Signs of overt racism still are all around us, be it a New Hampshire police commissioner’s use of an ethnic slur to describe President Obama or an NBA team owner’s disturbing remarks about black athletes and fans. By now, we all know the drill, the media calls these people out for their ugly words and we play our parts, shaking our heads in sad disbelief — then return to our daily lives.
The following is a reprint of an interview Bill Moyers conducted with Ta-Nehisi Coates in May 2014.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, thinks it’s time for a bold step to change the way we talk and think about race in America. This week, Bill speaks to Coates about his June cover story for the magazine, provocatively titled “The Case for Reparations.” In it, Coates argues that we have to dig deeper into our past and the original sin of slavery, confronting the institutional racism that continues to pervade society. From the lynching tree to today’s mass incarceration of young African-Americans, he says we need to examine our motives more intently and reconcile the moral debt and economic damage inflicted upon generations of black Americans.
For one, Coates points to a century of racist and exploitive housing policies that made it hard for African-Americans to own homes and forced them to live in poorer neighborhoods with unequal access to a good education, resulting in a major wealth gap between black and white. In fact, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households, according to a Pew Research Center study.
“There are plenty of African-Americans in this country — and I would say this goes right up to the White House — who are not by any means poor, but are very much afflicted by white supremacy,” Coates says. By white supremacy Coates says he refers to an age-old system in America which holds that whites “should always be ensured that they will not sink to a certain level. And that level is the level occupied by black people.”
Coates explains to Moyers: “I am not asking you as a white person to see yourself as an enslaver. I’m asking you as an American to see all of the freedoms that you enjoy and see how they are rooted in things that the country you belong to condoned or actively participated in the past.”
BILL MOYERS:Welcome. The young man you’re about to meet is out to change how we think and talk about race. And he just might do it, beginning with this cover story in the new issue of The Atlantic magazine. Its provocative title is “The Case for Reparations.” Yes, reparations – defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the act of making amends, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury.” The “wrong or injury” in question is what President Lyndon Johnson once called slavery’s “ancient brutality” – and the terrible things that have followed it, in the name of white supremacy enforced by state power. This article is must reading for every American. The author is the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in Baltimore, lives in Harlem, and teaches writing at MIT. He’s now a senior editor of The Atlantic, where in this issue he writes: “the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” Thank you for joining me.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s an honor.
BILL MOYERS:Here’s exactly what you say: “White supremacy does not contradict American democracy — it birthed it, nurtured it, and financed it. That is our heritage.” What is white supremacy?
TA-NEHISI COATES: It is a system that is really, really old in this country, which holds that a certain group of people who hail, you know, with a certain ancestry should always be ensured that they will not sink to a certain level. And that level is the level occupied by black people. And so what the language of what white means adjusts over time, you know; it doesn’t need a static thing called white. At one point, you know, Irish people do not fit into that. At one point, Italian people do not fit into that. At one point, Jewish people did not fit into that. And now they do. You know? And we’ve changed that. And we’ve adjusted. The only people who never fit into that are African-Americans.
BILL MOYERS:So when you ask whites to look at slavery, and its consequences, what are you asking?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I am not asking you as a white person to see yourself as an enslaver. I’m asking you as an American to see all of the freedoms that you enjoy and see how they are rooted in things that the country that you belong to condoned or actively participated in in the past. And that covers everything from enslavement to the era of lynching, when we effectively decided that we weren’t going to, you know, give — afford — African-Americans the same level of protection of the law.
It applies to sharecropping, when we decided that we were going to, in whole swaths of the country, allow people to be effectively re-enslaved. It applies to redlining, when we decided that people that lived in certain places would get, you know, the largess of the government and people who would not. It applies today in terms of mass incarceration. When we decide that we are going to be harder on crimes committed by certain people — or the same crime committed, you know, by certain people — and, you know, not be that hard when it’s committed by other people. This is heritage. It’s with us. It’s with all of us. And it doesn’t necessarily… It’s not with you because you’re white, you know? It’s with you because you’re an American. Just like it’s with me, because I’m an American. I have to live with this, too.
