A Case for Reading Ta Nehisi Coates’ ‘The Case for Reparations’ Cover Story in ‘The Atlantic’

A personal appeal in support of a painful piece of journalism

(The following was first published to Facebook then at 1point21jiggawhatts.com on Saturday, May 24, 2014)

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June, 2014 Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” is probably the most affecting piece of journalism I’ve ever read.

It is as long as it is upsetting.

Privilege and discrimination are not issues that are exclusive to black-and-white America, obviously, but they do have a unique and fundamental role in our national origin story. And equivocation is a lie we tell ourselves intended to pacify, whether due to feelings of helplessness, or internalized guilt.

Words like “reparations” are divisive, in every sense. As a result, we shy away from them, thinking that, like Voldemort, if we fail to mention them they will lose their power, and that politeness alone can power us to become a better union, as if by default. That’s bullshit. Kids who read “Harry Potter” know that’s bullshit. The only way to reconcile divisive issues is to acknowledge them, in full.

I don’t find racism to be any more malicious a sin than -isms relating to gender, or sexuality, or class. But institutionally, it has a different role in American history. We didn’t invent misogyny. Or homophobia. Or even racism, in the broadest sense.

But there are practices that were invented by this country that had very specific repercussions. The long tail of those developments is what Coates explores.

I’ve been a white guy for basically my whole life. Despite conflicting reports, I’ve never aspired to be anything different. But one thing that has never sat well with me was the idea that conversations about race and institutions in America were limited, “minority issues,” as if only the underserved had either cause or qualification to engage in the discussion. It’s the ultimate manifestation of privilege, right? That since *we* didn’t engage in the historic deplorable practices, since *we* aren’t to blame, we have no obligation, no skin in the game.

The problem with this line of thinking is it puts all the responsibility to solve and overcome historic injustices on the historically underprivileged. Which only exacerbates things. Which only leads to a culture of increasing division, but a mutating one, that evolves and simmers and only boils to the surface in explosive and obvious moments. It fosters resentment on both sides of the coin, even as both sides wish to move on, beyond. “Don’t characterize me as a racist, I’m not Sterling, or Zimmerman.” “Don’t talk to me about empathy if the upper limits of your identification is the rejection of slumlords and murders.” It can be insidious, alienating and cyclical.

There’s no way to read Coates’ reportage without coming away outraged. We’re supposed to be better than this. That aspiration is what we pledge to, and how we define ourselves. For me, actualization is a core tenet to self improvement. And I thought this piece could have just as appropriately been titled “The Case for American Actualization.”

I believe it is vital to read the piece in its entirety. If you’re not a sociopath, it’ll hurt, quite a bit at times. But it will bring truths to the surface. A scar heals easier than a cancer.