Ta Ne-Hisi Coates' articles for The Atlantic, usually focused on his experiences of American race relations, almost always light up the blogosphere and other social media platforms. "Fear of a Black President" was a lengthy piece that examined our own projections on Barack Obama, and how he's a president who "happens to be black," but not necessarily a "black president." And just a few days ago, Coates delivered a massive ten-chapter multimedia piece for The Atlantic entitled "The Case for Reparations." Coates's unflinching position is that African Americans are owed reparations, not so much for slavery as for its brutalizing after effects and the ways in which they continue to shut African Americans out of the national conversation. His position has garnered much criticism.
For Coates, the way the media chooses to ignore the absolutely inextricable ties between slavery and American racism, and the creation of America as both concept and country, boggles the mind. It’s not just the elite media that has a hard time understanding the very existence of racism, though they’re the most troubling part of this race-blind equation. Jamelle Bouie’s recent piece for Slate, "Why Do Millenials Not Understand Racism?", has also lit up the web, and echoes Coates' own sentiments on the unfathomable ignorance that America has of race relations, and the penetrating effect of racism. The news on millenials: “Compared with previous generations, [millenials are] more tolerant and diverse and profess a deeper commitment to equality and fairness. At the same time, however, they’re committed to an ideal of colorblindness that leaves them uncomfortable with race, opposed to measures to reduce racial inequality, and a bit confused about what racism is.”
Speaking with Shani O. Hilton of Buzzfeed, Coates elaborates on the central point of the Atlantic article, asserting that America’s racist business practices, namely redlining, has kept black folks desperately trying and failing to live the American dream. This is the legacy of slavery and what reparations are really about. Coates said Americans have this idea that all success is due to “rugged individualism.” He says: “When you understand the history of housing in this country…this is social planning. This is not rugged individualism. This is not a bunch of people went out to the wilderness and said okay, we’re claiming this suburb. This was planned at the highest levels of government. And black people were cut out of it.”
Hilton is quick to point out that other non-white groups have had similar histories with redlining, gentrification, urban blight, and white flight. While Coates concedes this is the case, he makes sure to elaborate that Reparations is a case for black people: “They’re free to make their case, too. This is a case for black people.” Adding that some people have brought up Native Americans, Coates said that “somebody should make that case then. That is not an argument against this case. If I’m driving drunk down the street and I plow through three families, the fact that the first family has a case doesn’t mean the third family doesn’t.”
Another point Coates emphatically makes, that African American history is American history, and that without knowing one, it’s impossible to accurately relate the other, is one that permeates his interview with Hilton. “If you don’t know black history”, Coates tells us, “It’s impossible for you to understand America….[that history] didn’t end [after slavery was abolished].”
Shakti Castro is Blogs Editor for Warscapes.