BILL MOYERS:How so?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I think part of the problem is, when we talk about this, this is a situation of, well, what do white people owe to black people? And that ain’t really it.
It’s what the state — the United States, as we should say, of America — first of all owes African-Americans, but not far behind that what it owes itself. You know? Because this is really about our health as a country. And I make that delineation because there are people who, you know, and they would say this, who never held any slaves, who were never voluntarily part of any sort of Jim Crow system, who thought the country should be doing something different the whole time. Nevertheless, we’re all part of this. We’re all part of this. Whatever solutions that eventually come to, will come out of my tax dollars, too, I assure you.
BILL MOYERS:Was there something that hit you in the face as you started going back into the past, that you didn’t expect to find?
TA-NEHISI COATES: It is the degree to which where we are right now is not a mistake and is not inexplicable. We think of the problem of racism, the quote unquote “negro problem” or the problem with the color line, you know, all sorts of variations of how it’s talked about, as something that’s really, really hard to figure out.
And it’s actually not hard to figure out. You can literally see a policy, you know, from the 17th century stretching up into, you know, we can say conservatively into the 1960s, into the 20th century, the mid-20th century here in America, designed to injure African-Americans. If you understand that and if you take that, it would not make sense that that would just sort of go away, that that injury would disappear within 50 years of half-halting, you know, reform and trying to make things better. It’s not actually that hard to figure out.
We have it at our core that a certain group of people, who are marked by ancestry, who are marked by melanin, must represent a bottom for us. And, you can see that in the era of enslavement. You can see that literally being written, as I’ve shown in the piece, into the laws. You can see that when we decide to in this period of enslavement. And yet, we still can’t get away from having a two-tiered society.
You can see it, most depressingly, I have to say for me, when we go to erect our modern safety net, during the New Deal, which, progressives—and I consider myself in that camp—like to say that was the era, that was our golden era. Social Security, when it’s initially passed excluded African-Americans. Now it didn’t… It wasn’t written that way. It wasn’t written that way. What was written was folks who were either, worked as farm hands or worked as help in the house were excluded.
BILL MOYERS:Domestic help.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Domestic help, yes, yes. They were excluded. But what that had the effect of doing is excluding, I think, roughly 80 percent of African-Americans in the South. And something around 65 percent of African-Americans nationally. And what people will tell you is, well, that got fixed. And it did get fixed.
But the problem is during those years, people are injured. People are injured. And that’s how you get a gap. The fact that you injure people for those years, it doesn’t mean that, people will catch up when you eventually fix it. And I say that it relates to us today, because the argument that we make about Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion is, well, eventually market pressures will force those states in the South to catch up. They’ll fix it. They’ll fix it. But see, in those intervening years, black folks who needed it most, much like black folks who needed it most during the era when we passed Social Security, will be injured, again. And the fact that it gets fixed will not close the gap.
So the question becomes: why do we keep doing that? Why do we look at a map of Obamacare, as they say, and where the Medicaid expansion has gone through and where it hasn’t? And why do we see this swath of the country that’s directly identical to where we had plantation slavery?
BILL MOYERS:But you set out to find out, and I was intrigued that you set out to find out in the here and now. You didn’t start back then. But you start in Chicago with a fellow named…
TA-NEHISI COATES: Clyde Ross. Clyde Ross, who is in his early 90s now. And one of the essential theses of the piece is that we tend to think of segregation and Jim Crow. And we see, you know, separate but equal. We see separate water fountains, separate bathrooms. And I wanted to deepen that and say that the relationship is actually different. It’s not merely excluding somebody. It’s the taking of resources from one group for the betterment of another group. And this happens in all sorts of ways. Slavery is obviously the most direct way. But Clyde Ross, who was born in Mississippi, literally has his family’s land taken out from underneath of him and reduced to sharecropping. When you talk about Mississippi, and you say African-Americans not having the right to vote, this is not, like, a symbolic thing. This is the right to see how your tax dollars are used. It actually has effects on your life. And he saw that. And he moved north. He went, served in World War II. Noticed that things were a little different in the country. Came back. Could not live in Mississippi. Moved to Chicago, thought it was different. You know, and certainly some things really were different. I don’t want to minimize that. But when he went to get that emblem of citizenship, of being part of that big, broad America, that middleclass America that we exalt, a home; when he went to buy a home, he found that he had actually been cut out of society in a much more complicated way.
