If the Atlantic writer and editor Ta-Nehisi Coates had knowledge of the fraught racial climate at the University of Chicago—where minority students have challenged campus administrators to address instances of racial intolerance—before his appearance at the school last Thursday, Coates did not betray it. Apart from a digression urging black students to attend historically black colleges and universities like his alma mater Howard University (“so you don’t always feel a need to defend yourself”), he stuck firmly to the stated purpose of his visit: discussing his now-famous feature in June’s issue of the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.”
In that piece, Coates digs deeply into the historical record of the United States to explain why the notion of reparations for African Americans deserves, at the very least, a fair hearing. Notably, he includes an in-depth exploration of discriminatory housing policies in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood around the middle of the twentieth century as an illustration of how racism continued to influence public policy and threaten the livelihoods of African Americans after the end of slavery and Jim Crow.
In a video shown at the talk, a series of older interviewees explained the difficulties they faced after signing predatory contracts created by white realtors attempting to capitalize on black families fleeing the anarchic conditions they faced in the South at the time. Clyde Ross and Jack MacNamara, two of the activists who spearheaded efforts to combat these unfair mortgages, were in the hall at International House for Coates’s talk, and received a standing ovation.
The story of Clyde Ross and his work with the Contract Buyers League is certainly inspirational. But Coates was quick to point out that many black people did lose their homes in North Lawndale. “The people in the video are exceptional people, but the vast majority are ordinary,” Coates said. “The war brought to them was fundamentally unjust.”
There is a recurring idea in Coates’s writing that African-American people growing up are forced to be “twice as good” as white people, and that expecting this superhuman effort from every member of a race is deeply unfair. For that reason, he is also not afraid to counter the rhetoric that sometimes comes out of the black community, and often the American mainstream, that African Americans should work to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (a phrase—and this makes sense if you think about it—that was originally intended to convey something absurdly impossible to do).
Coates’s underlying point, of course, is that at the level of political decision-making, it is a lazy abdication of responsibility to pretend that all problems can be solved simply through self-improvement.
While Coates is richly steeped in the history of reparations, he is also acutely aware of his own boundaries as a journalist. In writing the piece, and recounting its creation here, he makes it clear that he is, in some sense, an interloper, someone whose work will hopefully bring more attention to a cause that others have worked on for much longer than he. Instead of outlining a specific program of reparations, Coates urged the audience to ask their representatives to vote for HR 40, a bill introduced into Congress by Representative John Conyers every session since 1989, that calls for a committee to study reparations.
Though Coates’s writing is often frustrated, he is laid back in person. Throughout the talk, he joked around with the moderator, Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet (whose soporific voice, incidentally, is more soothing than a cup of chamomile). One particularly funny anecdote came as Coates recounted how, as a kid, he always conceived the proverbially oppressive “white man” that his elders would talk about as a single person—more specifically, Ronald Reagan.
Coates peppered his comments with references to books and historical figures such as Queen Nzinga, additions that made clear exactly how well-read he is within the particular African American tradition on which he writes so compellingly. In many ways, Coates may be proof that there remains room to specialize and delve into issues at beautiful length even within a journalistic world that so often seems to thrive on hyperactivity and short sound bites.