As he grew up in West Baltimore in the 1980s, attending troubled schools such as Lemmel Middle, Ta-Nehisi Coates' environment was disfigured by crime, drugs, and poverty. He constantly feared for his safety. Despite two loving parents and a home filled with books, he didn't enjoy the prosperity that he saw reflected in TV shows about middle-class life. Even then he wondered: Why don't I have the things those people have? What's wrong?
"My obsession has been, what is this chasm between black and white in America, and how did we get here?" Coates said Monday evening at Loyola University Maryland's 22nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation.
The answer, Coates told the crowd of about 2,000 packed into Loyola's Reitz Arena, is as simple as it is uncomfortable: the systematic theft of black labor, black income, and black wealth for 350 years, in the name of white supremacy. He calls it an unpaid debt that is the direct cause of the drastic and persistent inequalities between blacks and whites.
"The fundamental feature of American racism in this country is plunder—one group taking from another," said Coates, a senior editor with The Atlantic whose article "The Case for Reparations" was one of the most talked-about opinion pieces of 2014. Many have called it the best essay of the year, including conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks and longform.org.
Though he also touched on Dr. King's principled stand in extending his philosophy of nonviolence to opposing the Vietnam War and the recent events in Paris, where he has been living recently, and questioned whether the French commitment to freedom of thought expressed in the slogan "Je suis Charlie" really extended to all people and all views, Coates spent most of his talk delving into the points raised in that article.
The idea of monetary reparations to compensate black people for the horrors they have endured has been around for decades but has largely been confined to the fringes of political debate. Coates' aim is to restore the argument to respectability. As his Atlantic article and his Loyola lecture make clear, there is a strong case that the history of black-white relations has been one of systematic robbery.
Coates is careful not to call his goal "slavery reparations," pointing out that the monetary plunder of African-Americans continued nearly unabated for more than 100 years after the Civil War. Indeed, his essay focuses primarily not on slavery or even Reconstruction but instead on government-abetted housing discrimination that not only stripped black communities of resources and hope but went out of its way to victimize the talented and the ambitious. Such policy injustices made it nearly impossible for most black families, even ostensibly middle-class ones, to accumulate wealth.
To Coates, "our whole framework of how we talk about race is wrong," because the social aspects of racism and segregation get nearly all the attention, while the unspoken financial aspects have done more concrete harm. As he puts it, the real problem wasn't blacks having to use separate bathrooms; it was blacks paying the same taxes as whites and receiving lesser (or in many cases, nonexistent) services in return. That's not simply unpleasant or unfair—it is outright theft.
During the question period after Coates' hour-long talk, one man asked the writer what he would like to see done to advance his goal. Coates urged people to tell their congressional representatives to support a bill that Rep. John Conyers of Michigan introduces at the start of every House session, to begin a discussion about reparations. But Coates said he doesn't necessarily expect an honest conversation on the subject to happen in his lifetime, or even his children's lifetime.
Another speaker, Kay Adler, who described herself as a "70-plus-year-old," told Coates, "As a native Baltimorean, I am so proud of you . . . for putting into words what I have been saying for so many years, and been called crazy" for saying it.
Coates' Atlantic article makes clear that the case for reparations is not simply about righting a wrong. He points out that paying reparations to Israel helped a reluctant West Germany confront the horrors of the Holocaust and eventually allowed the country to heal from a gaping national wound. Similarly, a conversation about African-American reparations could force a long-neglected conversation about the reality of racial history in America. In this way, by calling for reparations, Coates is really advocating a form of national reconciliation and healing.
But it all gets back to basic fairness.
"It's very simple," Coates said. "If you have been plundered for 350 years as a community, maybe you should get some of that back."