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Talking Reparations with The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Ta-Nehisi Coates
Photo Credit: Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Atlantic’s national correspondent sat down with ESSENCE to discuss his riveting ten-part essay, “The Case for Reparations.”

ESSENCE: We hosted a debate on Twitter (@ESSENCE_Debates) about your piece, where we asked our followers,  “Do you think reparations are necessary?” The response was split down the middle—yes and no. Is it necessary for Black people to be the ones championing reparations? Do we have to be the ones to push it forward?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I mean, we probably do. But it’s not necessary that all Black people agree with it. Everybody loves Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. now — they didn’t during Civil Rights. All Black people were not in agreement with the movement. So it’s not necessary that there be unanimity, but you’re probably going to need some critical mass of Black folks.

ESSENCE: There is this idea among ourselves that we don’t deserve reparations. Some people in the chat were saying, “Well, our ancestors are long gone.” What do you say to that?

T.C.: The policies that I talk about in the article are not about slavery—it’s housing discrimination, redlining. A lot of those people [affected], their children, and their grandchildren are very much alive. It’s not a hard issue to get your head around. The government had maps for where folks lived. So you can very easily identify who got redlined and who did not. A claims office could be set up, as they did with the reparations office for Jews in Germany, where you say, “This happened to me.” [You] went and applied and they approved it. It’s actually not very difficult. People think it’s difficult because that’s a reflection of where reparations live in the American mind—they’re something radical and insane. The fact is they’re not hard at all.

ESSENCE: You’ve said that the first step for people to understand why reparations are necessary is getting them to believe that something terrible happened.  

T.C.: For me it’s pretty damning and clear. When you have a situation where an African-American family earning $100,000 a year is typically living in the same kind of neighborhood as a White family earning $30,000 a year, I don’t know how you look at that and think that nothing’s going on.  

ESSENCE: In the piece, you didn’t really focus on numbers and details in terms of how reparations might be disbursed. Is that because you think the national conversation is more important?

T.C.: Yeah, I think if the morality piece were solved, we’d figure out the practicality. An America that decided that African-Americans were owed reparations would be an America committed to equality. Think about where the country would be if that happened. That would mean some very large critical mass of Americans decided, “We need to commit ourselves to this.” The practical is not where the battle is—we could figure out how to do it. To put this in perspective, in 1860, one-third of the South was enslaved Black folks. You talk about impractical? Liberating that many people, liquidating as much property as they represented—highly impractical—they found out how to do it. America prides itself on its ability to figure out solutions to seemingly crazy problems. Ingenuity, inventiveness—suddenly, this is impractical. Suddenly, we can’t figure this one out. No, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it at all.

ESSENCE: Congressman John Conyers Jr.’s HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, has not made it to the House floor in the past 25 years. What do you think is behind that? 

T.C.: I think an unwillingness to look ourselves squarely in the face. That’s the hardest part. America was built on the idea of being providential, you know, God looked down and made this place that was exceptional and different from any other country in the world. To accept the terms of the HR 40, it crushes that very idea. It says, “You got problems just like everybody else got problems.” That’s counter to the very notion of how America sees itself. I mean, think about it, all our wars of liberation. Think about who we were in WWII, greatest generation. We went over there and saved the world from tyranny. And with the Iraq war, this idea of putting democracy in its place. It’s key to how we construct ourselves — people die for all these freedoms that we enjoy. Well, what if people died for awful things, too? What if people died for the right to hold others in bondage? What if people died to take land away from us? These things are true. It’s hard for us to reconcile that. 

ESSENCE: What do you think is next? 

T.C.: (laughs) Nothing, actually. I think it’s just too hard. Germany didn’t wake up one day and decide to give reparations. They had something catastrophic happen that they had to fix. I see no evidence that anything catastrophic is going to happen in America. This has a chance in hell, frankly. 

ESSENCE: I loved that the piece didn’t end on a high note.

T.C.: No!  And we should learn to talk like that. I think journalists, writers, intellectuals (whatever you want to call them) are so caught in this narrative that there’s hope in the end, that somehow we’re going to work it out. It could happen; that would be nice. But also we might not work it out and we should really be clear and direct about that.

Read “The Case for Reparations” at The Atlantic.

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