Understanding Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Argument for Reparations
Reparations is not a new topic or a simple one. It is a divisive topic. In fact, reparations, with all its nuances and critiques, has been perhaps the most controversial topic in post-Civil War America. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for more people to have a working knowledge of what reparations are, the arguments surrounding them, and what the effects would be if they were enacted. So, what exactly are reparations?
If you google the word “reparation”, you will return a search that defines it as “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” In the context of the United States of America and for the basis of this discourse, the wrong in question is the American practice of slavery. That is perhaps the only thing that can be agreed on about reparations under these circumstances, as everything from who should receive reparations to how they should be paid out to the merits of the entire practice have been debated throughout American history.
With that being said, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations in the Atlantic is one of the most notable works that significantly raised awareness for reparations to a modern audience and brought reparations to the forefront of national discourse in 2014.
Coates’ introduced his argument on reparations with a Bible verse, a theoretical lens from John Locke, and a quote from an anonymous source from 1861; all of which serve as the basis for his claim that people should not be denied compensation for their work.
With that spirit in mind, Coates then goes on to tell the story of Clyde Ross. Having been born in Mississippi in 1923, Ross was 91 when the article was published. From his parents’ toil as sharecroppers (and working alongside them) to facing increasingly intense enforcement of Jim Crow laws shortly after he came home from the Army in World War II to being redlined when he moved to Chicago and buying his house “on contract”, Coates details Ross’ life and how he was denied opportunity after opportunity for equality—the norm for Black people at the time.
However, Ross’ story is not completely dismal, as he eventually reaches a pivotal moment in his life where he takes a stand for equality: joining the Contract Buyers League (CBL)—a group of black homeowners that were on similar predatory contracts as Ross that were fighting to get out of them. These contracts were unfair and sought to make money off the backs of Black Americans while leaving them with little to nothing to show for it. For example, Ross’ contract (where he was already paying more than double what the seller had recently bought the house for) dictated that he had to pay monthly like a regular mortgage, but if he missed one payment, no matter how much he already had paid down, he forfeited the house and had to leave. The CBL had had enough of these kinds of agreements and fought back against their bounding contracts. While they did file lawsuits to legally get out of these deals, they also appealed to the peers of the contract sellers to put pressure on them to feel shame for taking advantage of people in the first place. Additionally, they did not only ask to be let out of the contracts but to also make things right by paying them back money for the hardship they had to endure. As Coates defines, Ross’s fight against unfair contracts was an action toward asking for reparations.
After outlining Ross’ experiences, Coates dives into a statistical analysis of the wealth gap between Black and White families, which he finds ultimately stemming from practices that reinforced the racism and social order of the time like redlining. Redlining was the practice of the federal government, housing agencies, and other organizations denying housing loans and other resources to areas with Black people in it. On a map, they would color these areas in red while other areas were colored green, hence the term “redlining”. Consequently, redlining normally led to one of two outcomes:
From a community perspective, Black areas were given significantly fewer resources and loans, leading to a “lower quality of life” and the development of places that today would be called “the ghetto.” From there, there was an active effort to funnel Black people into these areas.
From an individual perspective, Black people were denied loans and mortgages when trying to move to other areas, such as suburbs that had little to no people of color. Thus, they had to find housing elsewhere, often settling into redlined communities rather than areas where they wanted to live.
Redlining led to less homeownership for Black Americans. With homeownership historically being the backbone of wealth in the United States, the practice of redlining was a major contributing factor to the wealth gap that is currently seen between Black and White families.
Coates then goes into a historical analysis of the debate about reparations. He outlines examples of discourse on reparations that are almost as old as the United States itself. Reparations have been debated through the Revolutionary period, the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, the 20th Century, and continue today. He shows how America is not the only country that has faced this question before, detailing how West Germany made reparations to Israel after the Holocaust.
Most importantly, he identifies HR 40 (also known as the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act) which is the bill that is constantly brought to Congress that would study the effects of slavery and how America can make amends for it. Additionally, although not directly addressed by Coates, America has already done something similar in the past with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 where the government paid $20,000 to individual Japanese Americans who were put in internment camps during World War II.
Throughout the argumentation of The Case for Reparations, Coates demonstrates that reparations are not a radical idea, but rather it is a part of history that America has to wrestle with and still has the opportunity to correct. America was built on the backs of Black Americans—it is time to make things right.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 14 May 2021, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.
Last Fact Checked on May 29th, 2021.