BILL MOYERS:How so?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, Clyde Ross bought a home at the time, or attempted to buy a home at a time in which home buying in this country was subsidized. Where we had an FHA that insured loans so that if, for instance, I wanted to go buy a home, and I weren’t able to pay for it, the FHA would say, no problem, we’ll cover that if he walks out on his home. African-Americans were totally cut out of that.
BILL MOYERS:FHA – Federal Housing Administration?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, exactly. And not only were they cut out of it, we had redlining – which is a phrase that we all know but we don’t talk enough about – wherein it was said a neighborhood in which African-Americans live cannot receive FHA funding.
And that went beyond the FHA. Banks decided who they were going to lend money to based on FHA policy laws, they responded to that in much the same way. On the “Atlantic” website, you’ll see, we have actual maps where you can look at a city like Chicago and see where the loans were and where the loans weren’t. And this was a practice that lasted on paper into 1960, and likely much longer than that.
BILL MOYERS:So you go on, “Until America reckons with the moral debt it has accrued— and the practical damage it has done—to generations of black Americans, it will fail to live up to its own ideals.” Talk for just another moment about that practical damage.
TA-NEHISI COATES: The most obvious example is the wealth gap. When you have a family, on average that has 20 times the wealth – a white family has 20 times the wealth of black families. And then you can really trace this to actual policy. You see it.
Again, you know, when we look at these incarceration rates, we still see it. I mean, the gap is so, so huge. It’s not a mere, minor discrepancy. We talk a lot about the achievement gap between black children and white children. But I’m always much more interested in the injury gap.
A black child that comes into this world is, because of policy, because of the policies of his country, over many years, is going to arrive with injuries that a white child just isn’t. And until we start deciding… First of all, until we accept that. Until we say that, yeah, yeah. Until we say, we did something. As a country, yes, we did do something. We have done something. And in many ways, we continue to do things that mean that that black child is going to come in with injuries that that white child is not.
We just aren’t having a conversation. And you can’t substitute and say poor children. That’s a separate problem. That’s another problem. It’s a real problem. A related problem. But it’s a separate problem. Until we directly confront the problem of racism, I don’t think we’re getting at it.
BILL MOYERS:Help us to understand this point in your piece, quote, “To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying. The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same.” Explain that.
TA-NEHISI COATES: There are plenty of African-Americans in this country – and I would say that this goes right up to the White House – who are not by any means poor, but are very much afflicted by white supremacy. This came up for me very powerfully during the… at the height of the birther controversy about the president where Donald Trump is demanding that the president release his long-form birth certificate. And then after that demanding that we see his transcripts. Barack Obama’s the best we got as African-Americans. This is as good as it gets, you know?
The comedian Sinbad, said, there are no more. There are no black men, raised in Hawaii with roots in Kansas. That’s just not going to happen again. This is the best we have. And if you don’t believe him, then you definitely don’t believe me. And you definitely don’t believe my son, you know? You definitely don’t believe these black folks, who were born in Cleveland or born in Baltimore, born in Chicago.
So young African-Americans who see that, who see people who have totally, totally played by the rules and then come to their neighborhoods and tell them to play by the rules, too. And they see them being treated with a double standard. The message is you’re not really part of this. The message is a broken social contract. That there’s one social contract for one group of people, and another one for you.
