In his remarkable essay, The Case for Reparations, recently published in The Atlantic, and an appearance on legendary journalist Bill Moyers' Moyers & Company, Ta-Nehisi Coates distills the ways in which American history has distorted our understanding of contemporary race relations.
White supremacy, he reminds us, is as integral to the American story as guns and apple pie. And in his piece, he dismantles many of the myths and lies about American history and our democratic system, including tales, invoked by presidents and civil rights leaders alike, that the black community can be saved simply by hard work and exemplary behaviour.
"By erecting a slave society," Coates observes, "America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy."
Deep reporting on the life of Clyde Ross, who escaped one kind of bondage in Mississippi only to become victim of predatory lending practices in Chicago during the 1950s, offers a glimpse into institutional obstacles confronting blacks during and after the high tide of racial segregation.
The debate over reparations predates the modern civil rights movement and can be traced to enslaved Africans who, at times successfully, petitioned for freedom and pensions from British and American courts. In the Civil War's aftermath, former bondswoman Callie House launched a heroic, albeit unfulfilled, quest to gain government pensions for former slaves.
The promise of "40 acres and a mule," Coates argues, proved illusory for black folks, and "having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices."
"They were terrorized."
The case for reparations rests not simply on past injury during slavery, or the century of Jim Crow that followed it. The reparations debate is fundamentally shaped by the relationship between American democracy and white supremacy in our contemporary age. Our nation's racist culture grew out of democracy's intimate relationship with racial slavery and economic exploitation.
As Coates powerfully illuminates, the narrative of black history is not simply one of dogged triumph over racial violence, poverty and misery. A more nuanced and honest accounting of American history reveals the ways in which, at every turn, black life has been, and remains, subjugated by institutional, political and legal barriers that have not only prevented black advancement but robbed blacks of wealth, land, wages and citizenship.
The saga continues in unabated residential segregation, predatory lending practices and a national obsession to deny the very existence of racial discrimination.
Since the civil rights movement's heroic period, black scholars, activists and politicians have tackled the reparations debate from various angles, as historian Blair L.M. Kelley notes. Coates acknowledges this, but makes a case for Rep. John Conyers' long-standing bill that would sponsor a congressional study of reparations as a starting point.
Although such a bill stands no chance of passing in our current political climate, it serves as an important marker for discussion. Black oppression in America is unique and unprecedented, both in the length of historic bondage and subsequent servitude. Thus, it requires unique solutions, something reparations acknowledge.
In a very real sense, the history so cogently outlined contains very few surprises for scholars and students of African-American history.
But in the Obama age, where the fact of a black first family frequently muffles the national conversation on race and democracy, Americans need a primer on why race matters now more than ever. This includes young black folk, who are at times confused or ambivalent about the way in which the seemingly distant past connects to their contemporary lives.
A candid discussion of reparations will ultimately force us to "imagine a new country," observes Coates, in a note of hard-earned optimism in an otherwise unfailingly sober historical and political assessment of race in 21st-century America.
This "new" America requires coming to terms with the old. For many whites, and not just a few blacks, this means abandoning comforting myths about racial progress and upward mobility hard facts disprove. Denial, that long-cherished American practice, is no longer an attractive option, either. Coming to terms with America's tortured and ongoing racial history means unmasking the roots of contemporary inequalities that make the era of Jim Crow less a memory of some distant past than an earlier manifestation of our current predicament.
And the most important impact of The Case for Reparations may be pedagogical: by reminding all Americans, irrespective of race, of the ways in which segregation, violence and inequality remain an as enduring part of our national legacy as heroic dreams of freedom, democracy and citizenship.
Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root.com, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a Tufts University history professor.