You Must Remember This: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case For Reparations,” in The Atlantic, is a 15,000-word piece that argues passionately and clearly that America needs to reckon with 400 years of systematic racism and laws that have disproportionately affected the black community. The hype behind it is massive, in magazine terms. It was even promoted with a trailer.

While The Atlantic does historically like to ask big questions in its cover stories — the end of men, women and being single, women and having it all — this piece transcends its provocation by showing, through rigorous research and evidence, that you can’t just sit there and declare racism over. The country still wears its scars.

How to even begin with this topic? Coates, who wrote about the initial spark of this piece on his blog, finds a narrative center with the story of Clyde Ross, the son of a sharecropper who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1947: “He came to Chicago in 1947 and took a job as a taster at Campbell’s Soup. He made a stable wage. He married. He had children. His paycheck was his own… Only one item was missing—a home, that final badge of entry into the sacred order of the American middle class of the Eisenhower years.”

In 1961, Ross bought a house. Or so he thought: “Ross was not really a homeowner. His payments were made to the seller, not the bank. And Ross had not signed a normal mortgage. He’d bought ‘on contract’: a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting — while offering the benefits of neither.” This was buttressed by the Federal government’s development of the Federal Housing Administration, and the FHA’s development of private mortgages, which gave realtors the means to essentially segregate their neighborhoods.

Fed up, Ross joined up with the Contract Buyer’s League in 1968. They demanded payments for relief, or in Coates’ terms: “They were charging society with a crime against their community.”

The story of Ross is just the beginning, though. As Michelle Dean noted at Gawker, Coates has the soul of a historian, and in a mere 15,000 words, he sheds a light on the country’s history of systematic, federal racism, contextualizing where things come from when you see a ghetto, when you hear a politician paint the black community in America with a broad, often-racist brush. There are stories behind dilapidated buildings, tales of people’s labor being used for malfeasant ends, how money and property have been stolen from a people for 400 years. He is talking about “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

History feels key with Coates’ piece. It’s easy for the right to argue, these days, that racism doesn’t exist (see: black president), feminism has won (see: Hillary, Plan B’s available OTC), and various other minority issues are solved, now that the repressive systems of, say, 50 years ago have been loosened. But the institutional memory of this country is very short, like we’re stuck in our own version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. It’s a marvel how Coates can connect the America of 400 years ago to what was happening in America only 50 years ago, a mere speck of time. By doing this work, he’s showing how discrimination, in whatever form, leaves wounds and scars. There are stories behind people’s scars, but when you’re speaking in punditry, or at a cocktail party, or just to the guy on the street, it’s easy to forget that fact. We shouldn’t forget.