I’m a strong, strong believer that the filter of racism and the filter of white supremacy is greatly underestimated in this country. That’s really the one thing I’ve tried to get across. I think…
BILL MOYERS:It seems to me that’s why you wrote this article.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, yes, yes, it’s very much why I wrote the piece. And I think, one of the things is that we talk about race a lot, we do. So I think it’s wrong to say we don’t have conversations. No, we actually talk about it quite a bit. I don’t think we talk about it in depth as much as we should. And I think part of the problem is when you start talking about it in depth, when you start getting to a level where you say, listen, everything we are, everything we have is built on past sins. That the things are tied. When you start recognizing that there’s something congenital.
You know, it’s as if I had a problem with alcohol and I could say, okay, but I’m just going to go into the bar and I’m not going to have a drink. I’m going to be okay. I don’t need to have any sort of conversation. That’s a different conversation in that I have to confess to the fact that I’m an alcoholic. That there’s something in me, you know, that that’s here. And I will always have to cope with that. And I will always have to deal with that.
The honesty that that takes, the strength that that takes, the courage that that takes is pretty profound. And to have to do that on a national level is… it’s not just a weight for Americans. I would say it would be a weight for any society comprised of human beings. It’s very, very hard, en masse, for groups. And I, to be honest with you, I have doubts about our ability to do it.
BILL MOYERS:Our ability as white folks to say…
TA-NEHISI COATES: No. No.
BILL MOYERS:To say we were this nation was founded on white supremacy? It is an organizing principle of our society?
TA-NEHISI COATES: No, I have doubts about us as Americans to do it. I mean, so as you think about it for African-Americans, it’s a very depressing picture, too. Because if you’re African-American, it’s like, okay, and then what? So what am I supposed to do with that information? You know, where do I go with that? I’m a minority, it’s not like we’re not… we’re clearly not going to have an armed revolution to seize any power.
So what, then? You’re telling me this. But what am I then supposed to do? It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying all around. And it’s not even terrifying because we’re Americans. I think if I spent any amount of time in any country, all countries have sins in their past. And getting states to confront those sins honestly and directly is really, really hard.
The one example that people often put up is Germany. They say, well Germany was really able to confront its past. The difference is Germany killed off 80 to 90 percent of the Jews who lived there. So they didn’t have Jews alive as active political actors to use that history. It’s very easy, you know, to apologize for something when there’s no one there to draw any sort of consequence from it, directly from you, in your country, to be part of your politics.
It’s fine to apologize after you wiped everybody out, for all the good that does. America has a much, much more complicated problem. African-Americans are very, very much part of the political process here. And so, as Americans to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, this is who we are, and that’s okay.
Frankly, I don’t know that any country’s ever done that. I’m really, really clear about that. But we look at ourselves as pioneers, in terms of liberty, in terms of freedom, in terms of enlightenment values. We say that we’re pioneers. And I firmly believe that reparation is a chance to be pioneers. We say we set all these examples about liberty and freedom and democracy and all that great stuff. Well here’s an opportunity for us to live that out.
BILL MOYERS:Having read the article, I know that you do not mean reparations as white folks writing checks to black folks.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right.
BILL MOYERS:So in an ideal world, what form would reparations take?
TA-NEHISI COATES: In an ideal world, when we talk about social justice we would understand it as part of healing that heritage and dealing with that legacy. So, for instance, take health care right now. Obamacare right now. When you look at a whole swath of the country again where we had… where enslavement… we had plantation slavery on a very, very deep level. And you look at that and you say, why is there not a Medicaid expansion going on there? We would be very clear about why it’s not going on there. And those of us who make policy, those of us who have power, who sit on our courts would think about that when we make rulings. We wouldn’t be afraid to say that. I mean, right now following John Roberts’ line, I think what he said was “…to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” What we want is a kind of color blindness. We think that’s the answer. But color blindness isn’t the answer. Color isn’t the problem. Racism is the problem. And being conscious of racism is the solution. So when you talk about what that looks like concrete, I would like to see that in our policy. When we were talking about ACA , it’s very funny, one of the attacks from the right, from people like Rush Limbaugh, was that this is reparations. Well, not quite, but it would be nice if it could be. It would be nice if that was part of it. If you actually did say that, hey, you know…
BILL MOYERS:Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean there’s nothing… Listen, in an ideal… Taking this outside of the realm of politics, in the realm of just straight talking about this, yeah, this will disproportionately benefit African-Americans. And yeah, that’s a really, really good thing. It might actually help heal this heritage that we have over here. And in an ideal world, you could actually say that. In a world in which people are actively considering reparations and actively thinking about it and talking about it in a serious way, you could say that. You could say that.
