“If you just took an honest look at the facts, it’s very hard to feel good.” The national correspondent for The Atlantic visited BuzzFeed to discuss his cover story, “The Case for Reparations.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Full audio, including audience Q&A, is at the bottom of this post.
Shani Hilton: I’ve seen completely random people reading your story out and about in New York City. People were reading it on the beach over Memorial Day weekend, it was on Rap Genius—
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Not anymore, not anymore. We took care of that. We handled that. Cease and desist.
SH: —and it broke readership records on The Atlantic website. My question is: Why?
TNC: When we came up with this idea on the edit side and we started talking about it and it got out into the company what we were doing, I would talk to business people and they would say, “Yeah, this is gonna be big.” And I was like, How is reparations going to be good for business? How is anyone going to walk into an ad meeting and say, “Yeah. This is what we’re doing?” I don’t know. I really, really don’t know.
I think a part of it is, one of the things I learned very early in my career is that if you made any claim or charge about racism, people click. So, I literally could have gone when I first started, and said, blog post number one: “Racism.” Blog post number two: “White Folks Did It.” Blog post number three: “Black Folks Did It.” And you could just go down the line because people, for some reason it sets their hair on fire. That’s it, right? I think that’s the first thing.
I think people think of reparations as this sort of fringe thing. For The Atlantic, which people think of as more mainstream — I’m going to challenge that in a second — I think for them to put reparations on their cover is just this shocking sort of “What? We’re doing this now?” sort of thing. In fact, internally, folks at The Atlantic always talk about our roots as being started by abolitionists… When I started it and when I pitched it, there was very much a feeling that this was kind of in our tradition. This is what we’re supposed to be doing. This is the work we’re supposed to be doing. It is gratifying, though. It’s sort of amazing to see that people would read 16,000 words — or act like they read 16,000 words, and tell their friends they read 16,000 words: “I read it. I read it. Yeah, I got through it!” It’s sort of amazing to see that — and shocking. I guess I don’t know. I guess that was the answer: I don’t know.
SH: Alright, fair enough.
TNC: Do you know? Seriously, do you know?
SH: No, I don’t know. Anybody have any ideas?
TNC: [to audience member] Do you actually know? I’m serious.
Audience member: I think I know: because you wrote the hell out of it.
TNC: Thank you, thank you. I appreciate that.
SH: Your writing style tends to be very lyrical in ways, tends to be very poetic in a lot of ways.
SH: This piece was not that. It was actually very prosaic in a lot of ways, almost flat in its dissemination of facts. Did you do that on purpose?
TNC: Well, I actually was trying to be lyrical, but that’s OK.
TNC: I was trying to be a little lyrical. There was just so much. Just to be quite blunt: This isn’t even the half of it. The facts are so much and so overwhelming that, at a point, you just kind of let it go. In edit, my editors were like, “You got to cut a lot of this flowery shit… The facts are enough.”
SH: That’s what I do every day.
TNC: Yeah. They were like, ‘That was a pretty sentence you wrote… It does nothing. It does absolutely nothing.’ I have a bias towards more of the purple prose. I mean, you meet Clyde Ross, and Clyde is just Clyde. I met him and he just started talking. If Clyde was here right now, you would just get it. You don’t even need a filter. He starts talking and that really is it. And that’s true I think for African-American history in this country, regrettably. If you just outline the facts. If you just say, “This happened this year, this happened this year…” It’s pretty damning. I mean, it really really is damning.
One of the things I really wanted to get across in doing this was when black people get upset about racism, when black people shout about things, you have to understand the historical relationship of African-Americans to this country. It is not a good one. I know in our lifetimes we think it was a good one, but we carry our grandmothers’ stories, we carry our mothers’ stories, we carry our families’, our communities’ stories. I mean, we’re a country and, as I say in the piece, if all of our great and noble traditions matters, then redlining matters too. Enslavement matters too. We carry that. If you just took an honest look at the facts, it’s very hard to feel good. It’s very hard.
SH: So, you bring up Clyde Ross, and he — who bought his house on contract and is a major part of this piece — said he was actually ashamed to have been taken in by this scheme. He said, in fact, “We did not want anyone to know that we were that ignorant.” He saw it as a cheat. You place it kind of in this narrative of systematic theft from blacks, but I know a lot of black people don’t want to see themselves as victims and instead they think, I was stupid. I got fleeced. How do you navigate that tension?
