The Atlantic does this a lot: use the magazine's covers to launch large, provocative conversations that you later hear endlessly dissected on cable news, in the blogosphere, and on Twitter. It is a think piece factory. You might recall Hanna Rosin's declaration that we'd reached "The End of Men," or Anne Marie Slaughter arguing exactly why women couldn't have it all. Nicholas Carr touched off a generation of hand-wringing on the question of whether Google, that indispensable tool of 21st century life, was in fact making us stupid. (When you Google that story, the second link that shows up is the Wikipedia entry about said article. Do with that what you will.)
In this month's issue, it's done it again. Ta-Nehisi Coates' cover story sketches out the trajectory of historical disadvantages accrued by black folks over the last several generations and argues that it's time for Americans to have a reckoning with this legacy.
This essay has been titled "The Case For Reparations," which means many folks might think they've read the essay before they've actually read the essay. (The magazine even released a trailer for it last week.)
You may not have read the piece, but it's possible you'll see people talking about it even though they haven't read it either. (To be fair, it's pretty long!) MSNBC's Adam Serwer anticipated this in a tweet last night.
To that end, here are three handy tips to help you suss out folks who haven't actually read it themselves.
(Full disclosure: Coates is a friend, and I had the chance to read the piece several days before it was published.)
1. They talk a lot about slavery.
When people hear "reparations," they automatically think that what's being discussed is reparations for slavery. Coates does talk about slavery in the piece — in particular, he notes the story of a formerly enslaved woman named Bellinda Royal who sued her former owner for recompense for her labors. But much of his focus falls on American housing policy from nearly a century later, events that have happened within living (and even recent) memory.
In the years following World War II, the economy was booming. Suburbs were popping up, thanks to a new federal highway system and millions of Americans availing themselves of government-backed home loans. World War II vets used their GI Bill benefits to pay for college or start their lives. The government was essentially subsidizing the creation of America's huge middle class.
Unless you were black. Coates outlines a constellation of ways that African-Americans were thoroughly shut out of that expansion of wealth. He spends much more time on the events of the 20th and 21st centuries than he does on the antebellum period. To Coates, one needn't go back as far as slavery to see officially sanctioned (and occasionally violent) opposition to black wealth creation.
2. They talk about the logistics of reparations.
One of the critiques that always greet conversations about reparations is that they would be politically untenable and logistically thorny.
Coates is pointedly not interested in these questions. (Or at least, he isn't in this essay.) His larger argument is less about reparations for our history, per se, than it is about a kind of excavation of it.
"Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. For the past 25 years, [Democratic] Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for 'appropriate remedies.'
"A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers's bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions."
Coates points out, though, that HR 40 has never made it to the House floor, which he says "suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential":
"One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one's ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson's genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings's body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge."
3. They talk about affirmative action or welfare.
The other leap that people make when they hear conversations about reparations is to point to contemporary policy attempts to ameliorate inequality, most notably affirmative action and welfare. (Let's leave aside for a moment the very big question of whether these policies do or were ever intended to right historical wrongs or inequities.)
Coates spends very little time talking about income or education. Instead, he's much more focused on capital and wealth. The arc of his essay traces the progression from African-Americans being America's foremost means of creating capital — in addition to being capital themselves — to being separated from capital accumulation and eventually having what capital they could acquire taken from them.
He locates this narrative in the story of Clyde Ross, whose journey from Mississippi to Chicago is a living example of the trajectory Coates is describing. Ross, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper, saw the little material wealth and land his father could attain forcibly stripped from him by local white authorities. Then, when Ross moved to Chicago after World War II, he was essentially shut out — by federal law — from buying a home through the legitimate means available to whites. He spent years paying for a house through a predatory agreement that did not allow him to build equity and which did not appreciate in value because — by federal law — homes in black communities were appraised as worth less than others in nonblack communities. Ross and Coates both draw a straight line between what happened in Mississippi and what's been happening since:
" 'We were ashamed. We did not want anyone to know that we were that ignorant,' Ross told me. He was sitting at his dining-room table. His glasses were as thick as his Clarksdale drawl. 'I'd come out of Mississippi where there was one mess, and come up here and got in another mess. So how dumb am I? I didn't want anyone to know how dumb I was.
" 'When I found myself caught up in it, I said, "How? I just left this mess. I just left no laws. And no regard. And then I come here and get cheated wide open." ' "
Things like welfare and affirmative action are pointedly not the type of remedies that would apply to Ross' story.
People who have actually read the essay are starting to offer their takes on it. In The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner writes that "Coates's argument shouldn't be too controversial. But it will be — which is another sign of the sorry state of racial discourse in America." In Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley writes that "The piece persuasively (and seemingly effortlessly) turns the issue of race in America into a pressing discussion about work, wealth, and theft rather than an unresolvable grudge-match about bygone guilt."
We'll be diving more deeply into the piece here at Code Switch. Stay tuned for my take. But most of all, feel free to read it for yourself (as well as Coates' explanation of how his stance toward reparations had changed in recent years), and come to your own conclusions.