Cover of the June 2014 edition of The Atlantic
The Atlantic

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has set off a firestorm of debate once again, this time about race and reparations. In an exhaustive and sweeping piece, “The Case for Reparations,” he skillfully surveys American history, mining its data for evidence about the ways that enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, redlining and predatory lending has left black Americans carrying the costs of inequality.

From colonial times to the present-day wage gap, Coates establishes a psychic accounting of just how high a price black Americans have paid. And it’s not just a story of slavery and race or race and the American South. Coates leans in heavily on his own reporting about how inequality misshaped black opportunity in Chicago, once a promised land for black migrants that turned into a trick bag of slumlords and banks refusing to lend to black residents who simply wanted to become homeowners. It’s a devastating story with ongoing consequences.


The piece has some folks racked with guilt. Others are quibbling with some of the points he makes, or left feeling unconvinced. Some folks want more detail about just how much money might be involved. Some folks are trying to remind us that they didn’t own any slaves. Others haven’t bothered to finish it for fear of the title.

Luckily, though, if you survey reactions on social media and elsewhere, many readers are thrilled with the dive into historical questions grounded in the history of labor exploitation, racial violence, redlining, and mortgage denials. Readers are celebrating the fact that Coates has laid out the case that black folks haven’t failed to make up the wealth gap because of a lack of trying, but because of the ways in which the ever-shifting racial terrain keeps making the sand of new opportunity slip from beneath our feet—that no amount of uplift and forward thinking can level this uneven playing field.


To these folks I say: I’m glad you’re here.

Scholars of the African-American experience have been writing about the question of reparations for years. Even Coates mentions, in his “autopsy” of his longer piece, that there is a wide gulf between what scholars teach, as a matter of course, and the history that most Americans know.


To those new to the discussion, I encourage them to look into the advocacy of longtime Ebony editor, popular historian and author Lerone Bennett Jr., read The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks by lawyer and activist Randall Robinson, engage with the analysis of groundbreaking legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, and tackle the research of black economists William “Sandy” Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton. But these contemporary scholars simply took up the mantle passed down by generations: from Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, an accounting of the debt that was not paid to African Americans is historic.

As a historian, I’d encourage folks to learn more about the history Coates cites and beyond. Two of my favorite meditations on the history of reparation movements are Robin D.G. Kelley’s chapter on reparations in Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, and Mary Frances Berry’s My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations. Berry’s narrative is particularly revelatory; in it we are reminded that the very first and perhaps best advocates for reparations were those who had once been enslaved and that some of the most powerful voices in the movement were working-class black women. Callie House, a laundress, widow and mother of five who’d been born in bondage, became the leader of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, a movement of approximately 300,000 African Americans demanding Union Army pensions for the black men and women who had served during the Civil War.


House believed that black men, like her father, who had served as soldiers and black women who had often served on the frontlines as contraband cooks and laundresses, along with black war widows deserved the same kinds of pensions white veterans and their families received. Such pensions would acknowledge their service as slaves and honor their service to the Union cause. House was a radical, demanding reparations during the era of Jim Crow segregation. And although she would end up being railroaded by a government disinterested in any kind of compensation for the formerly enslaved, her story reminds us of the long struggle that undergirds today’s call for reparations.

A few of those who’ve read Coates’ article have wondered aloud why he didn’t propose a clear solution other than passage of Rep. John Conyers’ bill calling for the formation of a congressional commission to study the question of reparations. Coates ends with an interest in a clearer accounting of the costs borne by African Americans, but with less interest in figuring out the exact payout that might even the score. Even this approach has historic roots. As Kelley points out in Freedom Dreams, historically the movements that have called for reparations have been concerned first about the cause of “social justice, reconciliation, reconstruction of the internal life of black America, and eliminating institutional racism.”


After all, how might we account for the cost of the scars Callie House wore on her back, the price of the terror of a lynched son or the value of a mortgage never granted? How could we begin to calculate the costs?

Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and the author of the award-winning book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Follow her on Twitter.


Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and the author of the award-winning book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Follow her on Twitter