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Ta-Nehisi Coates On Reparations: 'We're Going To Be In For A Fight'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. So, if I say I want to talk about reparations for African-Americans - you say what? It's about time, that's ridiculous - who cares? - it's never going to happen - or maybe even, what's that? Outside of academic circles and the occasional gathering of Black Nationalists, it would seem that very few people talk about reparations for African-Americans these days.

But that is about to change. In a 15,000 word essay for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for the magazine, describes generations of government-directed or sanctioned efforts to deprive black people of the ability to generate wealth. And, as well, he describes black people's efforts to overcome that. He describes this as a moral debt to African-Americans, and says until it is paid, this country cannot be whole. He joins us today from our bureau in New York to talk about this piece, which is already getting a lot of attention. It's called, "The Case For Reparations." And Ta-Nehisi Coates is with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So you know that in 2010 you wrote a piece - you were actually responding to a piece by the prominent scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about reparations. And you said you don't support reparations. You said you support all people grappling with all aspects of American history. So does this piece mean you've changed your mind? And if so, what changed it?

COATES: Well, I still support all people grappling with all aspects of American history. But yes, it did - I did change my mind. And I honestly changed my mind because I found myself repeatedly in conversations about the African-American problem - if we're going to call it that - over and over again.

And the answers that I was getting - and even some of the answers that I was giving - just seemed insufficient. And I, you know, read - you know, during that time I was doing quite a bit of research - read a number of books that were deeply influential on me. Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth Of Other Suns," probably being the mother of this piece, here. And my opinions changed.

MARTIN: Did you have a lightbulb moment, where it kind of all came together for you?

COATES: Isabel Wilkerson's book, "The Warmth Of Other Suns," describes the Great Migration. And traditionally, when we think about African-Americans coming up to the south - coming up to the north - it really is a story of poverty. Her main characters, and many of the people she's talking about in the book, are people who, quote-unquote, "played by the rules." These were people who were married.

These were people who had pursued some level of education, very often. These were people who went to church, did everything right - you know, pulled their pants up, you know, did all the things that America would ask African-Americans to do. And in many cases still, nevertheless, found themselves to be plundered by American policy. That really, I think, altered a lot for me because it said, even if we, you know, go to the best-case scenario for African-Americans, you find racism nonetheless.

MARTIN: Well, the piece - threaded through the story - it's framed by the story of a real person. A man named Clyde Ross. You talk about how, back in Mississippi, his family had a successful farm. The white authorities there decided to cheat them out of it. And you describe how they did it - through a tax debt. That they - you know, his dad went to court to try to deal with it - he had no lawyer, he could not read.

They just decided that they were going to take all of their property - even taking Clyde's horse, as a little boy. Because some white man decided that they wanted it. And he grows up. He serves his country in the Armed Forces. He migrates to Chicago, thinking he's getting away from this kind of mean-spirited, petty and thoroughgoing racism that he grew up with - only to be subjected to various housing discrimination schemes.

And then you describe in detail how those work. So how did you find Clyde Ross? Did you choose him because he so perfectly encapsulated your thesis? Or is he the reason that this is what came together for you?

COATES: It was shockingly easy to find Clyde Ross. I mean, that's the most interesting thing about this aspect. The other book that really helped me with this was Beryl Satter's book, "Family Properties," which is specifically about this scheme - contracting lending - that Clyde Ross got caught up in. And when I finished that book, the interesting thing to me was, she was talking about a policy that had clearly affected African-American wealth, but was relatively recent. It was quite clear to me that some of the people in that book, or some of the people who had been involved in the issue, must be still alive.

And so I, you know, called - talked to Beryl - called some of the people out in Chicago who had organized around contract lending. And low and behold, they were very much still alive - Clyde being one of them. And I went out to Chicago - interviewed them. And again, you know, much like the people in Isabel Wilkerson's book, these were people who had basically done everything right.

And yet, here they were in North Lawndale, one of the poorest sections of Chicago - one of the most crime-ridden sections of Chicago. And I just - I was very curious about what had happened to that neighborhood.

MARTIN: Essential to your argument, though, is the idea that this is not just a few isolated mean people being mean, right?

COATES: Right.

MARTIN: But that the government was an active player in this. Could you just give us one example of why you say that?

COATES: Well, the most obvious is our housing policy. We, you know, in America, we like to think ourselves as a nation of rugged individuals. In fact, our entire vision of what the middle class is today - this vision of having, you know, the house, the picket fence out the suburbs. The, you know, mom, dad, two kids - it's a heavily subsidize version. It's social engineering.

The FHA and the HOLC made a decision during the 1930s, and into the 1940s, '50s and '60s, to basically subsidize the housing market. And they did this by saying to banks, if you give a loan to Americans and they default on this loan, we'll cover it. This was the FHA loan. One group of people in specific were cut out from the FHA loans - and that was African-Americans. And it went even beyond that.

It went to - when we have the G.I. Bill. When we have veterans coming back who have the, you know, the chance to take advantage of education policies, housing policies. African-Americans are then cut out. The discrimination begins in the government, but it basically spreads out to the entire real estate industry. To the point, the government actually generated maps based on where different populations of people lived, and basically marked who could be eligible for loans and who could not be eligible for loans.

And this had a tremendous impact on African-Americans because they were basically cut out of one of the largest wealth-building projects - if not the largest wealth-building project - in America.

