When Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest cover story for The Atlantic spurred an outbreak of Internet debate, Coates was surprised. “I wasn’t sure if people would be like, ‘Listen, this is dead. Why are we talking about this?’ ” he says.
That’s because his June cover story is about an intractable issue: paying reparations to African-Americans. Coates argues the U.S. government needs to study the possibility of reparations — not just for slavery, but for property taken under Jim Crow laws and for money lost when African-Americans were excluded from federal programs like Social Security.
Coates, who spent more than a year reporting the story, knew he had to go all-out. “If you just write a 500-word blog post claiming reparations, people are just gonna dismiss you,” says Coates, who is African-American. “If it was gonna get done, it had to be great. You can’t write a mediocre reparations story.”
We asked Coates to respond to four common ways people dismiss the argument for reparations. For more, listen to him talk about his story tonight at Sixth and I.
1. But there’s no way we can pay enough to make up for all of that.
“It’s pretty clear we cannot,” Coates says. “But that’s true of any sort of reparations. It’s not like the amount of money that Germans paid to Israel can account for the mass murder and the destruction of the Jewish people. It can’t, and no one would say that. But that doesn’t mean that you therefore don’t do anything.”
2. But is the best solution to have white people give money to black people?
“I think there’s a great deal of confusion on this: This is not just white people paying black people back,” he says. “The claim is made against the American government, American society as a whole — which, by the way, black people are a part of.”
3. But I’m black, so wouldn’t it be weird for me to pay?
“That sounds weird but it shouldn’t,” Coates says. “For instance, I am a resident of New York City. If I’m walking down the street and five cops jump on me and beat me within an inch of my life, I then sue the city, which may pay me out a huge settlement. I am part of the city and I’m also the person suing the city. It happens all the time.”
4. But I wasn’t even alive when this stuff happened.
“We pay for things all the time that we didn’t do,” he says. “I wasn’t around when World War I happened but we’re still paying pensions. That had nothing to do with me, but I understand that I have to pay into that. That’s sort of what government means. If a state dies with every generation, what kind of state is that? When people talk about debt, or the state of Social Security, they talk about what kind of world are we leaving to our children. They understand that the country continues, that the country was here before us and that it will be here after we die.”
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; today, 7 p.m., sold out; 202-408-3100, sixthandi.org. (Gallery Place)
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