Despite 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of “separate but equal” and 35 years of racist housing policies, signs of overt racism still are all around us – be it a New Hampshire police commissioner’s use of an ethnic slur to describe President Obama or a NBA team owner’s disturbing remarks about black athletes and fans. By now, we all know the drill, the media calls these people out for their ugly words and we play our parts, shaking our heads in sad disbelief — then return to our daily lives.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, thinks it’s time for a bold step to change the way we talk and think about race in America. His explosive new cover story, provocatively titled “The Case for Reparations,” attempts to rekindle a national discussion on reparations for American slavery and institutional racism. Coates explores how the original sin of slavery, state-sanctioned violence against blacks, Jim Crow segregation, and federally backed housing policy systematically robbed African Americans of their possessions and prevented them from accruing inter-generational wealth.
Coates points to a century of racist and exploitative housing policies that made it extremely hard for African-Americans to own homes and forced them to live in poorer neighborhoods with unequal access to a good education, resulting in a major wealth (and health) gap between black and white. In fact, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households, according to a Pew Research Center study.
“It puts a lie to the myth that African Americans who act right, who are respectable, are somehow therefore immune to the plunder that is symptomatic of white supremacy in this country,” Coates says. “It does not matter. There’s no bettering yourself that will get you out of this.”
“There are plenty of African-Americans in this country — and I would say this goes right up to the White House — who are not by any means poor, but are very much afflicted by white supremacy,” Coates says. By white supremacy Coates says he refers to an age-old system in America which holds that whites “should always be ensured that they will not sink to a certain level. And that level is the level occupied by black people.”
Coates makes the case that the intolerable economic reality experienced by many middle-to-lower class African-Americans stems, not from their work ethic or lack thereof, but from their unique and unimaginably painful past. Inequality, poverty, racism and discrimination didn’t just cease after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Life for many blacks, especially those living in the deep South, changed little if at all. No longer openly referred to as “slaves”, blacks assumed the title of “sharecropper” -semantics being the primary difference between the two.
No one living now is responsible for the sins or crimes of their ancestors. But white America cannot pretend they are not the intended and actual beneficiaries of the ongoing institutional racism first introduced, then supported, by their ancestors. As Coates explained to Bill Moyer in the video above: “I am not asking you as a white person to see yourself as an enslaver. I’m asking you as an American to see all of the freedoms that you enjoy and see how they are rooted in things that the country you belong to condoned or actively participated in the past.”
“Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole,” Coates said.
Additional Sources: Moyers & Company – Facing the Truth: The Case for Reparations (05/21)