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'The Atlantic's' Ta-Nehisi Coates Builds 'A Case For Reparations'


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Most of the time the idea of reparations is presented as a kind of sympathy check, a financial payment meant to leaven the damage done by the moral wrong of American slavery. Politically, the idea has often been considered a rhetorical grenade. As Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates describes it, an idea popularly mocked - to quote - "a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists." Now, despite that, the Atlantic writer has penned an article called "The Case for Reparations." In it, he focuses on the economic underpinnings of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and federally-backed housing policy to show how black Americans were prevented from building wealth or passing it on to later generations. Ta-Nehisi Coates joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you so much for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: So, your story starts with a man named Clyde Ross. He was one of the members of the Contract Buyers League, this group that sued over predatory housing contracts in Chicago in the 1960s. What made his story a good proxy for kind of the larger ills you're trying to demonstrate?

COATES: Well, Clyde Ross came to Chicago at a time in which the government was using its hand to influence and to promote homeownership among Americans. And Clyde Ross had gotten a better job. He had married. He was a World War II vet, part of the greatest generation. He basically had all of the accolades that one might assemble to be a - quote-unquote - "good American" and move into that world of the middle-class, except one thing - and that was a house. And when Clyde Ross went looking for a mortgage so that he could buy a house, he couldn't find one. And the reason why he couldn't find one was simple: Clyde Ross was black. And the FHA, the Federal Housing Administration, was not at that time subsidizing mortgages for black people in black neighborhoods. In fact, to the contrary, they were discouraging any investment at all. And Clyde Ross was just an example of that.

CORNISH: Why so much focus on modern-day policy and not slavery specifically? You talk about slavery but that doesn't seem to be the foundation of your argument.

COATES: When people think about reparations, they immediately think about people who've been dead for 100 years. And the argument that I'm making here is, no, the legacy of slavery extends in the policy of the American government, in the policy of the states in the deep South, in the policies even of cities and states in the north long past slavery, for 100 years after. And the effects are there. And the people who suffered those effects are the people who were redlined, the people who suffered job discrimination, the people who suffered from educational discrimination are very much alive and still with us.

CORNISH: Once you've built this argument around the idea of institutional racism, kind of explaining this, how do you come to the conclusion that reparations are the answer, and what do you mean when you say reparations?

COATES: I think there are two parts of reparations. The first is the obvious thing that, you know, gets everybody, you know, sort of, you know, gets everybody's back up, and that is the actual cash payments. And that, you know, could be in any form from an actual check through setting up programs. We don't really know. And one of the reasons why we don't know how to effectively do this is because the minute you say reparations, it's basically pushed off the table. As I mentioned in the story, John Conyers, congressman from Detroit, every year introduces H.R. 40, which is a bill not to award African Americans reparations but to study the period of enslavement and its affects afterwards. So, and that bill has never come to the floor under Democrats or Republicans. It's never ever come to the floor. So, we haven't even really had a chance to assess how much might be owed, if anything is owed, how could that possibly be paid back. You know, the question is totally off the table. And what I really wanted to do was get people to at least acknowledge that the argument was there.

CORNISH: So, are you calling for a conversation or are you actually calling for something literal?

COATES: I'm calling for collective introspection and I'm calling for something...

CORNISH: That's a pretty hard thing to call for, right?

COATES: It is. It is.

CORNISH: You know, I mean, are you talking a truth and reconciliation kind of thing? I mean, we've seen things happen in other countries but, you know, you can't even pass a light bill in Congress right now.

COATES: Right, right, right, right.

CORNISH: What would you're talking about look like?

COATES: Well, here's the thing: you know, in the broader sense, in the broader abstract, such as I said, I would call for a collective introspection. In the literal actual sense, I am calling for the passage of H.R. 40, which is right there. Which I believe, you know, Congressman Conyers introduced against this year. That's the first step.

CORNISH: Which is just a bill - we should make clear - it's a bill for a committee to study the idea.

COATES: Yes. 'Cause we got to get our hands around what we're actually talking about, and right now that's not even on the table.

CORNISH: MTV had this survey on millennials and their attitude toward racial inequality and one of the things they found that millennials overwhelmingly see racism as a problem for older people, right? And then they aspire to colorblindness. Are you essentially trying to introduce this idea, which has like come and gone in many iterations over the decades to the Obama generation?

COATES: Yeah, that makes me very, very sad. I think what happens is that those young people are the inheritance(ph) of an unfortunate idea, and that is that what really needs to happen to solve the - quote-unquote - "race problem" is to get black and white kids to sit at the same lunch table. And if we can do that, everything will be OK. In fact, we're dealing with something much more complicated and much more disturbing. The essential relationship across American history between black people and white people is one of exploitation and one of plunder. This is not, you know, necessarily about, you know, whether you're a good person or not or whether you see black people, you know, on the street and you're willing to shake their hands and be polite. This is about resources. And we haven't been very good at talking about that.

CORNISH: The other criticism is that we talk about race all the time, right?

COATES: We do.

CORNISH: For people who, you know, just a cursory glance through pop culture, whether it's Paula Deen or a guy like Donald Sterling or whatever it is that there's a constant steady stream of chatter about racial issues.

COATES: There's a great deal of chatter. And we do, we talk about race quite a bit. We don't have a particularly informed conversation about racism, though, which is, you know, the systemic effects of taking resources from African Americans, which is what the history of our country regrettably has been. And, you know, as I show in the article, continues up until this day. It's very, very different than talking about what Donald Sterling said about Magic Johnson. I mean, that's, you know, easy and that's, you know, everybody can, you know, agree that people shouldn't talk like that. But when we get to these really, really difficult questions about why is the African American, you know, wealth what it is relative to white wealth, why is African American income what it is relative to white income - these are much more difficult questions.

CORNISH: You've been writing about race for many years, and after all these years, are you disheartened that this is the conclusion you've come to?

COATES: No. I feel happy that I understand. You know, I'm a, you know, black man. I was born in West Baltimore, lived in a situation in which violence was everywhere. This was during the crack era. I constantly write about my safety walking to and from school, and then I would come home at night and I would cut on the TV and I would watch a show like "The Wonder Years" or I would watch, you know, some other show like "Family Ties." And it was clear that the America that I lived in was very different than the America that was being televised into me, and I always wanted to know why. That was the driving force behind my work. And, you know, if there's any sort of pride that I take from this piece is that I feel like I have satisfied the question for myself.

CORNISH: Ta-Nehisi Coates. He's the national correspondent for The Atlantic. His new article is called "The Case for Reparations." Thanks so much for speaking with us.

COATES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.