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Opinion How Ta-Nehisi Coates turned reparations from a punchline into a policy objective

A sculpture depicting slavery by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post) ((Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post))
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Nearly five years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote one of the best pieces of journalism on a subject that once elicited eye rolls from me: reparations for slavery. Intellectually, I understood the argument. But the possibility of the United States actually making amends with the African American descendants of slaves was laughable. How can the promise of “40 acres and a mule” be fulfilled if the nation can’t even engage in the conversations that would be needed to get to that culminating step in the first place?

“The case for reparations” that Coates argued in the June 2014 edition of the Atlantic was groundbreaking, a masterful and lawyerly articulation of why recompense was not just morally defensible, but necessary. In a 17-page, 16,000-word survey of where America went wrong, Coates changed the conversation. And, according to an interview with New York magazine, that was his goal all along.

Coates argues that the reason the idea of reparations doesn’t enjoy popular support is because it is seen as a joke. “Reparations is a Dave Chappelle skit. That’s what a lot of people think about when they think of reparations,” Coates told Eric Levitz. “That polling is not a natural, free-standing fact. That’s the result of people denigrating the idea repeatedly. ... A part of it being unpopular is the people who have the megaphone not taking it seriously at all.” So, for Coates, writing the case for reparations was an effort to strip the joke of its seeming hilarity and give it the sober exploration it deserved.

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“When I wrote 'The Case for Reparations,’ my notion wasn’t that you could actually get reparations passed, even in my lifetime. My notion was that you could get people to stop laughing,” Coates said. “My notion was you could actually have people say, ‘Oh, sh*t. This actually isn’t a crazy idea. This actually isn’t insane.’ And then, once you got them to stop laughing, you could get them to start fighting.”

That’s exactly what we’re seeing among the Democratic candidates for president. “It’s time to start the national full-blown conversation about reparations in this country,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said at a CNN town hall on Monday. “We need to study the effects of generations of discrimination and institutional racism and determine what have been ... the consequences and what can be done in terms of intervention to correct course,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said during an interview that aired on NPR on March 14. “I have long believed this country should resolve its original sin of slavery and that one of the ways we should consider doing that is through reparations for people who are the descendants of slaves,” former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro said on MSNBC on Feb. 26. “If I’m president ... I would establish a task force to look at how that might be done. But I do think that dark cloud still hangs over our country.”

Their comments show that Coates succeeded in turning the idea of reparations from a punchline into a policy objective. But let’s be clear about something: Talk about reparations is more nuanced than promising black folks a check. It requires as serious an effort on the national level as Coates took in writing his epic piece. That’s why many of the Democratic presidential candidates have settled on the path provided by H.R. 40.

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The stated purpose of the legislation, introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), is “to establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.” The mandated commission would seek to answer a slew of questions, including the impact of slavery, the role of government in perpetuating the evil institution and its lingering effects. The commission also would tackle politically charged questions, including whether a formal apology from the nation is warranted, who would be eligible for compensation and how such remuneration would be calculated.

Some grouse that a blue-ribbon Washington commission is a cop-out. But I vehemently disagree, for the reasons that Coates outlined.

Look, if you have a sickness, you have an illness, you probably start with diagnosis. The first step is to get some idea of what actually happened. We’ve never really done that. You’re talking about an epic crime that literally has its origins before there was a United States of America, and carries all the way up to this very day.
White supremacy is a suite of harms, operating on multiple levels across the board. In “The Case for Reparations,” I was dealing with redlining. Criminal-justice questions come to mind. There are education questions, there are university culpability questions. A state like North Carolina, where people were forcing black women to be sterilized. In Virginia, where they responded to Brown v. Board by basically shutting down public education in whole swaths of the state. You have this suite of damages. What we don’t need is for one person to sit up and try to design a program to undo 400 years of damage.

We Americans have yet to face our wretched history. We refuse to acknowledge slavery as our original sin. We pretend that white supremacy is not suffused in our national DNA. And too many view even wanting to talk about all of this as unhelpful and unnecessary. This status quo, our collective inability to acknowledge our ugly past, continues to corrode our present and hobble our future.

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“None of us is free in this country. We’re all burdened by our history of racial inequality. It’s created a kind of smog that we all breathe in and it has prevented us from being healthy,” Bryan Stevenson said when I interviewed him for my “Cape Up” podcast last April. He is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and is the brainchild behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the accompanying Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala. Halting our collective historic myopia, ending our national silence on “horrific bigotry, this horrific disease that has so infected our nation,” is his life’s mission.

“You can’t treat it by ignoring it. You can’t treat it with silence. You gotta talk about it. You got to confront it. You got to acknowledge it, and something transformational has to happen,” Stevenson told me. A real, deliberate and difficult conversation on reparations could make that happen, and what’s prescribed in H.R. 40 is a good place to start.

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The Post's Christine Emba, Wesley Lowery and Karen Attiah discuss the row between Harvard philosopher Cornel West and best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Video: The Washington Post)

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