Thursday, May 22, 2014

What Are Your Thoughts About Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'The Case for Reparations'?

I will be sharing some more extensive (and obligatory) thoughts on Ta-Nehisi Coates' much discussed piece "The Case for Reparations" later today or tomorrow.

A first and obvious observation. Coates is a joy to read. He reminds me of a boxer at the height of his skill and who is only getting better at his craft. Coates will inevitably be moving on to other things sooner rather than later. We should enjoy watching him work in this public way for as long as possible.

And previewing some of my later thoughts, I worry that The Case for Reparations" will be one of the many things that "smart" and "informed" people claim to have read, but in reality they only skimmed it or gleamed some second hand knowledge--badly processed--from some other person. 

Of course, that is not Coates' fault; it is the price of well-earned popularity and the anchor that comes with being a "must read". However, when casual intellectual tourists and drive-by historians discover information that has long been known and understood by inside experts with proper training, a tedious tug of war between the camps can often ensue. I just hope that Coates' very smart and synthetic (in a good way) examination of the lived history that is reparations for Black Americans is a beginning and not an end for how his readers grapple with the issue.

What are your thoughts on Coates' new essay? 

Can you recall a recent time when an African-American writer and essayist received this much attention? 

Finally, how do we locate Coates within a larger trajectory of American writing on race, class, and the other issues he attempts to grapple with at The Atlantic?


James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

I saved Coates' essay as a word document and at 48 pages it will take a while to digest. But, this is where the rubber meets the road. Interestingly, the Native Americans are also demanding that the federal and state governments live up to their treaty obligations regarding land rights. The bill of white supremacy is coming due. It will be an interesting discussion.

chauncey devega said...

And it will be labeled "insufficient funds". Couldn't resist. I was not aware of the First Nations brothers and sisters making those moves. How do you think it will play out?

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

I finished reading Coates' essay. I must admit I was moved to tears at the end. HR 40, the bill promoted by Rep. Conyers, is the vehicle to start the national conversation that AG Holder told us we were cowards to start. That is the place to start, as Coates suggests. I wrote a chapter on racism related to the Tea Party that I published online in early 2010. I have to update that chapter for the book. To do so, I've been reading Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, and other authors. It is the same thing over and over. We white Americans have never come to the moment of truth about our country. The chasm between the lofty ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the reality of American life are almost as wide now as they were then. Douglass' speech on the meaning of the Fourth of July is as accurate today as it was in 1852. Coates' article certainly demands great attention and discussion. It is probably the most intense response to Chait's article--though Coates is addressing a much wider and deeper issue. Other countries like South Africa have a Truth & Reconciliation process. We never have. I think it is smart for Rep. Conyers to begin with a scholarly examination of reparations as the opening path to an even larger issue--the re-making of America more in line with our Declaration of Independence. I was struck reading The Search For Christian America that slavery is our original sin and makes us so far from having been a Christian nation. That book was written by evangelical historians critiquing the Christian Right. But, there will probably be a religious dimension to this as well. White supremacy was buttressed by Protestantism and white churches are still divided on the issue of race.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I thought it was cogent and concise. It avoided phrases like White Privilege, but you could still understand the vast degree of differences in the American racial caste system and how they came about. He did say White Supremacy and I think he offered another piece on white supremacy today as well.

The analysis is accessible to anyone, I think. He lays out incidents of racial discrimination in every decade of the twentieth century, reaches into the more distant past with potent information regarding the belief in reparations for slavery and articulates very clearly the need for reparations for modern injustices, that it has been and continues to be strivers in black communities who are squeezed by a system of racial piracy.

I think some people would like to go further than just spurring a dialogue, but even with Conyers' bill HR 40 that should get the ball rolling to a civil discussion at the very least. It's unfortunate that there are so few black delegates in Washington or allies that could support that bill that has been neglected for two decades(?).

I did see a comment from someone (a black man) about how this is just another black victimology screed and black folk need to stop seeking emotional approval from white people, something like that. That's unfortunate, I doubt he even read the piece.

I don't understand how anyone could ignore this. It's so incredibly important.

KissedByTheSun said...

I don't know what to say. This piece moved me to tears. What a sorry state our country is in when being allowed to just talk about our past is seen as reparations enough.

SabrinaBee said...

