Ta-Nehisi Coates has written the cover essay for this month’s issue of The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” He argues that America’s wealth was built on a foundation of white supremacy, starting with slavery, but not ending there.
Coates documents a history of mortgage policies, social programs and other political choices that allowed white families to accumulate wealth while deliberately shutting out blacks, all continuing until the late years of the 20th century. The result? Massive economic disparities that have lingered between racial groups decades beyond the end of Jim Crow.
Should America attempt to rectify those wrongs? How shall we grapple with the less-admirable parts of our history. Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk consider the issue.
If you’ve already concluded that reparations are too expensive or too impossible, perhaps your sense of American citizenship is itself a cheap and flimsy thing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates never says precisely those words in his provocative essay on reparations for The Atlantic, but it’s clear his mission isn’t just to argue what this country owes its African-American citizens — it’s also to get us to reconsider our own American citizenship, and how we express that identity.
Coates would rather we grapple with the fullness of our American heritage. Instead, we tend to celebrate our noble triumphs while disregarding or excusing the sometimes-craven flaws of our nation’s founders.
“The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time,” he writes. “The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism a la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’ body.”
Coates never argues for a specific program of reparations; he’d leave the specifics to a committee appointed by Congress.
“Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed,” he writes. “But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced.”
There are many, many people who have commented on Coates’s essay without bothering to read it, so quickly do we fall into our respective us-versus-them camps. So try something: Read Coates’s essay. Wrestle with it honestly. You may not end up favoring reparations; it doesn’t cost anything, though, to take the question seriously.