It’s hard to know where to begin when attempting to grapple with the sprawling legacy of racial discrimination and oppression in America. But Ta-Nehisi Coates knows there to start. “The Case For Reparations,” Coates’ latest tour de force in The Atlantic, spans more than 300 years of history, beginning with Clyde Ross, a black child of the Mississippi Delta.
In the 1920s, Ross saw his family’s land seized and his parents reduced to sharecroppers at the mercy of a system that was explicitly rigged against them. Ross served in World War II before joining the Great Migration, to Chicago. There, he got a steady job, married, and eventually bought a home in North Lawndale, a former Jewish neighborhood that was now welcoming middle-class African-Americans — a “pilot community” for integration.
But Ross and his wife were unable to get a normal mortgage. A mixture of legislative remedies, intimidation and violence, and industry collusion ensured that black families were locked out of the housing market for decades. Instead, they were catered to by predatory lenders and isolated by redlining. The community of North Lawndale festered. Today, writes Coates, the area is “on the wrong end of virtually every socioeconomic indicator.”
Coates goes on to explore the history of the American discussion — to the extent that there has been one — around reparations. He outlines the enormous wealth generated by slavery. “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” he quotes from historian David W. Blight, then adds:
The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.
He touches on the collapse of Reconstruction, and the rise of the lynch mob, and the ways in which government efforts like Social Security and the GI bill all too often excluded black Americans from their benefits. Then he returns to Chicago, and the discriminatory housing policy that dominated much of the 20th century, documenting its cost with painful precision:
To keep up with his payments and keep his heat on, Clyde Ross took a second job at the post office and then a third job delivering pizza. His wife took a job working at Marshall Field. He had to take some of his children out of private school. He was not able to be at home to supervise his children or help them with their homework. Money and time that Ross wanted to give his children went instead to enrich white speculators.
“The problem was the money,” Ross told me. “Without the money, you can’t move. You can’t educate your kids. You can’t give them the right kind of food. Can’t make the house look good. They think this neighborhood is where they supposed to be. It changes their outlook. My kids were going to the best schools in this neighborhood, and I couldn’t keep them in there.”
Later in the piece, Coates quotes another North Lawndale resident who managed to cling to her home in the same way, struggling to make the payments by cutting back on everything else: food, electricity. “You cut down on things for your child, that was the main thing,” she said.
That’s a kick in the gut, and it gets worse the longer you ponder the statement’s implications. Generation after generation of African-American families, facing down structural discrimination by tightening their belts notch by notch, met with indifference from legislators and authorities, or by violence from whites, when they protested. Generations of children growing up isolated, their parents forced to pay the bills or lose the house, unable to spare time or money for much else. No help with homework, no tutoring, no extracurriculars, no music lessons or art classes. No college fund, no assets to inherit — seemingly no way out, and every neighbor stuck in the same boat.
The message to young black men, according to another of Coates’ North Lawndale sources, is:
“You ain’t shit. You not no good. The only thing you are worth is working for us. You will never own anything. You not going to get an education. We are sending your ass to the penitentiary.”
The key to the genius of “The Case For Reparations” is its focus: on Clyde Ross, on North Lawndale, on housing policy. That tight focus is deliberate. As Coates himself pointed out in a discussion with some of his regular commenters, he could have written this story using any number of societal lenses: “Someone could, for instance, make the same case from the perspective of criminal justice,” Coates wrote in his exchange with readers. “This is not a comprehensive piece. It takes a narrow angle and just tries to work it.” One commenter, Laurel Eckhouse, agreed that the housing angle was a potent one. “I was also thinking about mass incarceration as a modern theft of African American lives and property,” she wrote. “Becky Pettit has a book called Invisible Men arguing that all the black-white gaps in wealth, education, etc., are substantially worse than people think because prisoners aren’t counted. But it would have taken away from the focus and power of this piece, I think.”
That’s a crucial point. The focus on housing, on people striving for middle-class homeownership — on the way America has systematically punished black Americans who dare to reach for the American Dream — gives the story a particular power.
The promise of America, the big-picture concept, is that everyone is supposed to have an equal shot — at “making it,” at earning a living, at a plot of land or a house. Coates makes it clear that for black Americans, that promise always has been, and still is, a lie.
Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada’s Yukon Territory. She’s the co-editor of WorldHum.com, a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a former online columnist for Outside. Her stories were listed as notable selections in The Best American Essays and The Best American Sports Writing 2013.