I just picked up a copy of the magazine on the way home. I haven't read it yet. But from reading the comments below, i suspect I will need a box of tissue near the end of it.The problem I have with reparations is, who gets it? Who's responsible for dispersing it and what would be the qualifications to receive it? But, I will see what Mr. Coates has to say on the subject.

grumpyrumblings said...

I admit, I skimmed today, but the parts I read (and the graphics) fit well with my knowledge of race and the economy from an economic and historical perspective. I'm definitely going to use it next time I teach the appropriate class (year after next) so I will read it through at some point and come up with discussion questions and fit it in with the primary sources we read.

There's also been some excellent stuff coming out recently on the successes and failures of the War on Poverty, which is a good complement to the article. (Bailey and Danzinger's book is an excellent read.)

The article is to race and the economy as Atul Gawande's articles are to health economics.

chauncey devega said...

It is a great way of getting undergrads and maybe first year grad students to consider these issues. I like the fact that the article is so synthetic as Coates is then "translating" the material for a general audience. What are some other books you would recommend?

chauncey devega said...

I ain't got no time to bleed--channeling Predator. Why the tears? At the obvious reality of the situation or in how many are so callous towards the human rights of black people?

chauncey devega said...

Black people need to stop complaining. Plus, black Americans are the richest black people in the world. What the hell is their problem! Just channeling the trolls foolishness.

chauncey devega said...

Easy. There is a whole disinformation industry in this country. Never mind the fantasy that is religious thinking. If there are millions of mouth breathers who do not believe in Evolution or global warming, why would they believe something demonstrably true, and in their damn face, like how white supremacy robbed black Americans of wealth and income and freedom in the past to the present.

chauncey devega said...

Wouldn't a Truth and Reconciliation committee be wonderful--and then a committee with the teeth to back it up.

Myshkin the Idiot said...


SabrinaBee said...

Don't know yet CD. I saw two people mention how they were left in tears. I am more sensitive than the average bear. If the end is that emotional, there's a good chance that I will spring a leak, too..

grumpyrumblings said...

I think much of the housing segregation literature happens in articles rather than books. There's a lot out there-- it's a big and important literature from the original papers by Shilling to more modern stuff by Ananat et al. And, of course, articles are still being written on the long-term benefits of the Moving to Opportunity experiment.

When I was an undergrad (too many years ago) we read a textbook on race in the economy but it no longer seems to be in print.

Race and Schooling in the South by Bob Margo is an excellent piece of work, though it's getting older. Martha Bailey is doing a lot of recent work on the 1960s. Kenneth Chay has a famous article on the effects of desegregating hospitals.

For what it's like to be poor now and how you can be stuck being poor, I like Insufficient Funds. I also need to read Scarcity, but I hear it's great. This last semester my students read Being Poor by Scalzi and we discussed how a lot of what many poor people do that seems to be irrational from our middle-class perspectives would be exactly what almost anybody would do in the same situation.

grumpyrumblings said...

Oh, and forgot about the articles on the effects of the end of bussing... I think that's by Byron Lutz. Spoiler: ending bussing was bad for minorities. Turns out that racism isn't actually over in the US.

I bet soon there will be similar articles showing that the end of the VRA was bad. (Martha Bailey has an empirical article showing that putting it in was a very good thing.)

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

For me only, for the need for America to face its past and build a new future. The power of his essay is that he connects real people with their stories in the historical context with the policy implications of that context, as well as covering the long history. To me, his article was moving and powerful. He left the strategic options open. But, the country does not have to wait to pass HR 40. Why not start a Truth & Reconciliation Commission on White Supremacy in America?

Miles_Ellison said...

Coates' essay was brilliant, and above all, truthful. There is really no disputing the central role of white supremacy in the creation of this country. There wasn't anything written in that article that isn't true and verifiable. Unfortunately, most people will miss the point, like they always do.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Idle No More is international in scope, but they originated in Canada, believe. Their focus is water and environmental safety. They have been a huge push to prevent the Keystone XL Pipeline as well as trying to prevent fracking especially around native land. The Mi'kmaq nation in Nova Scotia has been fighting against fracking there for a while.

Idle No More is especially active regarding the health of the water on reservations, even without chemical/industrial problems, water safety has always been sub par. They are also extremely concerned about missing native women. I think they have one of the highest kidnapping rates of any group in Canada and the United States.

