In case you’ve been living under a virtual rock today, The Atlantic has published (and made available online) a long, searing and beautiful essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates on “The Case for Reparations.” Really, no quoting can do it justice, but here’s a little taste:
With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage. An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating.
One thread of thinking in the African American community holds that these depressing numbers partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior. (In 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, responding to violence among young black males, put the blame on the family: “Too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of, and then we end up dealing with your children.” Nutter turned to those presumably fatherless babies: “Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.”) The thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance.
This ties into the point we were making earlier about Respectability Politics and its limits.
Elsewhere on the site, Coates explains how he came around to the idea of reparations, having been previously opposed to them. It’s all powerful stuff.
There’s way too much in Coates’s piece to begin responding to it now. All I’ll say is that we can work towards structural reform, redressing past wrongs, and altering harmful perceptions at once. In fact, all three are necessary to one another’s success. Negative subconsciously held stereotypes and assumptions about African Americans (and particularly black men and boys) are a major, under-recognized barrier to success reform, influencing everything from every day interactions to the kind of voting behaviors necessary to redress the wrongs Coates discusses in his brilliant piece.