Even before its online debut on Thursday, social media was ablaze for days in anticipation of this month's Atlantic cover story arguing in favor of reparative payments to African-Americans for state-sanctioned slavery and segregation. To add to the hype, the magazine publicized "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates with a rare trailer promoting the story (which hits newsstands on 27 May).
Reaction to the piece has been mixed (to say the least) but it appears to be having at least part of the author's intended effect: to get people's attention, and to begin a national conversation about the lingering effects of racism and oppression in America.
Coates lays out his argument over 17 pages, spanning – as the cover boldly declares in black, white and red – "250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal and 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining". He admits that he is not starting a new argument, but he does attempt a new approach by framing reparations not just as a financial debt to be paid, but as an emotional and psychological one necessary to begin healing the entire nation (and not just black Americans).
And while Coates mentions the role of the government in reparations – focusing attention on the languishing legislation proposed by Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, for example – he recognizes, as others who attempted to affect change throughout the history of this country have, that the moral will of all Americans must also be part of the solution.
The only thing missing from this conversation about racial healing – which may or may not ultimately include reparations – is a door for both black and white Americans to walk through.
In his address at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told the crowd of the "bad check" marked "insufficient funds" that America had given black Americans, challenging the country to deliver on its promise of freedom and justice for all. While he wasn't talking about reparations per se, King was appealing to the federal government and the nation's conscience about what he believed African-Americans were owed after centuries of slavery and segregation.
Half a century later, that check has still not been cashed, and the conversation about what – or if – anything should be done for the descendants of those who endured the horrors of those eras has been muted in favor of advancing a supposedly "post-racial" society that deems the effects of slavery and Jim Crow extinct or no longer relevant.
Interestingly, Coates's story launched the same day as the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The broad domestic agenda sought, in part, to eradicate poverty and injustice "in our time" as just the beginning of "abundance and liberty for all".
It also comes in the midst of our nation's remembrance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – a milestone during which talk of race has been largely and strikingly absent. With only a year left to mark the sesquicentennial of its conclusion, ignoring the call of people like Coates means that we run the risk of missing an opportunity to begin this dialogue in our lifetimes.
It is for this reason that it is so important – even imperative – that this conversation starts with an African-American writer telling this story in a legacy, mainstream publication like The Atlantic. The combination of the two adds weight and validity to the argument – and makes reparations harder to dismiss, yet again, as "crazy talk". It does no good to have only black Americans in conversation with each other about topics of race. (I suspect that The Atlantic got a lot more black readers this week, and that white readers were introduced to a topic they likely have not fully considered until now.)
"The Case for Reparations" is a bold beginning to the greater conversation we must have on the damages wrought by racism that still need repair in our nation. That anyone in 2014 would be pleading, as Coates is, to simply talk honestly about the implications behind centuries of proven history of one group oppressing another, is astonishing.
More remarkable still could be what happens as a result of him asking the question.
A few weeks ago, in the middle of a rhetorical battle he was already very clearly winning, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates published a long, lovely piece called "The Blue Period: An Origin Story." In it, he remarked that "historians are heartbreakers." I thought of that remark last night when he published a long, long piece, "The Case For Reparations," that is clearly the result of that sort of heartbreak, too.
You must read it yourself. No, really, you must. The essay's length—more than 15,000 words—makes it difficult to absorb all at once, but the length is plainly part of the point. Coates' "case for reparations" is a case about the cumulative effect of a long, winding history of discrimination. Condensing it, summarizing, can't convey the weight of it. Because reparations are about more than money:
Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
Now, we all know that for some reason the very word "reparations" seems to cause a kind of meltdown in (white) Americans that very much prevents them from looking at their share of what Coates calls "our collective biography." As one of his sources tells him, "People who talk about reparations are considered left lunatics." Defensiveness reduces everything very quickly to the personal: My family never owned slaves, I personally grew up poor, etc, etc. Everything becomes a matter of the distance of the present day from slavery, as if the second slavery was abolished, all institutional racism in America went with it.
Coates could have written a polemic chiding such people but he is not that kind of writer. He has the soul of a historian, not a theorist. Where others might write paragraphs of abstract statement about the ills of slavery, he drops:
Just as a homeowner today might subscribe to a magazine like This Old House, slaveholders had journals such as De Bow's Review, which recommended the best practices for wringing profits from slaves.
In fact, though, he doesn't even spend as much time on slavery as he does on the forms and institutions that white supremacy and enforced inequality took on afterward. Coates extends its tentacles beyond lynching and Jim Crow, too, striking at the heart of the American liberalism, FDR's New Deal policies:
The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net "a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through."
The backbone of the essay is the story of Clyde Ross, a son of sharecroppers in Mississippi who got out of the Jim Crow South only to find himself agitating for the rights of homeowners against the predatory "contract sale" economy in Chicago. Coates does not mince words about the way that federal policies created that opportunity to exploit black would-be homeowners:
The federal government concurred. It was the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, not a private trade association, that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant—a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites. Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods.
Coates takes that trail right up to the present day, charting the way Ross's neighborhood in Chicago still suffers from the years of overt discrimination and "redlining."
Though Coates does not indulge in the cliché of quoting Faulkner's "The past is never dead. It's not even past," that is the mood that suffuses the whole piece. He is calling for a discussion about reparations rather than those reparations themselves. He notes, glumly, that Rep. John Conyers of Michigan has been putting a bill in from of Congress for years simply asking for a study, to no avail. The bill, like Coates' essay, does not demand "one red cent." But even just talking about this issue is foreclosed.
Is it even possible for this essay to be the speech act that will break that taboo? I'm not even sure Coates expects that, because so much of what he reports here suggests that this is not a problem a single essay can solve. Like his historians, he must know that insisting on the harder truths now makes him a heartbreaker, too.