TNC: Well, I mean, you did get fleeced. You did, but people get fleeced all the time. When I was writing this, I kept thinking about gender because — you know, I don’t want to take this too far — but I think there’s something of a rape analogy here. When somebody does something to you, you feel ashamed and then you don’t want to talk about it.
When they were first organizing the Contract Buyers League, they would go around the neighborhood and they knew all of these guys that got ripped off. Everybody knew their neighbors. They would say, “No, no. I have a mortgage. That didn’t happen to me.” I think that’s because in that period of time — and it’s still kind of true today — a mortgage was a statement on your Americanness. It was, “You’ve entered the middle class, you’re part of this. You’ve purchased a piece of this country.” The idea that they hadn’t was humiliating. There were all sorts of land schemes after Reconstruction where they would sell black people poles [and] say, “Here’s your land.” A lot of these folks were not literate. So, this sort of stealing from black people, it’s just what we are in this country. To confront that, to say, “I was ripped off,” that “I lost,” that “I was loser in this,” is very, very difficult. It really is. We want to feel like winners, you know? We’re not, though.
SH: To kind of get into that; I think [for] a lot of black people of means or education, it can be a little disheartening to be told, “You’re the exception, not the rule.” We live in a country where we’re told hard work pays off, and for people who are black and have worked hard and it’s paid off, it’s easy to want to buy into that.
TNC: And here’s something scarier: Not only are you the exception, you are not equal in terms of financials, in terms of wealth, to other people who you are sitting around. You’re an exception compared to black people, but in the broader sense —
SH: Right. You brought up the Obama daughters in [the piece] and I think a lot of people still, even though you said it, find it difficult to imagine that they are not equal to the Bush daughters.
TNC: Yeah. I mean, that’s just true though.
SH: In what way?
TNC: How far does the Bush money go back? It’s just true. They just aren’t. Listen, the Obamas have more money than anybody in this room, OK? Let’s just stipulate that. But they’re, like, rich. You know what I mean? Marian Robinson: She wasn’t rich…They don’t have generational wealth, it’s not compounding. There’s a big difference. If I one day — and I hope to — have a million-dollar salary, that will be very nice. Obviously, it would have been a lot nicer if my great-grandfather had had one too, and then my grandfather, then my father. I’m not talking about you, obviously, Shani, I’m not being condescending here — do you not understand the difference between the Rothschilds and somebody that just wins the lottery? They’re not the same person. That’s not the same sort of resources. On some level you have to conclude — and I hate to say this — that there’s a kind of willful thickheadedness.
SH: On whose part?
TNC: I think on all of our parts, in fact. I’ll just talk from the black perspective. It’s hard from the black perspective because, OK: You’ve just told me that I’ve been conned, I’ve been had, and, well, we live in a democracy, we’re not the majority. So, what the hell? What am I supposed to do with that? It really creates some impossible existential dilemmas — to say nothing of people who profit from it. In America, we sell this doctrine of rugged individualism, but when you understand the history of housing in this country, this is is social planning. This is not rugged individualism. This is not a bunch of people went out in the suburbs and said, “OK, here. We’re going to have a suburb.” This is planned at the highest levels of government and black people were cut out of it. To be told that your piece of the pie out here in whatever suburb you live in is not simply the result of your individual efforts … yeah, you worked hard. You worked hard, but somebody else backed you and if the government hadn’t done x, y, and z for you — which they did not do for this other group of people — then what would you be now? I think it goes even deeper than this. [James] Baldwin talks about how — excuse my language — niggers are like the abyss. Like this is the bottom to which you can never fall. It offers a kind of psychological reinforcement: “I’ll never be down here.”
If we were ever truly equal, it kind of would be chaos in this country. It really would. It would be, “Listen, you really, really have to compete with everybody now. There’s no reinforcement. There’s no stipulation. There’s no place where your grandchildren or great-grandchildren will never sink.” That really is the space black people occupy right now.
SH: Part of the implicit defense of this piece is that it doesn’t really focus on slavery. Those claimants are long dead. Rather, it focuses on housing discrimination. Since the 1940s, many other groups besides African-Americans — non-white immigrants in particular — have been suffocated by government plans and white supremacy. So, why not a case for reparations for them?
TNC: They’re free to make their case too. This is a case for black people. Other people have said, too, “What about Native Americans?” Somebody should make their case then and then it should be judged on its merits. But that is not an argument against this case.
SH: Is welfare reparations?
TNC: No. No, no, no. See, now you’re just — I know what you’re doing here.