Native Appropriations is also a great blog about stereotypical representations of native Americans in popular culture. I think Redskins will soon be gone. I wish Dan Snyder and the fans would just let it go.

Sandy Young (Corkingiron) said...

Mr. Devega: As one of Ta Nehisi Coates' moderators, I am admittedly not an impartial observer. Having been forewarned, I've spent some considerable time following the reaction to this piece, from the initial announcement until its release. I think your phrase " a tedious tug of war" is one of the best descriptions I've seen. What is so surprising to me is that it only took the announcement of the piece to start it. No further consideration of TNC's argument was required. Thanks for what you've written. I always enjoy reading you.

chauncey devega said...

How kind of you to chime in. I have something longer to share on the Coates piece for next week once the dust settles. What you are doing over at TNC's site is so appreciated and necessary. You and the other moderators do not have an easy job. But, you manage to keep things moving nicely. What has been your take about the reaction to the piece? And how many commenters do you actually believe have read it?

Sandy Young (Corkingiron) said...

If I were to judge by media responses to date, I'm pleasantly surprised by the reactions of other writers who have generally praised it. I am also pleased by the way the Atlantic has rolled it out. (Full disclosure - I receive no compensation for being a mod.)
If I am to judge by comments, if you'll note, TNC set up both a curated and a non-curated post for comments yesterday. There were some striking differences between the two. I think most of the comments on the curated site came from people who had read the article - tho' not necessarily absorbed it fully. Most other places are equally divided between those who read the article and those who have a knee-jerk response to the very word "reparations".
I don't necessarily condemn people for not absorbing it. There's a lot to absorb. I was fortunate enough to have an advanced copy, and read it three times before it went live. All three times I had to go out for a walk by the ocean to think about it. So I'm glad to hear you are going to have a new piece up, and I'm also glad to hear you are going to wait "until the dust settles". "Instant" and "analysis" do not belong in the same sentence.
I found the most heart-breaking part was Clyde Ross saying "how dumb was I? I was ashamed. I didn't want people to know how dumb I was". It made me weep. For that crime alone, I hope there can ultimately be an accounting. And I hope Mr. Ross can know today that he was a remarkable man, and a remarkable American.

craig said...

A thorough essay, thoroughly needed. The case for reparations underlines the seriousness of injustice on black people, it should silence all those people who try to look for genetic/cultural reasons for why blacks aren't as successful in the modern world as other races. Getting those reparations will be met with fierce resistance of course. I'm thinking of Haiti president Aristide's attempt at getting reparations from France - a mere 20 billion, and he was cout-de-tated.

stephen matlock said...

You know what's crazy about all this internet hysteria is that Mr. Coates did nothing more than lay out the truth. Not "I suppose this might have happened," but "This actually happened. And this. And this, and this, and this here, too."

For the people who did not simply run right away to post their thoughts on reparations and who actually read it, a large portion of them simply avoided this laying down of history and jumped right to the impracticality of solutions, attempting to stop at the get-go any examination of what happened because it would be hard to fix.

Talking about history is not hard. It actually happened. It's knowable.

Talking about it as what actually happened sometimes reveals the solution, and my suspicion is that most people know that if history was as they think it was (white supremacy did some truly awful and barbaric things to American non-whites), then the solution to the problems might involve some massive shifts in power and money.

SabrinaBee said...

That was a wonderful article! Mr. Coates said much of what I have often thought myself. I beleive I just mentioned how we needed to go back in order to repair on the white supremacy article.

I did not cry, though Mr. Brown's accounting of his family being sold off and Mr. Ross' remembrance of his brother being taken away after experiencing a seizure. Only to be the last time anyone hears of his brother and they couldn't even recover the body, had me to the point of tears.

I agree with Mr. Coates that whether there are actual reparations or not, HR40 is a good place to start the work of accounting for the history of this country that will not allow itself to be seen. Unfortunately, running out the clock is one of our specialties. Another century should make the issue cloudy enough to where it makes no matter. Imagine, "mud people" in 2006 and we call ourselves post racial?

And I am not going to even get into what I think about the predatory lenders being able to use the church to convince blacks to buy into their downfall. But, that is one of two things that I would like to be included in any type of investigation. How often has our black "leaders" sold the community down the river? And at what price?

