Ta-Neshi Coates's "The Case for Reparations" is finally online. Everybody who isn't talking about it probably will end up doing so soon — because they've read the essay, perhaps, or because they heard that someone made a "case for reparations" in a magazine and isn't that outrageous. If you want to talk about it, make sure you're in the former of the two groups. Because Coates's essay, while indeed a case for something called "reparations," that has something to do with slavery, is actually a history lesson that stretches decades past the end of slavery and into something he gives a lot of different names to: "American piracy," or "plunder" for instance.
"Well into the 20th century, black people spoke of their flight from Mississippi in much the same manner as their runagate ancestors had," Coates writes in The Wire's sister publication, The Atlantic, illustrating a stark first example that sets the tone for a crucial reversal he makes to our understanding of black poverty. White Americans, history demonstrates, have historically lived with a safety net the black Americans cannot access, and still do. This extends from the richest to the poorest, and has been historically enforced by government policy. And, Coates writes about America's seemingly endless ability to ignore the bad in favor of the good: "to proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder," he writes, "is patriotism à la carte." In fact, both are crucial to American understanding. Coates writes:
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.
There's a lot in here, including a thorough history of systematic, planned black oppression, from which white Americans directly benefited. Coates also addresses several so-called "solutions" or counterpoints to the idea that this legacy remains tragically unresolved.There's, for instance, the myth that the preservation of a middle-class, nuclear family is somehow a cure for black poverty, an argument that has been picked up in different incarnations by both President Obama and Republicans in the House:
From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people. But Billy Brooks Jr. had a father. Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder.
Or more bluntly:
The laments about “black pathology,” the criticism of black family structures by pundits and intellectuals, ring hollow in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children.
And then there's the tendency to let exceptions to the rule — successful black Americans — speak for the experience of all black Americans:
The exchange rested upon an erroneous comparison of the average American white family and the exceptional first family. In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much. Malia and Sasha Obama enjoy privileges beyond the average white child’s dreams. But that comparison is incomplete. The more telling question is how they compare with Jenna and Barbara Bush—the products of many generations of privilege, not just one. Whatever the Obama children achieve, it will be evidence of their family’s singular perseverance, not of broad equality.
On reparations itself, Coates is equally interested in exploring the idea of monetary compensation — although he is not specific on the details of how that would work — as he is on the effect of a serious conversation on the issue could have:
We stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.
Coates, at one point, offers a definition for reparations: "the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences."
It is highly probable that many readers will be happy to dismiss Coates's essay as "radical," or an attack on white people, as the New Republic's review notes. Some will probably view it as a specific attack on conservatives, even though Coates singles out and deftly criticizes white liberal and progressive attempts to fight poverty. But for those who would actually read the damn thing, Coates's history lesson illuminates why those reactions also make the case for reparations.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.