When Atlantic Monthly correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ spoke in Cleveland in August about reparations, he touched only briefly on the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., earlier that month.
“All I want to see is some history of the housing there,” he said. “We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”
Researcher Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute has dug up some of the answers in his new report, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policy at the Root of its Troubles.” On Twitter, Coates called it the “best researched piece I’ve seen to come out of all this.”
Policies on zoning, segregated public housing, bank redlining and federal subsidies diverted from black communities all did cumulative harm, Rothstein argues.
“Government policies turned black neighborhoods into overcrowded slums and white families came to associate African Americans with slum characteristics,” Rothstein writes. “White homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, fearing their new neighbors would bring slum conditions with them.”
In his own column covering Rothstein’s report, Coates reiterates: “The geography of America would be unrecognizable today without the racist social engineering of the mid-20th century.”
Rothstein calls for a more systemic lens to address decades of discrimination: “When we blame private prejudice, suburban snobbishness, and black poverty for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”
The full report is available on the Institute’s website. Rothstein will speak at the City Club of Cleveland on February 13, 2015. Tickets will be available at a later date.
When writer Ta-Nehisi Coates visited Cleveland on a frigid February morning earlier this year, he was blunt when asked about America’s trouble acknowledging race. “You can’t have America without black people,” he said. “Once you understand that, you understand that the black experience is at the core of what it means to be free.”
His latest treatise for The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations,” throws down the gauntlet on one of the most contentious subjects our nation has grappled with: how to make amends for 250 years of U.S. slavery. “Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap,” he writes. “Reparations would seek to close this chasm.”
But more than simply attaching a monetary figure to the sacrifices African-Americans have made during their tenure in America, Coates, 38, is asking for a moral reckoning: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
Coates draws from the work of several Anisfield-Wolf winners in crafting his argument (he said that reading Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns was a defining moment for him). Coates’ strategically appeals to our patriotism: We are Americans and we deserve better from our public policy—and each other. His calls for a more just society are strengthened by noting (in great detail) the injustices of the past, incidents unlikely to be found in textbooks.
Coates appeared recently on PBS’ Moyers & Company to discuss his thesis. The entire segment is worth watching and sharing. Let us know your views.