s a problem that demands a great deal of painful self-examination from American society—but with journalists like Coates engaging in deep study and asking the right questions, we’re one step closer to understanding.