The Case For Repair, Part 1

A Guest Post by N. D. B. Connolly.

Segregation Theater

In honor of his string of excellent essays over the past several years and out of special respect for what many have called his best work to date, I went out and bought a hardcopy of The Atlantic at my local Whole Foods. I bought a chai latte at my area Starbucks, and I posted up to read, in full, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” [1]

Ok. As a synthesis of housing discrimination, property-based white supremacy, and family history, Coates is on fire, as usual. Without question, the historical profession has likely had no better evangelist that Ta-Nehisi Coates, certainly in the last three years and perhaps ever. The essay demonstrates his trademark chronological range. As an actual case for reparations, though, I found myself strangely unsatisfied.

Coates is at his best, I think, in his discussion of Clyde Ross moving from Clarkesdale to Chicago and in his deep contextualizing of Ross’s activism with the Contract Buyers’ League. Coates remains practically unparalleled in his ability to ground structural problems in lived experience. His expansive history of white kleptocracy totally kills. His history of reparations from the late 18th century to the present, and his invocation of John Conyers’s House Resolution 40 (which the esteemed Representative has introduced in vain at every session of Congress for the last 25 years) pummels any notion that reparations should be considered a wacky proposition. [2]

All this said, the piece felt like it went off the rails a bit by the end. Coates powerfully contends that, in terms of reparations, “What I’m talking about is more than past injustices – more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe.” (“Hell yeah!” I thought. “Hush money” hits ‘em especially hard). “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to a spiritual renewal.” Wait, what? A “spiritual renewal”? Who exactly needs renewal? And, while were on it, we can’t possibly expect “a reckoning” through a House Resolution in Congress, can we? The United. States. Congress?

Coates then moved quickly into a discussion of reparations to Israel that felt both strangely out of place and, for him, at least, uncharacteristically predictable in the context of American racial politics (Blacks vs. Jews). His argument suggests, largely by implication, that, when it comes to reparations, we should think about investing within the legal confines of the nation state, as if state building isn’t always racially inflected. The billions of dollars given to the State of Israel by West Germany and the countless individual claims awarded to Holocaust survivors did not bring about “spiritual renewal” – not for all Israelis, certainly not for Palestinians or, more recently, not for African migrants currently suffering in that part of the world. By simply funneling funds into a project based, like every nation, on exclusion and segregation, reparations to Israel helped underwrite new forms of discrimination and brutality.

It seems we’re stuck in yet another moment when nationalism (perhaps even racial nationalism) muddles our ability to see capitalism. The kinds of predations that snuffed out the life chances of so many black Americans were acts of racism within a society structured on white supremacy, of that Coates leaves no doubt. Yet we should not be surprised that such acts, within such a society, end up being widely practiced by African Americans against African Americans in the name of black upward mobility, property ownership, and self-determination.

It seems that, even in the twentieth century, we cannot fully escape the old trope of Africans ostensibly “selling their own people;” it’s a claim that has long vexed the reparations debate. Rather than embrace denial or quibble about how many black slumlords could fit on the head of a pin (albeit a “Colored Only” pin), such realities invite us to think structurally, and to consider how the very dynamics of real estate in America ensured broad black hardship even at the hands of colored people’s supposed race mates. Beryl Satter’s tour de force Family Properties (a Coates favorite), did not just blow open the conversation on the evils of contract selling. It explained how Martin Luther King’s difficulties in organizing tenants in Chicago in 1966 ran principally into resistance from black real estate interests. A collection of property owning ministers and lawyers – Chicago’s civil rights establishment – did not want their tenants riled up, asking for better housing code enforcement and lower rents. Across the country, black landlords, even when they enjoyed pristine reputations as community leaders, were often among the most effective weapons against African American housing reform and progressive black politics more generally. As Race Men and Women and as property owners under a segregated system, black landlords used the politics of racial nationalism to leave many black people vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation.

Coates perhaps did not spend much time talking about such moments because, to be fair, not many urban historians do. Indeed, African history, for a variety of reasons, tends to be further along on questions of land ownership, racism, and the intra-racial class politics that – once “over there” – we more easily call colonialism. Work from the historian Elisabeth Colson going back to 1950s, for instance, explains how colonial officials used strategies of indirect rule and cobbled-together notions of customary law to anoint chiefs and set aside land to govern. These were lands, not unlike black American ghettos, within which black subjects could safely hash out difficult processes of becoming subjects under white rule. [3]  In studies of water rights and cattle herding in Botswana (Pauline Peters, Dividing the Commons, 1994); land development and statecraft in Zimbabwe (Jocelyn Alexander, The Unsettled Land, 2006), or fishing rights on waters between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (David Gordon, Nachituti’s Gift, 2006), one finds so-called chiefs doing the damndest things. They make explicit endorsements of segregation. They consolidate their authority through narratives of ancestral connection to the land. They deliberately displace poor and working folk in interest of self-aggrandizement and in the name of technical development.

