The Case for Reparations

For this month’s equity resource, Equity Committee member Ellen Block recommends “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Written by Coates in 2014, this article begins and ends with the story of Clyde Ross, a Black man who grew up in the 1920s in Jim Crow Mississippi. The son of sharecroppers whose family suffered a series of injustices including unlawful seizure of their property, he joined the military as a way out of poverty and the ever-constant threat of lynching. Ross moved to Chicago after WWII, got married, had children, and found steady work. His daily life was no longer characterized by the overt racism he had experienced in the Jim Crow South – he saw his future, and that of his children, unfold brightly ahead of him. But, when Ross bought a home on contract on Chicago’s West Side, the racism inherent in predatory lending policies, redlining, and white flight meant that his family’s future was far from secure. The once integrated middle-class neighborhood of North Lawndale became a poor segregated one, and Ross’ home, which he bought in 1961 and lived in for over 30 years, did not turn out to be a lucrative nest egg that could help his family out of poverty, but rather a symbol of his community’s entrenched poverty.

For anyone interested in understanding how centuries of slavery and decades of overt and covert racist housing policies has impacted Black families in America, Coates’ now-famous essay carefully lays the groundwork of that history. He explains how Redlining practices, which marked some neighborhoods as desirable and others as hazardous, and predatory mortgages of the mid-20th century, cemented the segregation of American cities and conspired to keep most Black families from realistically being able to achieve the American dream of social mobility. While his article focuses on the Chicago housing market, Minneapolis’ history is no better (see fellow Tangletown resident Kirsten Delegard’s project Mapping Prejudice).

It is often difficult to comprehend the lasting impacts of structural racism. The powerful thing about “The Case for Reparations” is that it helps readers understand how U.S. policy (and the resulting theft it allowed) has reverberated through generations of Black families. At this particular historical moment, when several states are legislating against even teaching young people about structural racism, the idea of Reparations certainly seems a long way off. But, as Coates has argued, we should at least discuss what has been taken from Black people in America. He writes, “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” 

Read the article here or listen as a podcast here.