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Article Review: The Case for Reparations

Coates instructs a class
Coates instructs a class

An article


In last month’s issue of “The Atlantic,” senior editor and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a gripping argument pro reparations for the descendants of African slaves in America. The piece, featuring stunning black and white photography by Carlos Javier Ortiz, draws a compelling historical picture that illustrates the generation of systematic oppression and what he even calls terrorism imposed on black society by the American government. Coates draws this picture within a very specific framework, namely how today’s black families have suffered economically in the housing market.

He opens the piece brilliantly with a lens on the impoverished conditions of a small neighborhood outside of Chicago called North Lawndale. Middle-class black families started moving in during the 1940’s, encouraged by the Jewish People’s Institute’s desire to make the neighborhood a “pilot community for interracial living.” This interracial Utopia never came to be. Instead, people Coates describes as “nefarious” intercepted the property from homeowners wishing to sell, and then sold to black families on contract. Under contract, the seller- not the previous homeowner but a middleman- kept the deed until the contract was paid in full while the family acquired no equity in the meantime. In a contract sale, often inflated from the true value of the home, if the resident missed a single payment, he would immediately lose his down payment, his monthly payments to date, and the home itself.

In a mortgage sale, the buyer gets the deed, accrues equity, and pays the bank. This is the legitimate and legal way to purchase a home. But, in 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration that implemented a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to “perceived stability.” Those neighborhoods most desirable were described as lacking “a single foreigner or Negro.” So it was impossible for blacks to quality for mortgages in good neighborhoods. The combined efforts of malicious thieves hell bent on taking advantage of hardworking black families along with the racist policies created by the Federal Housing Administration have rendered North Lawndale completely impoverished- sprawling with abandoned homes, dilapidated commercial buildings, and senseless violence.

Coates then opens the lens a bit, tracing an enormous trajectory through American history as it relates to African Americans. He drops staggering statistics, stating that one-fourth of all white Southerners owned slaves and that in 1860, “slaves as an asset were worth more than…all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.” Also in 1860, there were “more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country,” predominately from the trade of African slaves. He uses these statistics and others to unpack the reality that economy and democracy in America were established on the backs of black bodies. Systematic dismantling of the African mind and the African family proved profitable and facilitated America’s rise as a world power.

He closes the piece by opening the lens even wider, discussing reparations more broadly and how it would translate in an American context. He defines reparations as a type of active reconciliation with our troubled past in order to truthfully and “squarely” adhere to the ideals of equality and freedom upon which our country was founded.

The piece is written like a true academic with a clear thematic thesis and valid and well-researched points in support of it. Though wordy in spots, the piece is structured around fascinating historical anecdotes in support of the larger points, providing emotional connection to the largely analytical and articulate narrative. What the piece lacks however, and perhaps for the best, is a clear and concrete solution. Coates offers examples of what reparations could look like, even discussing a period in 1952 when West Germany attempted to reconcile with Jewish families who were directly affected by the Holocaust.

However, if you’re black, ignore the echo of cash registers in your head; his version of reparations is a bit deeper- more along the lines of a spiritual and sobering reconciliation of American ideology with history. “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.”

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