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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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."
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:
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
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."
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.
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.