American Exceptionalism, Between the World and Me, Bill Maher, economic disparity, economic disparity between blacks and whites, economics, Essay, Federal Housing Administration, GI Bill, history, Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, HR 40, Jim Crow Laws, National Sin, Politics, race, Real Estate Redlining Racism, Redlining, slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, The Beautiful Struggle, The Case for Reparations, We Were Eight Years in Power, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Writing
I don’t watch television. That’s honestly how I get so much reading done. That, and I come from a position of privilege of which some I can promise is based on my whiteness.
Somewhere in between discovering that Corner Bakery sells the best coffee I’ve ever had, scoring a full-time position at the Tyler Public Library, taking care of washing the dishes and doing the laundry, spending time with my family, and starting a new blog dedicated to posting photos of left-over plastic from BOB the Library’s 3-D Printer, I somehow managed to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy isn’t the first of Coates’s books that I’ve taken the effort to read. In fact this year alone I’ve read his other books which include the first volume of his Black Panther series, Between the World and Me, and his memoir The Beautiful Struggle. All of these books eventually came through the book drop at the library, and each time that they did I would scramble to pick them up and read them.
It wasn’t just that I wanted to read these books because I had heard the name Ta-Nehisi Coates before and knew that he was quickly becoming a public intellectual that was worth reading to understand the public discourse. I picked up any book written by the man because his words were scored by an incredible conviction and beauty. Every time I pick up a book or essay by Coates I know that I am reading a writer who believes in every word he puts on the page, and pays careful attention to the arguments he’s crafting with them. And to be honest the last writer who I honestly believed had that same attention to detail was Christopher Hitchens. I don’t like to add the title of “great writer” to many people I read because that would ultimately cheapen the title, but I have no hesitation in saying that I believes Coates is a great writer.
As usual though I’m ashamed to admit that I was aware of his presence in the zeitgeist and culture before I actually took the time to read him. The first time I had ever even heard of the man he was appearing on Real Time with Bill Maher in promotion of his essay that had recently been published in The Atlantic: The Case for Reparations. My wife and I had recently moved into an apartment in my in-laws garage, we were just married and needed a place to live before graduate school started up, and every night at dinner they usually had the television on. Coming from a home where people sit and talk with the television set off and in another room there was a culture shock element, but I watched the show paying attention to the interview because I had heard of the controversy that this magazine article had caused. Coates wasn’t a black man pointing out that slavery was a vice and a black mark on the United States cultural history, he was arguing that the United States had a moral obligation to not only acknowledge the reverberations of slavery, but to try and actually atone for it.
I also remember Bill Maher teaching Coates the old joke about black men caring more about their Cadillacs than their houses.
This was my introduction to Coates, and while I recognized there was a brilliant mind that was worth reading, I was dealing with the new territory of being a newlywed, beginning graduate school, and starting this blog which, at the time, was pretty much one long series of kiss-ass articles about Christopher Hitchens and George Orwell. My regular reader will note that times have changed and now I only really kiss Christopher Hitchens’s ass. As such Coates was left largely unread, and unappreciated by me until early this year when I picked up Between the World and Me, and I recognized that the man was possibly one of the greatest writers since James Baldwin, a writer whom Coates has been compared to numerous times and fittingly so.
While I do have every intent to get around to reviewing that book, after finishing We Were Eight Years in Power I recognized how important The Case for Reparations was, not just for Coates’s cultural legacy, but for any reader who recognizes humanity and the importance of bridging the gaps that can sometimes form. It’s not too much to write that the United States is plagued by it’s own cultural sins in terms of slavery and the steady abuse and genocide of Native American populations. Yet frequently the experience of an American citizen who opens up this conversation is one of either quick dismissal or outright anger. Coates himself notes this early on in the essay as he notes the immediate and anticipated rebuttal of this argument:
Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. For the past twenty-five years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.” (178).
If the reader has ever actually discussed such a matter with friends or family they may have had such a reaction. Thanksgiving was a time in our nation’s history where people would gather and eat and celebrate just being together, but as of the last six decades it seems that tradition has largely been replaced by correcting your grandfather about what a transgender person actually is, and listening to your aunt discuss the dangers of GMOs and the importance of “healing crystals.” Reparations does not get the same amount of air-time that these “sexy” issues do, but when Coates’s article was published it created a bit of a storm in the public largely because many people felt threatened or vulnerable even if they had no real stake in this argument.
And this habit and feeling is best explained by Coates just a few paragraphs later.
That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy? (179).
