Why It’s Time for America to Get Real About Reparations for Black Folks
Just like religion and politics, reparations is one of those divisive topics most Americans steer clear of in public. The mention of the word conjures up a myriad of issues—slavery, racism, discrimination, the source of the money—that, in our “post-racial” Obama era, we like to believe belong firmly in our nation’s troubled past.
But while we grapple with the growing unrest surrounding income inequality and what that means for the waning middle class (read white male blue-collar workers), with “The Case for Reparations,” a provocatively titled cover story for The Atlantic, Ta-nehisi Coates moves far beyond the traditional notions of calling for a financial payout for blacks. Instead, Coates illustrates that through systematic violence and discriminatory government policies and laws—not just racist ideas held by bigoted citizens—black Americans have been and continue to be handicapped.
Through the story of Clyde Ross, who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago, Coates highlights an experience many African Americans encountered when they fled the segregated South in search of increased freedom and opportunity in other parts of the country. Many hopeful participants of the Great Migration, which saw nearly 6 million blacks leave the South, were quickly confronted by the reality that while they may have left de jure segregation behind, they were running into policies that continued to limit their choices, particularly regarding where they could live.
My grandparents are a prime example of these tactics. After leaving rural Arkansas for Cleveland, they migrated to Los Angeles in 1963. In L.A. they were herded into a housing project in Watts, which, in 1965, would be the site of the infamous riots. They attempted to buy a home from a white family leaving the neighborhood. When the FHA loan “fell through,” as my grandmother put it, my grandparents rented the house from another buyer (who “held” it for two years) before they finally secured a loan for $18,500.
Coates explores the redlining, housing discrimination, and unfair banking practices that created and maintain segregated neighborhoods in depth. “The American real-estate industry believed segregation to be a moral principle,” he writes. The federal government’s “Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, not a private trade association, 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.”
Though it would be easy to dismiss these procedures as vestiges of America’s racist past, decades of discriminatory housing practices have given rise to generational poverty and violence in several American neighborhoods.
“Today Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, a fact that reflects assiduous planning,” Coates writes. “In the effort to uphold white supremacy at every level down to the neighborhood, Chicago—a city founded by the black fur trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable—has long been a pioneer.”
While some have waxed poetic about “strong” black neighborhoods during segregation as proof that white supremacy and racist policies had little effect on the state of black folks today, Coates cautions against such a revisionist point of view.
“It is common today to become misty-eyed about the old black ghetto, where doctors and lawyers lived next door to meatpackers and steelworkers, who themselves lived next door to prostitutes and the unemployed,” he writes. “This segregationist nostalgia ignores the actual conditions endured by the people living there—vermin and arson, for instance—and ignores the fact that the old ghetto was premised on denying black people privileges enjoyed by white Americans.”
America has been living in a sort of denial for years. While we acknowledge our heinous past, we choose to ignore how it affects us today. Coates argues that “the politics of racial evasion are seductive,” but “to ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying.”
Coates doesn’t provide a step-by-step blueprint for how reparations should be determined or distributed. Instead, he suggests support for Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr.’s bill, H.R. 40, which asks the federal government to conduct a study on “the impact of slavery on the social, political and economic life of our nation.” The bill has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1989, and Conyers has pledged to “continue to do so until it’s passed into law.”
In one of the most powerful moments in the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Color Purple, the main character, Celie, leaves her abusive husband, Mr., telling him, “Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble.” Perhaps it’s the same with America and black folks. If we are ever to become the “more perfect union” of our Constitution, we must reconcile what we have done and continue to do to African Americans.