Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Struggle for Reparations

Born out of Baltimore, Maryland, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a contemporary radical philosopher who discusses the experience of being black in the United States. The contents of his essays and works often published in The Atlantic range from the implications of both the Trump and Obama presidencies to Kayne West’s pursuit of “white freedom.” 

However, Coates is predominantly an outspoken thinker and avid supporter in the discussion of reparations for black Americans. In his article titled, “The Case for Reparations,” Coates describes the prolonged oppressive journey of black Americans throughout history and the ramifications of systematic racism at the hands of white power. Stating that “America will never be whole,” Coates views reparations as the remedy to a society ingrained with racial inequality that stems from “ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice” (Coates). Uniquely, Coates promotes the nonfinancial effects of reparations such as cultural education and racial understanding as the chief instruments to ease the black versus white divide. 

Coates describes post-Civil War America as a land that intentionally instigated what he calls a “second slavery” (Coates). This evolution of racism consisted of perpetuating racial prejudice on two fronts. In the South, lawless culture and blatant hatred allowed racist whites and police to terrorize blacks. While in the North, “legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets” (Coates). So often the American understanding of history looks back at slavery as a black mark on its seemingly reputable upbringing, disregarding the fact that instituional racism in America didn’t cease at the end of the Civil War or the Civil Rights Act. 

Post Civil-War, American structures and institutions regardless of region practiced the persecution black success across the nation. For example, in Chicago, the “Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) […] pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant,” including a “clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites” (Coates). This proved to be especially detrimental to black Americans as “Previously, prejudices were personalized and individualized; FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy. Whole areas of cities were declared ineligible for loan guarantees” (Coates). What does all this mean? Essentially, the HOLC (a government-sponsored corporation) selectively privileged which homeowners received financial support in order to prevent foreclosure which then allowed them to bar blacks from white communities through refusing to provide them home loans.

North Lawndale, Chicago, was at the center of the manipulative strategies of the white “sellers.” The neighborhood is 92 percent black while also having triple the city’s homicide rate and amount of households on food stamps, along with 43% of its people below the poverty line.

Not only that, but manipulative whites emerged as “sellers” who served as the middleman for blacks trying to purchase Chicago homes. These whites would often scheme black families into buying homes for more than double their market price, providing no equity or homeownership advantages until the deed was fully paid off. Unlike a normal mortgage, if a single payment was missed on the house, the family could forfeit their “$1,000 down payment, all [their] monthly payments, and the property itself” (Coates). This essentially robbed black families of any financial stability, leaving them on the brink of being broke and homeless.

The practices in Chicago reflected the greater upbringing of American systematic racism. This echoes as with children born from 1955 through 1970, “4 percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed. And whereas whites born into affluent neighborhoods tended to remain in affluent neighborhoods, blacks tended to fall out of them” (Coates). Thus, today, there are significant economic implications of past legal housing segregation for black families: “The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do” (Coates).

Such practices remain into the 21st century. In 2012, Wells Fargo had to pay more than $175 million in a discriminnation suit after being exposed for promoting predatory subprime loans in predominantly black neighborhoods. Documentation was revealed showing Wells Fargo “loan officers referring to their black customers as ‘mud people’ and to their subprime products as ‘ghetto loans.’” Similarly in 2011, “Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit” (Coates). 

Thus, Coates and his use of tangible financial evidence validates his rhetoric as a public intellectual in order “to puncture the myth-makers of any era, including his own, whether it’s those who promise that utopia is just around the corner if we see the total victory of free markets worldwide, or communism worldwide or positive genetic enhancement worldwide, or mouse-maneuvering democracy worldwide, or any other run-amok enthusiasm. Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers” (Mack). Regardless of what the law says, America is far from structural racial equality. While white America may not be willing to hear it, Coates’ evidence demonstrates valid need to rework American institutions with intentional focus paid to the historically oppressed. 

Coates acknowledges “the lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of whites only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows—and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly” (Coates). This further manifests itself today as voices point toward record-low unemployment for black Americans and rising stock markets as measures for American success. 

