‘Case for Reparations’ Explains How America Must Come to Terms With Its History

In his remarkable essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates provides a primer on the way that slavery and its aftereffects have shaped race in American history.

Bill Moyers and Ta-Nehisi Coates during Coates’ May 21, 2014, appearance on Moyers & Company SCREENSHOT/MOYERS & COMPANY

Although such a bill stands no chance of passing in our current political climate, it serves as an important marker for discussion. Black oppression in America is unique and unprecedented, both in the length of historic bondage and subsequent servitude. Thus, it requires unique solutions, something that reparations acknowledge.

In a very real sense, the history so cogently outlined contains very few surprises for scholars and students of African-American history.

But in the Obama age, where the fact of a black first family frequently muffles the national conversation on race and democracy, Americans need a primer on why race matters now more than ever. This includes young black folk, who are at times confused or ambivalent about the way in which the seemingly distant past (to them, the 1980s, let alone the 1960s or the 1860s) connects to their contemporary lives.

A candid discussion of reparations will ultimately force us to “imagine a new country,” observes Coates, in a note of hard-earned optimism in an otherwise unfailingly sober historical and political assessment of race in 21st-century America.  

This “new” America requires coming to terms with the old. For many whites, and not just a few blacks, this means abandoning comforting myths about racial progress and upward mobility that hard facts disprove. Denial, that long-cherished American practice, is no longer an attractive option either. Coming to terms with America’s tortured and ongoing racial history means unmasking the roots of contemporary inequalities that make the era of Jim Crow less a memory of some distant past than an earlier manifestation of our current predicament.

And the most important impact of “The Case for Reparations” may be pedagogical: by reminding all Americans, irrespective of race, of the ways in which segregation, violence and inequality remain an as enduring part of our national legacy as heroic dreams of freedom, democracy and citizenship.