MARTIN: And when you say cut out, you mean what? That FHA loans could not be written, under the law, in areas where black people lived. Is that it?

COATES: That's exactly it. I mean, and the process was specifically called redlining. And basically they had whole neighborhoods - these neighborhoods were ineligible for subsidized loans. And those neighborhoods tended to be either majority black neighborhoods, or neighborhoods that the FHA termed as, "in transition."

And it might be sufficient for one black family to move onto the block to declare a neighborhood in transition. And this has terrible, terrible implications - not just for black people, by the way. Because if you're white, and you're living on that block - and say you're not racist at all. You know, you don't think it'd be too bad if black people moved into your neighborhood. The fact of the matter is, when black people do start to move there - because the FHA has this policy of not giving loans, your property value is immediately going to go down.

MARTIN: So you would be rational to discriminate.

COATES: You actually would be quite rational.

MARTIN: It makes racism rational.

COATES: Yes it does. Yes it does. It becomes self-justifying. You act - you know, the policy is, in fact, racist. And the individual then goes and, you know, makes what seems like an irrational - you know we have these terms like white-flight - an irrational decision. But in fact, it's quite rational.

MARTIN: And what do you say to those - and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent and blogger for The Atlantic. We're talking about his 15,000 word essay, where he talks about the case for reparations. Now what do you say to people who say - OK, well, that's a bummer, but that was a long time ago. In fact, those practices were specifically outlawed with the Fair Housing Act back in 1965 - and that a lot of these other government-sanctioned, government-enforced practices of discrimination went out in the '60s. And so why is this something to be talking about now?

COATES: Well, I say two things. The first is that, when you injure a person, the fact that you, you know, stopped the action that's injuring them does not mean the person has been repaired at all. You know, if somebody is stabbing you, it's very good if they stop stabbing you. It'd be much better if you were bandaged, taken to a hospital and gotten a chance to heal. We, you know, ostensibly outlaw these practices. And I should be very clear - we have reports of redlining extending even into today.

But let's just - you know, be that as it may, let's say it did stop when we had the Fair Housing Act. We did nothing in terms of repairing the actual damage that actually was done. Beyond that, I think there's a broader argument about history. It's only when our history isn't flattering at all that we say it doesn't matter. And my argument is, if you're going to take the credit from history, you also have to take the debts that come with it. It can't be, you know, I want history when it makes me feel good but when it - you know, when it's a bummer, I don't want any part of it.

MARTIN: America is a country that churns, right? The population turns over. I mean -

COATES: Right.

MARTIN: One out of ten people living in this country was born somewhere else.

COATES: Right.

MARTIN: In fact, this kind of issue surfaced recently with a young - there was an issue in Princeton, where a young man wrote this piece that's been widely celebrated among conservatives, where - this whole question on college campuses of "check your privilege." You know, asking people to kind of, actually identify the ways in which they are privileged in a way that they might not be used to doing. And he wrote this furious piece about - well, you know, my family is from this - you know, I'm not from here.

And, you know, I don't have to check my privilege. And we came from the Shtetl - and how dare you? But that is a very widely held sentiment. So what about that? I mean, the fact that this country has a very - this country's population is diverse. Not just because - ethnically - but also because people who are still coming here, who were not part of those hierarchies of privilege that you talked about here. They couldn't have been players in the decision-making.

COATES: Right, right. But by the very, you know, (unintelligible) of it and what it means to be American, they become a part of that. And, you know, we can see this in other frameworks. The most obvious of it is that, to this very day, we are still paying pensions to the families of veterans of World War I. We still pay those pensions out. No one would say, well, I just got here in 1960 - my family just got here in 1960. I shouldn't have to pay for that. We understand that as a collective state.

We have debts that extend way beyond the individual's lifetime. And we also understand that when you become a part of America, you become a part of a bigger thing. And that thing is not just limited to the moment when you got here. The problem with reparations, you know, isn't an ancestry question. It isn't a question of when folks arrived. The problem is that it challenges something that's very, very core and deep, you know, about America.

And that is us as the uncomplicated, the unvarnished, the un-nuanced champion of liberty the world over. And what the question of reparations ultimately raises, is that this land of liberty, this land of freedom, was made possible by slavery, was made possible by plunder - was made possible by selling people's kids. That's what it is. And that's very, very hard for us to absorb and take.

MARTIN: What should happen, in your view?

COATES: In terms of what should actually happened now, is Congressman John Conyers - John Conyers, from Michigan, introduces a bill every year into the House - H.R. 40, which sets, you know, as its goal, for us to study the era of enslavement, and to study what the legacy of that was - the effects on African-Americans and what remedies there might be.

You know - how do you begin to outline, you know, in detail, what the plan is and what it looks like, when we don't fully understand the problem yet? And I really want to bang that home. We don't know. You say reparations, and people get so scared off. And, you know, they get so, you know, upset. And they get so inflamed that you can't even get to, you know, the possibilities of saying, OK so what would this seriously look like?

I think the first thing that people have to, you know, come to, is the idea that yes, there is something owed. Now, can we pay it back? And that's the second question. But if you can convince people yes there's something owed - now let's have a conversation about what we can do to remedy that.

MARTIN: Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for The Atlantic. His latest piece is titled, "The Case For Reparations." The issue is on the stands now. And he was kind enough to join us in our bureau in New York. Ta-Nehisi, thanks so much for joining us.

COATES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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