BILL MOYERS:And all the more to be said, because it’s many of the former Confederate States are where the metrics of life are the lowest for African-Americans. You’re saying that in a just world, that would be rectified.
TA-NEHISI COATES: That would be rectified. And we would talk very, very differently. We would not be afraid to talk about our heritage. And we would not be afraid to talk about racism. And we would be able to talk about white supremacy in our policy. We would not have to retreat to other language like quote unquote, you know, race.
Or we would not have to retreat to other language like quote unquote class. We would say, no, no, no, this is about white supremacy. And we have a problem with this. And we have had a problem with this for a long time. And we need to be conscious of that in our policy. When we pass a stimulus budget, for instance, we need to specifically think about helping people who have been injured in our past, because they’ve occupied a certain place in our country. That’s what the world looks like to me. It’s a consciousness thing. Which we don’t have at all right now.
BILL MOYERS:You know, some critics who greatly admire your work and who acknowledge that, indeed, white supremacy has been the central organizing principle of American life, find your pessimism, that’s their term, at odds with the hard evidence. Jonathan Chait of “New York Magazine” looks at how quote, “…the United States has progressed from chattel slavery to emancipation to the end of lynching to the end of legal segregation to electing an African-American president…” and sees that there are real signs of racial maturing.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes. Yes, well that’s the kind of progress that you highlight and you brag about if you’re not on the other end of it. If you’re Martin Luther King and it’s 1965 and you’re making that long march through Alabama, certainly you can look around and say, wow, at one point in Alabama, my ancestors a hundred years ago were enslaved right here or in this region. And isn’t it something that we’ve progressed to a level that I’m not enslaved. Well, that’s progress. And I mean, yes that is progress. Jonathan Chait is very, very much right. Also, if somebody, every day comes home, and beats you with a tire iron, and then, decides to stop beating you, that would be progress. It doesn’t change the fact that you are laying down on the ground bleeding. This is fact. So yeah, yeah, it’s progress. It’s progress. But what does that then mean? Does that mean everything’s over? Does that mean it’s okay? Does that mean… There are all sorts of progresses that aren’t necessarily celebrated. You say, well, I’m relieved. I agree, I agree that speaks to progress with relief. I am relieved that all those things happened. But I’m not going to dance and celebrate. And that’s not to be congratulated. I’m relieved. I think that’s how most African-Americans would greet that.
BILL MOYERS:Ta-Nehisi Coates, I hope every American reads this piece.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you, I hope so to.
BILL MOYERS:And I thank you very much for joining me.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
BILL MOYERS:So brief a conversation hardly does justice to the force of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument in “The Atlantic.” As you read it, pay close attention to how officially-sanctioned segregated housing in cities like Chicago and New York determined the neighborhoods where African-Americans lived, which in turn decided the schools their children could attend.
That legacy casts a long shadow: according to a new study, the country’s most segregated schools are not in the Deep South, they’re right here in New York. And yet another study — a survey of all 97,000 public schools in America by the Department of Education — finds race to be the deciding factor in a pattern of inequality that still exists 60 years after the Supreme Court ruled segregation to be unconstitutional. Among the findings: racial minorities are more likely to have less access to rigorous math and science classes, and to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience.
At our website, BillMoyers.com, we’ll link you to that survey, as well as to two very good videos produced by “The Atlantic” and based on Ta Nehisi Coates’ reporting. They tell the story of North Lawndale, that desperately poor community on Chicago’s West Side, and they look back to the sixties and the Contract Buyer’s League, when black citizens fought back against Chicago’s rampant housing discrimination.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there, and I’ll see you here, next time.