minority reports

The Atlantic‘s Coates discusses his epic reparations cover story

BuzzFeed Deputy Editor in Chief Shani Hilton interviewed Coates on Tuesday morning
May 27, 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates believes America owes reparations to African Americans. Not for slavery, though the problem stems from that. But from the systematic shutting out of black people from the American dream: a house to call their own.

Coates’ persuasive, heartbreaking, 16,000-word cover story in the June issue of The Atlantic on reparations is already creating buzz, so it makes sense that he spoke about the piece at BuzzFeed’s offices in Manhattan on Tuesday morning.

Coates was interviewed by BuzzFeed Deputy Editor in Chief Shani Hilton in a conversation that spanned redlining to race relations to how the mainstream media’s coverage of such issues often lacks relevant historical context.

The discussion began with redlining, the practice of keeping African Americans from obtaining mortgages through banks. Coates pointed out that this was not covert discrimination–it was national policy. The National Housing Act of 1934 delineated majority-black neighborhoods as high-risk places where it wasn’t secure for banks to make loans.

This led to a preying on black people by financiers who would scare whites in black neighborhoods into selling low, and then offer black people a “contract mortgage” for many times the original price. These contract mortgages, described in Coates’ piece, often had disastrous terms: One missed payment would mean the homeowners lost their house, their down payment, and all their previous payments. And the homeowners had no equity until the mortgage was paid in full.

Coates said Americans have this idea that all success is due to “rugged individualism.” But he said, “When you understand the history of housing in this country …this is social planning. This is not rugged individualism. This is not a bunch of people went out to the wilderness and said okay, we’re claiming this suburb. This was planned at the highest levels of government. And black people were cut out of it.”

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“The Case for Reparations” tells the story of Clyde Ross, who fought this system in Chicago–and who was interviewed by The Atlantic on the same subject in 1972. Coates said that people think of the magazine as being mainstream and of reparations as being fringe; he said that “they think it’s shocking that a story like this is on the cover. In fact, though, internally, folks at The Atlantic always talk about our roots”–the publication was founded in 1857–“as being started by abolitionists. And there’s very much a feeling that this story is in our tradition, this was the work we were supposed to be doing.”

Coates noted that the magazine brought a lot of resources to the story, sending him out to Chicago with a film crew to do two mini documentaries and taking time to create interactive maps for the Web version of the article.

The reparations piece has broken readership records on The Atlantic‘s website. When asked why, Coates said, “Racism sets people’s hair on fire,” whatever side of the political spectrum they fall on.

Some of those readers, however, have felt that the piece is incomplete. Hilton said that there were other communities, non-white immigrants primarily, affected by discriminatory housing practices like steering, where realtors persuade minorities to look elsewhere so that they don’t bring a community’s property values down. She asked why Coates’ case for reparations didn’t include them.

“They’re free to make their case, too. This is a case for black people.” Coates said, adding that some people have brought up Native Americans, but “somebody should make that case then. That is not an argument against this case. If I’m driving drunk down the street and I plow through three families, the fact that the first family has a case doesn’t mean the third family doesn’t.”

Coates’ case is actually not just about reparations, though that’s how the article is framed. It’s also about what he calls the “willful thickheadedness” that Americans–all Americans, not just white people–have about race relations in the United States. In Coates’ view, slavery is inseparable from the establishment of American democracy. It was slaves and their work developing the cotton crop that powered America’s economic engine and enabled it to become an independent country. “If you don’t know black history, it’s impossible for you to understand America,” he said. “That history is torture, rape, maiming–and it didn’t end” after slavery was abolished. There was lynching, he said, and then “government policies that ensured black people stayed in certain areas; basically, reservations.”

He said he’s most disheartened not by that history, but by the journalists and bloggers writing about society. “The level of ignorance of people charged with writing about politics in this country is astonishing. It’s criminal. Their laptops, their computers, their Twitter should be taken away immediately.”

He continued, “How can you not know about redlining? . . .This is a problem for our democracy, because these are the people who’ve gone to our elite institutions, with access to our elite media. And I don’t know what the elite media is doing if people who work there don’t understand the basic facts of the history of their country. That’s what’s depressing.”

Cover thumbnail courtesy of BuzzFeed.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network’s LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women’s issues ran for 15 years.