SH: I’m not doing anything! I’m just asking questions.
TNC: Is that a Twitter question? You got that off Twitter, didn’t you? BuzzFeed loves Twitter.
SH: Isn’t Twitter your favorite place?
TNC: Yeah. It’s my favorite place. No, to take your questions seriously, welfare was explicitly designed to keep black people out. That was how welfare was set up at first. Everybody knows this. All of that New Deal legislation — social security, welfare, GI bill — all of that was engineered to keep black people out. The way our politics worked was such that the South exerted quite a bit of control over what Congress did because they were a bloc, and their highest priority was white supremacy. That’s not me saying it. You can quote Theodore Bilbo, senator from Mississippi, literally saying this, John Rankin from Mississippi literally saying this. At the time that all of these programs came about, welfare being among them, it was of the highest priority that black people be kept out.
What people have to understand is part of the stipulation of this country since its founding is that black people aren’t part of it. If you look at the literature of the anti-slavery moderates in the early 19th century, at their most beneficent, what they’re talking about is freeing black people and then shipping them out. Kicking black people out. There’s a strain of this that extends all the way up until today, I would make the argument, through our voter ID [laws], that “you aren’t really part of this.” So, when black people suddenly become eligible for welfare, when black people become part of the social safety net, that throws the whole thing into question. Well, it must be a handout then. There’s probably some sort of suit that can be brought forth about welfare by how we were cut out from it, in fact. I guess that’s part of my argument.
SH: So, getting back to slavery: Do you think descendants of slaves deserve reparations?
TNC: Yes. Mostly, as the argument makes, because it didn’t stop there. We had this great moment — Reconstruction — for a brief, brief second where America said maybe we can be a new country, maybe we can imagine ourselves as a new country. And then we stopped. Had that happened, I don’t think anybody would be talking about reparations today. There are moments like this all the time. I’m sorry, I have all this history in my head, because I had to inhale so much of it for this. [But] you start seeing that — and this is one of the core arguments of the piece — as much as we love this country, on some existential level, keeping black people out is part of our identity. Keeping them over here in this place is part of our identity. It’s in our bones. As much as I support the reparations claim and I make the reparations claim, I think it’s deeply important for Americans to realize that, to come to grips with that.
SH: So what’s a black person to do?
TNC: Support H.R. 40. Seriously, I don’t know. Support H.R. 40. Vote.
SH: And what’s a white person to do?
TNC: Support H.R. 40. And support politics that support H.R. 40. A lot of people have been like, “Well, you’re really depressing these days. Stop depressing me, Ta-Nehisi. Could you dance? Tell a joke? Please?” Yeah, I know, I’m pretty dark. The thing is, I’m not religious at all, but you have these sort of existential moments where you’re like, OK, you know what, we’re all going to die one day. Everything ends — all republics, all empires, all countries, all whatever. It all ends. All family lines. Everything dies out at some point. While I think that this presents a dire picture [and] I think we have issues, on some level as an individual, you have to decide how to live morally.
People ask me, “How do you feel? What do you expect to happen?” I don’t expect anything to happen. I just want to be judged on the side of people who said something. When it’s counted up, I don’t want to be one of those people that closed my ears. When you say, “What is a black person to do? What is a white person to do?” You have to recognize your limits. You’re not going to save America, not as an individual. You’re just not. You have trouble saving yourself. I’m trying to save my son, you know? That’s trouble enough. You do what you can. There’s no sort of guarantee of victory at all and you have to make peace with that, just like there’s no guarantee of immortality at all. You have to make your peace with that, and then live, enjoy your life.
SH: You say reparations is seen as sort of a fringe thing — up until now, at least — and really a lot of this piece, to me, just seemed to be laying the case for black separatism or black nationalism. If you’ve decided, well there’s nothing I can do but take care of myself or my family or my people — I know you grew up in a household that had a lot of afrocentric [views] — how does that fit into this piece?
TNC: I think the big problem with that is that black people are American. African-Americans are Americans. It’s their country. It’s our country. How can we go somewhere else? Where? It’s ours. It’s not perfect, but it’s ours. It mistreats us, but it’s ours. That’s the bottom line. We fight and we hope for a more equitable country, but it is ours. We are American. African-Americans are more American than most groups of white people in this country. How many ethnic groups can trace their lineage back to 1619? We’ve been here since the beginning. It’s very difficult for me to imagine that. We’re talking about centuries now.