A Commentary on “The Case for Reparations”

Slavery may be over but its legacy is not. The crimes committed against black people still loom over Americans and inhibit genuine progress. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Case for Reparations,” implores readers to introduce reparations into their political discussions, as it enables the nation to become critical of our “heritage, history, and standing in the world.” Coates argues for reparations by explaining our emotional and information-based debt to African Americans.

Coates begins this article with a story of a man named Clyde Ross. Clyde was born in the deep south in 1923, and, like many other black people, had hardly anything. The little that his family had was taken away to “repay debts”. Because black people had no legal recourse, white people seized land, possessions, and more with the hope of reducing blacks to a new form of enslavement: sharecropping. He describes this as “just one of my losses.”  

His losses did not end there, they followed him across the nation. Clyde migrated North in search of equal protection under the law, eventually ending up in Chicago. At this point, things were looking up: Clyde had a job, children, and even bought a home. Buying a home for black people meant buying a home from a contract lender whose goal was to upsell homes, take black people’s money, and move on to the next wide-eyed black family. Homeownership has historically been an indicator of personal freedom and this was no exception. In fact, the hurdles Clyde had to jump over were a testament to the obstacles ahead of black freedom.

Clyde, along with the others locked into this system of predation, banded together to form the Contract Buyers League. This organization demanded restitution for the great economic injury brought upon them. The black homeowners of Chicago were charging society with a malicious crime against their community. Unsurprisingly, the Contract Buyers League was unable to receive reparations and struggled to receive equal legal treatment. This is the first of many instances in which reparations were needed but never given.

In order to understand the argument for reparations, there must be a deep emotional understanding of slavery and segregation. Clyde’s story makes this possible and builds the foundation for Coates’ argument. He transports readers through the life of a typical black man. Readers, like myself, develop a sense of frustration and discomfort after hearing about one injustice after the other after the other. It forces us to become empathetic and open ourselves up to the human aspect of discrimination, making Coates’ argument more permeable. For a topic like this, being psychologically connected is imperative.

After emotionally priming readers, Coates smoothly transitions to the story of Clyde’s city. Coates writes that “the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin.” Even poverty has a bias towards skin color, and little has changed in the past decades. The income gap between whites and blacks has not changed in the past fifty years; White families are worth nearly twenty times more than black families; 62% of black people are raised in poor neighborhoods, and two-thirds of all black families have negative wealth. These metrics are important because they support emotional evidence, like Clyde’s story, with information-based conditions.

Coates then shifts from Clyde’s story and city to America’s history. The oppression of black people quite literally made America what it is today. This is integral to his argument in favor of reparations, as he fights for the idea of reparations above all else. Americans have a jaded idea of their history, in which the contributions of black people are frequently overlooked. This distorted view prohibits us from understanding what black people are truly owed. Coates cites historian David Blight, in proclaiming that, “  of all white income was derived from slavery,” and slaves beared the “economic basis of America,” on their backs. Understanding the magnitude of slavery’s effect on the development of America forces us to understand how we benefited from black people and what we owe them after centuries of mistreatment.

Coates follows this by enumerating the many contemporary ways we have wronged black people. The discussion of ongoing black oppression after the contribution of slaves strengthens the argument for reparations by creating white guilt. Not only did we enslave black people for a couple of centuries, but we also continued to impose new and ever-changing systems of racial, social, and political control. From Jim Crow and segregation to disparities in education to racist housing policies to mass incarceration to police brutality, blacks have been, and are still, deprived of the American dream. We can “never fully repay African Americans,” but in understanding their struggle and our country’s role in that we can discover more about ourselves.

Before discussing the success of reparations in other countries and current injustices against black people, Coates explicitly states his argument and thesis. He values the idea of reparations above the actual payment. Reparations enable us to fully accept “our collective biography and its consequences,” and see our nation the way it is. An honest view of American history would mean “a revolution of the American consciousness,  a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.” All of which is necessary for the creation of a better, more just, America.

Coates’ argument is strong and framed in a logical and intuitive way. The organization of the article allows readers to come to a conclusion on their own. His restatement of the implicit conclusion solidifies the obviousness of his claim by reaffirming ideas already held by readers. The story of Clyde Ross is effective in creating empathy that is necessary for the points that follow. The content creates complex feelings of disgust, frustration, guilt, and shame yet people keep reading. This is a difficult feat and again can be accredited to the preliminary stories about Clyde. Additionally, the article itself achieves a part of Coates’ goal: it forces readers to acknowledge what black people are owed and understand the entirety of our history.

Read the article here