The other is an account of how many blacks have disappeared from prisons, and hospitals. There is a tendency to toss out the numbers of how many actual lynchings that took place in America, as if to minimize the cruelty and barbarity of post slavery. But, in reading the Lacks' story (her daughter) and now Winter Ross, both disappearing into institutions never to be returned, nor the family notified, shows that there was much more than lynching causing the death of blacks post slavery.

But a full accounting is what we need. Not piecemeal patchwork issues.

Gable1111 said...

Been busy with work and have only had time to read about a third of it thus far. What I have read is nothing new to me; its history.
But Coates is a great writer who is able to pull it all together in ways I only wish I could.

I've always wondered why people who claim to be sympathetic couldn't see the obvious: if family wealth is rooted in home ownership, and that wealth is passed down through generations, is it any wonder why the wealth of black families is but a fraction of that of whites? Racism supported by state agencies denied blacks participation in the GI Bill, FHA and other institutions that were key in the expansion of the middle class through home ownership and higher education. Black grandparents and great grandparents were systematically denied the ability to buy a home, and pushed into contract-buying schemes to rob them of what little they had. Is it any wonder they would not have any wealth to pass down, like whites are able to do?

The wealth disparity has nothing to do with the mythical "superiority" of whites, as racism holds; they had a hand out and a hand up; blacks did not. And the legacies of all of it is with us today, in these disparities, from rates of home ownership, wealth, unemployment, etc.

Who pays? Start with the federal agencies that systematically worked with racist elements to codify in law the denial of access to these opportunities. Its not enough for presidents, to finally bestow on black medal of honor winners the medals they won fighting for this country, 50 and 60 years later. What about the mortgages they were denied? How much would the properties those mortgages would be worth today? What about the GI Bill benefits they were denied in getting an education? How much would a college graduate in the 1950s have been able to earn in his or her lifetime, that he or she could not leave to their heirs?

To whites who ask why should "their tax dollars" (here we go) go towards paying for things I had nothing to do with? For the same reason that others tax dollars paid for things that benefited you and yours ultimately that they not only had nothing to do with but were prevented from benefiting from, with the full compliance of your own ancestors who benefited, without whom, your ass would not be what it is today.

rikyrah said...

There is nothing just in Coates' piece that is new to me, because I know
the history of the African in America. I am also from Chicago, so I
know the history of how Chicago became the most segregated city in
America. I appreciate his article, because it will be added to my files
of Black history. I was for reparations in theory, because of the 200+
years of slave labor.

But, we live in a country that does not want to
deal with the actuality of American chattel slavery.

We live in a
country where people actually criticized 12 Years A Slave, for not
having "happy slaves".

We live in a country where people are STILL
trying to deny Sally Hemings.

We live in a country where huge swaths of
White people seem to want to believe that the Black community came to
these shores looking like West Africans, and somehow, the rainbow of
shades that we are now came through osmosis.

We live in a country where
when faced with the actual surviving victims of the Tulsa Race Riots,
they couldn't be bothered to give them reparations. That's been their
hook-nobody today experienced slavery....always a bullshyt argument,
proven by their response to the Tulsa victims.

I do appreciate Coates
for focusing as much of his work as possible on American Apartheid as he
does. Even when I disagree with him, I truly enjoy that he focuses so well on American Apartheid and it's ramifications. Part of the reparations thing is the lazy term from White folks about ' I was never a slave owner'. Coates' intense focus on American Apartheid and its victims and beneficiaries, brings it to the 20th and 21st century, and makes plain about When Affirmative Action Was White.

Stephen Kearse said...

I think it was brilliantly argued piece, especially since the argument was framed in terms of housing discrimination, which has a more palpable paper trail than slavery. Choosing housing discrimination was also a smart rhetorical choice because its effects are just so apparent and the people affected by it are reachable. Arguments that use slavery as grounds for reparations are just as compelling, but rhetorically, they are easily dismissed because of our country's highly selective amnesia. It was also nice to learn about the history of reparations for other groups.

I agree that I've never seen a Black writer get this much visibility across spheres. I've seen links to the piece on all kinds of sites. We've got to get one of your pieces to travel like that!