Nonetheless, do those numbers add up to a greater societal establishment of racial equality? Coates knows: “such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere” (Coates). The average American loves to adhere to a false understanding of how racism in America manifests itself and continues to leave a lasting impact on our racial relations as their own individual successes has proved them numb struggles of the disenfranchised.

To move past this turbulent foundation, there must be a revival of American actualization: “Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling ‘patriotism’ while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history” (Coates). From the cultural significance of the 4th of July to the presence of Confederate flags, racism has been ingrained in American society and to disregard its ramifications reveals and underlying ignorant bliss of embracing its history of oppression. This fear and blindness to the facts of American history only reveals how important it is to embark on a greater conversation on reparations and cease its crippling effect on its people. Coates sees this effect as an illness, stating that “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” (Coates).

The policies put into place by our government to provide better opportunities for black Americans has only added to the ignorant bliss of faulty solutions. Affirmative action serves as the poster child of such faults as it “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” (Coates). This “injury gap” is the result of American heritage actively punishing black success. Whether that takes form in predatory housing policy or crippling economic woes, Coates understands that even promoting equality through educational opportunities doesn’t necessarily lead to any greater racial betterment as the American societal structure is still fatally flawed. 

However, then the conversation regarding reparations comes up, the usual question persists of how exactly the policy would work: who gets paid, how much, how will it help, and where does this money come from? Coates works to shift the argument away from describing the detailed arrangements for how reparations would work because he knows that discussion is futile at the moment. American culture has secluded itself from the conversation of racial politics which furthered the collective suffering of black Americans. Unaffected by this suffering, white America has gladly accepted this status quo of white supremacy. Nonetheless, while Coates always maintains such an articulate style of persuasion that promotes respect and facts, white America can’t help but feel ostracized by the issue. Through the case for reparations, white Americans believe that they will lose something (their privilege, status, financial safety, political power).

Coates eloquently states how such divide is limiting the greater American discussion on race: “I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders” (Coates). So much of American culture is rooted in heritage and national pride. This serves as a widespread facade that prioritizes white history over genuine American history as its own citizens can’t acknowledge its problematic roots in racial violence and systematic discrimination. To deny communal betterment and the acceptance of said harsh truths diminishes the great ideals we strive to maintain.

This denial is displayed through the willful ignorance shared by the policy makers who refuse to consider reparations and have a conversation about the current state of blacks in America. Coates works “to keep the pot boiling,” because “The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about ” (Mack). Coates knows this is a complex issue that will require significant time and resources to sort through, but even the hurdle of making the topic a legitimate national conversation is still being struggled with. In the end, a mixture of white privilege and perpetuating racism has kept reparations from being perceived as a legitimate issue.

Could reparations divide us? Coates says “Not any more than we are already divided” (Coates). Describing this divide as a “run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us”  (Coates). To rid ourselves of such debt, Coates strives for “a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt” (Coates). It’s not so much the physical money in the hands of black Americans that Coates believes will end the collective suffering, but reevaluating the American understanding of race and its implications could serve as a crutch for suffering black communities. This is because black oppression in America has cemented such a division that a restructure of our racial politics and values must occur.

In the end, Coates stakes his claim in the total resurfacing on racial understanding: “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it” (Coates). America has accepted a modern norm of blatant inequality sweeping the black community in an effort to maintain the white status quo of blissful ignorance. Reparations not only would give the black community better means of seeking success, but there is an educational element revealed in promoting the widespread acceptance of a debt unpaid. 

Perhaps Americans are afraid of what a serious conversation and study of reparations would bring. Coates describes these worries: “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). To accept the guilt and ramificantions of over 250 years of slavery may prove to be a pill too large to swallow by ignorant America. All America has known is racial divide and its culture and institutions thrive off of it; acknowledgement of its oppressive past feels outwardly unamerican. More than anything, this nation values monetary value and prideful heritage. To redistribute such value in the name of actualizing such heritage would result in the unheval of American culture as we know it. Such an opportunity tests the true colors of its people and if their character permits them to leave a debt unpaid.

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