I anticipate the reaction of some of my regular readers, Why are you bothering with this liberal, self-loathing bullshit. Coates’s article does nothing but further tarnish the image of the United States as a nation of possibility. Yes there have been troubles that have faced certain portions of the population, but what good does it do bemoaning the events of the past?
This is a difficult question at first to answer, largely because it reeks of a kind of national and personal solipsism.
The recent debates which have taken place over the removal of Civil War statues that bear the images of Confederate generals and soldiers has sparked debates, not just on FOX News, but all over the United States and no one is entirely free of it. If you are a person such as myself who lives in a small town in East Texas you’re sure to encounter at least one or two such persons who feels compelled to inform you that removing statues is akin to erasing history, which is amusing because such people usually tend to be the kind of people who go into a library and never check out a book where actual history is recorded. For my own part I’ve tried to stay out of these debates largely because I want to avoid the headache, but the one position that I’ve clung to, which I do not mind shouting out into the infinite white noise that is the internet is that any argument which bothers to actually dig into the actual discourse that is history is worth consideration. And Coates’s article does just that.
Coates follows the economic trends of a few individuals in Detroit, observing how African Americans became the prey of predatory real-estate deals that left an entire generation screwed out of any kind of reasonable mortgage. Coates observes the general trend in the city of Detroit alone in order to observe a larger trend in the history of the United States which was that African Americans typically were denied or deceived from achieving economic prosperity and some of the points made in the article shocked even me. Perhaps the most pernicious was the reality of the G.I. Bill, the government provision still in effect today which allows veterans to receive finincial benefits for college educations.
The oft-celebrated GI Bill similarly failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country’s insistence on a racist housing policy. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with White officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks. The historian Kathleen J. Frydl observes in her 2009 book The GI Bill that so many blacks were disqualified from receiving Title III benefits “that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title.” (187).
This passage was difficult for me to read the first time, largely because I grew up in a house where stories about World War II were as common as stories about Ronald Reagan beating the Soviet Union using only his wit and his Iron Man technology which he built with his bare hands. In hindsight I’m pretty sure my dad was over-emphasizing Reagan’s engineering skills. But the stories of World War II were always stories about heroes, and young men overcoming great odds to defeat the forces of real evil. It seems fitting that a narrative built on “othering” should blow up in my face and reveal, not a “Greatest Generation,” but a generation of people who benefitted economically at the expense of others.
The GI Bill was one of the greatest economic boons in American history, and an entire generation of African Americans were denied access to it because FDR needed to secure a political legacy.
At the same time the GI Bill was opening doors for millions of Americans the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation along with the Federal Housing Administration began opening loans which were dramatically reduced from previous mortgage rates thus allowing the possibility for lower income families to purchase homes and thus create a new standard of living. It became not only possible for United States citizens to buy homes, it becomes part of the national rhetoric. The key to success was not just gainful employment and finanicial success, owning a home was a sign that one was living the “american dream.” And as my reader can surely guess, this too was denied African Americans as Coates points out.
That emblem was not to be awarded to blacks. The American real-estate industry believed segregation to be a moral principle. As late as 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ code of ethics warned that “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.” A 1943 brochure specified that such potential undesirables might includes madams, bootleggers, gangsters—and “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.” (188)
Coates is careful to remind the reader that this redlining was supported by the federal government, and thus another in a long line of economic obstacles was praised as an overwhelming success by New Deal supporting liberals. It’s strange to me how many progressive friends of mine who still praise the New Deal and FDR as some kind of beacon what happens when government works, yet Coates article, along with mountains of historical discourse have largely revealed the New Deal to be one lord line of fuck-ups and FDR to be an adulterous egomaniac.
But nevertheless this passage, much like the one actually shocked me the first time I read it because I had never been taught that. No teacher had ever mentioned the fact that African Americans were outright denied access to reduced mortgages, though it was something I had assumed given my knowledge of the “white flight” which helped create the culture of suburbia.
These discoveries illuminate something about the education I received, namely that the complexities inherent to the African American experience was something that was largely ignored or white-washed. I read books about the Civil Rights movement and slavery, and so I was given the general outline of the travesties that blacks my home country have been subjected to, but the nuances and details were largely ignored. And this negation of details leads me to a deeper conclusion about my country, which is that there is an unwillingness to really atone for what has been done.
This isn’t just my observation, because Coates to make this point far more eloquently than I can.
And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collectively biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering Alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill gotten and selective in its distribution. (202).
He goes on in the next paragraph saying,
What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking abut is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. (202).
