Features » December 29, 2014
How Ta-Nehisi Coates Made Reparations Mainstream
Coates talks about the debt he owes to black nationalists, and why black Americans are so hungry for data to back up their experiences.
'I think it goes beyond reparations for black people, to getting people to look seriously at their history. It’s not like America is just distorting black history. It has a problem with history, period.'
It’s almost as if journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates has performed an act of cultural prestidigitation by inserting the issue of reparations into the national dialogue. Ever since he penned a blockbuster cover story on the subject in June 2014 for The Atlantic, he’s been attracting large, often predominantly white crowds to hear his arguments on why descendants of enslaved Africans deserve compensation. Coates has convinced them to seriously consider an issue once confined to the radical fringes of black nationalism.
Some of those nationalists remain suspicious of Coates and his suddenly visible advocacy of reparations. He understands their suspicions, but insists he poses no threat to their provenance. Without their long-time and dedicated advocacy, he notes, the reparations issue would have disappeared entirely from the conversation. Coates is too modest here.
The crowds gathering to hear him are attracted by his ingenious reframing of the issue and the logic of his argument. Coates’ prescription is a relatively easy pill to swallow: He urges the passage of H.R. 40, the House bill repeatedly and fruitlessly submitted by Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr., which would create a commission to examine the impact of slavery and suggest remedies.
Coates is convinced that any serious examination of the effects of slavery and Jim Crow could only conclude that there is a need for reparations. “I really don’t see any other option,” he told me. He’s just not sure that we live in the kind of America that would come to that conclusion. Coates and I sat down in a coffee shop in Chicago to discuss the reaction to his article.
What has been the most unexpected aspect of the reception to your Atlantic piece on reparations?
It’s so obvious now, but I think I underestimated the black community’s appetite to see their stuff done in a really serious way—well researched, substantiated, with some scholarship behind it.
Have you gotten different responses from white audiences than black audiences?
With white audiences it’s mostly, “I had no idea. I just had no idea.” And from black audiences, it’s, “I know I’ve been ripped off, but I just didn’t know how. I didn’t know the science behind it.”
On my show on WVON radio, it was the topic of conversation for about three weeks straight.
I didn’t expect it to be such a revelation. There’s a strong body of academic research at this point—stuff that’s not even really contestable. But I felt like people who talked about reparations in the past didn’t stress certain things enough. Like, I really wanted to stress the housing issue as a present thing.
I’ve done several columns on reparations, but never with your contemporary perspective. That’s what makes your piece more compelling than talking about ancestral debt.
But the ancestral debt is true. It’s true. I’ve often joked that any of the more contemporary ills—like redlining—you can trace back to slavery. It’s the foundation. People just need to understand that it doesn’t end there.
Why did you think The Atlantic would be willing to expend resources on what a lot of people thought was a tangential issue?
You know, the funny thing is we never even had a discussion like that. It was never like, “This is crazy.” If [a freelancer] had just said, “Hey, I want to do an article on reparations,” it would have been much harder. But by the time I pitched that piece, I had been writing for The Atlantic for five years.
How did you get your start there?
The first piece I pitched was on Bill Cosby and that was in 2007. I was critiquing his whole respectability politics tour. [Soon after we spoke, Coates wrote an apology for downplaying the rape allegations against Cosby that have recently drawn attention.] That was my first interaction with a magazine.
Why did it take you so long to write for a magazine? Was it a cultural disconnect?
No, I think it’s a straight manifestation of a wealth gap. When I came in, the way to break into magazines was to do an unpaid internship. That’s just totally impossible for most black people. It’s the same thing with our loan problems. We don’t have, like, uncles, aunts, grandparents that say, “I’m gonna give you $500,000 to do this project,” or “I’m gonna support you while you live in L.A.”
Do you feel any responsibility to outline a tactical approach to reparations, or do you just make the argument and leave that to others?
People say, perhaps we just might allow black people to go to certain schools for free. Or we might have a bank that allows black people to get easy loans. I think all these things are possible. But the question I’m much more interested in is: What is the society that makes that possible? Put reparations within the political imagination.
I met Clyde Ross [a leader of the 1960s fight against predatory housing contracts in Chicago and a key figure in the Atlantic story] yesterday, and he said he doesn’t think this country will ever [pay reparations], so why waste our time? He said that to get reparations in this country, you better have a different court system, you better have a different media, you better have a different school system. And I think the beauty of his insight was that he knows that implementing reparations would require a totally different America.
So you think H.R. 40, the bill to form a reparations commission, would help serve that purpose?
Yeah. People would have to come for- ward on the Senate floor, on the House floor, and say, “Listen, this is what happened. Let’s have a straight-up argument about this. You show me your proof, I’ll show you my proof—and I’ve got plenty of proof.” That’s the beautiful thing: All of your Ivy schools, they all agree with me. I’m not from those places. But when you go to look at studies on economics, the evidence is pretty overwhelming.
So, if that evidence is presented and the country still refuses to act on it with any integrity, what’s Plan B?
I’m not too optimistic about going outside of the political order. I’m making arguments within the political order, as it exists. I think it goes beyond reparations for black people, to getting people to look seriously at their history. It’s not like America is just distorting black history. It has a problem with history, period. This is like a congenital thing…America the innocent; we’ve never done anything wrong. With something like climate change, [there’s a] problem of not being able to account for what we’ve done to the planet. It’s a general mindset. And it’s a suicidal mindset.
Speaking of history, how do you feel about reparations for Native Americans?
When you kill a massive amount of people and you push them off their land and then build a society on top of that, you probably owe them something.
Do you see any movement toward more acknowledgement of history?
I was happy to see that in a lot of the Ferguson reporting, people were talking about housing discrimination. They didn’t act as if Ferguson came out of nowhere.
Black nationalists have been working on the issue of reparations for a long time. Many expressed irritation to me that you were a “Johnny-come-lately.” Have you run into that?
I was raised in the black nationalist movement—that’s how I got my name. I could have gone into any nationalist gathering when I was 10 or 12 years old and heard anybody say, “You know they ripped us off and they built this entire country on our work.” If anything, it’s like I’m coming back to the church.
How a lot of folks probably feel is, “You know, I stood up and said this and they said I was crazy. And then here comes this guy.” And I understand how that can be frustrating. But this is an idea that is not about saving white people or making white people feel good. Ideas like that don’t get the same level of respect.
I hope the piece reminds people that just because something comes out of the radical wing doesn’t mean it’s crazy. Reason is not only found in the center. In 1860, the political center was not emancipation.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.