Every nation has their own sin, and every nation has their own regrettable action. This isn’t a truly original thought for other writers better than me have expressed it far more clearly than I ever could. Recognizing their sin however has allowed these nations to move forward, and while it hasn’t by any means erased the evidence or awareness of their sin, it has allowed for a deepening understanding the failings in their humanity. The perception of perfection or moral superiority is a dangerous concept for a people to internalize because it allows for the possibility of “othering” other people. When any group believes themselves naturally superior and drafts a cultural rhetoric which justifies atrocity, or worse, freedom from responsibility then tragedy is soon to follow.
The United States is not immune from this trend because our history, our real history shows this to be true. Whether it was the consistent abuse and eventual genocide of Native Americans, the abuse against Irish immigrants during the 1800s, the general xenophobia against jews which has never truly abated in our culture, the institution of Slavery followed by the establishment of Jim Crow laws followed by the barbarity of Mass incarceration, the internment of the Japanese following Pearl Harbor, the manipulation of hispanic Americans during World War II which culminated in the atrociously named “Operation Wetback,” the massacre of Wounded Knee, and while I could probably spend an entire page listing out the offenses of the United States this list is meant only to affirm one central point: the United States is not an innocent nation. There is blood on our hands, and for some reason no one really wants to acknowledge it and offer some kind of atonement. There is more an impulse to argue, “yes it happened, let’s move on,” which in itself is yet another form of denial of the issue.
This might just be the trend of history working against us, and it might be that the United States will never even consider reparations. This to me however would be a tragedy because it would suggest a real emotional insecurity of this nation which, supposedly, the greatest country in the world. The sign of a mature person is one who is willing and able to acknowledge their faults, it’s someone who can admit when they’ve fucked up and offer a real recompense. There have been signs that this nation can and would do just that, but not to the extent that was really necessary.
Coates article isn’t just a fascinating portrait of one of America’s lasting sins against a portion of its populace, it’s a real meditation about the nature of the democracy that many praise and enjoy. He is observing that it’s easy to enjoy the benefits of a democracy when you’re the privileged party, but then offers the question of what kind of democracy is it when that same group negates the reality that their success is coming at the expense of others? The Case for Reparations is not about arguing for a simple pay-off the African-American community, because money is an empty gesture. The health of a democracy is measure by the maturity of it’s populace to understand what a real equality is, and so looking at The Case for Reparations I observe not just a beautifully written essay about the differing economic levels of blacks and whites, but a real call for Americans to recognize their past and deepen their emotional understanding of their culture’s past.
Coates offers up just such a summation near the end of his article:
An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders. (207).
Finally sitting down to read The Case for Reparations was a marvel to me because with every word I recognized that Coates had established himself as a definitive and consequential voice in the body of American Letters. Reading this essay I realized how privileged I was to have the economic benefits that I did, and I considered how many white people I had met growing up who had been part of a long tradition of wealth. And at first while I intend to explore this notion of privilege, the larger concern for the health of a democracy seems far more, if not equally, relevant. I’ve watched in just the last few months how my country has become more and more divided over the issues of the past and race, and it seems, at first, like any kind of hope for a healthy and reasonable conversation is next to impossible.
In the face of this reality I admit with no hesitation that I feel afraid everyday. Each morning comes with it’s own sorts of challenges, and the conversations seem to be getting more and more outlandish and violent. It behooves one to hope that there is space for a real conversation like the one The Case for Reparations opens up.
All it takes for democracy to fail is for people to feel that their voice has no place or relevance. All it takes for a democracy to implode is for people to stop talking because they’re afraid of discomfort. The important conversations about this country’s past are not going away, and so I am, in spite of everything, inspired by The Case for Reparations because Coates reminds me that the voice of individual citizens to argue about the nature of their democracy isn’t just a matter of the past, it’s a constant ever-changing discourse. What kind of democracy would we inhabit if we stopped trying?
All quotes taken from The Case for Reparations were cited from First Edition, hardback copy of We Were Eight Years in Power as published by One World Books. If the reader would be interested in reading the full article however they can follow the link below to The Atlantic’s home webpage where the essay is posted. I highly recommend it, even if the reader is still unconvinced by my review, and even if they disagree with Coates’s argument. It’s worth taking a few moments to consider this essay and it’s place in the larger discussion of race in the United States.
I’ve also posted a video below where Coates discusses his article. There are many like it, and YouTube’s A.I. being what it is it should provide you links to other videos where he discusses it. Unless your browsing history is different than mine in which case, I don’t want to know.
I’ve included below a few essays which explore Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as the argument about Reparations. Enjoy:
And because I’m me, I’m also including a link to Adam Ruins Everything where he talks about the racist history of Redlining and how this has helped created wealth disparities between blacks and whites in the United States.