Each of these moves has analogues in how black elites attempted to govern in the Jim Crow and post-Jim Crow United States. In 1956, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott having become national news, black property owners fought to keep a lid on the political status quo, not because they were “Uncle Toms” in the abstract, but because their livelihoods depended on their ability to preserve the racial peace. A group of black landlords in Miami, Florida, for instance, issued the following edict in the wake of Montgomery: “1: Join no boycott movement. 2) Obey state laws regarding segregation until they are changed. 3) Support all legal moves by Negro organizations to end segregation.” [4]

The Wealth Creation seminars Wells Fargo used to prey on black Baltimoreans in 2010, the point on which Coates closes his piece, represents an echo of this political tradition. For various levels of financial compensation, black ministers and civil rights luminaries, such as Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley, drew black people into church sanctuaries where many poor families drank down poisonous loan terms. Wells Fargo received much negative press for practicing what was later termed “reverse redlining.” However it made its public relation problems largely disappear by donating millions of dollars to the national NAACP, its former prosecutor.

I submit that such examples strengthen rather than weaken the case for reparations, because they invite you to question and ultimately change the rules of how we profit from poverty and racism, how we rely on segregation.

More to the point they reveal the potential dangers of starting, as Coates does, with a discussion of states and structures, and then ending with a vague sense of “reckoning” or “spiritual renewal”. Coates’s fast-moving, hard-hitting case for reparations spends pages and pages detailing “plunder,” “theft,” “exploitation,” “piracy” and the like, all carried out with the assistance of or freedom from the rule of law. Given that history, the answer for starting a widely corrective move against white supremacy can’t possibly begin with tweaking Israel’s state-making project, can it? Does racial justice really require a congressional study as the kick-off for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (American Style), the functional equivalent of President Bill Clinton’s National Conversation on Race? [5]

You remember that Clinton-era experiment don’t you? In the late 1990s, President Clinton convened a panel of experts to conduct a dialogue on “the problem of race in America.” Not racism, mind you – race. Racism pertains to questions of power, but in addressing “race,” the committee was charged with remedying what was essentially interracial miscommunication. Partly through the magic of their multiculturalism, a decorated panel of three whites, two black Americans, one Asian American and one Mexican American helped initiate some 1,400 conversations involving more than 18,000 people in churches, schools, and town halls in 36 states. The group, which included the eminent historian John Hope Franklin and the labor leader Linda Chavez-Thompson, also marshaled a nation of academic experts to provide structure for these “community dialogues” in hopes of motivating “people to work toward change.”

It was hard to tell what kind of change folks were after. The committee itself stood divided over whether African Americans truly experienced exceptional hardship. They debated whether policing people’s racial language was more important that trying to restart the legislative push and mass movements of the 1960s. John Hope Franklin remained among the committee’s most frustrated members. He blamed the indifference of the national media for the group’s relative ineffectiveness. “The Board’s visibility depended on the willingness of the media to render it visible,” he later professed. [6]

Clearly, visibility has not been a problem for Coates. And it light of the prominence of his voice in print, on the web, and increasingly on cable – ever trumpeting, thankfully, the country’s racial history – perhaps we should  consider the Franklin Commission as a prologue to our hoped for “spiritual renewal.” Just perhaps, in light of the Clinton administration’s actual policy record, we should consider how federally funded research on racial healing leaves government bodies unable to redress actual racial inequality. There was, you may recall, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which expanded the death penalty, eliminated federal grants for inmate education, and offered millions in new grants for states to build new prisons. Then there was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which Clinton proudly proclaimed in 1996 as “break[ing] the cycle of dependency that has existed for millions and millions of our fellow citizens, exiling them from the world of work.” [7] Under that particular reform, poor people enjoyed a maximum of five years of government aid.

Black people and poor people had hardly left the world of work, of course. Black employment, a year before Clinton signed welfare reform into law, had steadily been falling – to half of the near 20% unemployment rate that had ballooned during the Reagan Era, in fact. Continued economic growth promised to (and did) drop it even further. [8] What Clinton’s omnibus crime bill and “welfare to work” program did was funnel increasing numbers of African Americans and working poor people into the criminal justice system. The expansion of the carceral dragnet and the concurrent shrinking of the social safety net drove up incarcerations rates by nearly 25% during Clinton’s time in the White House, with African Americans accounting for a major slice of that increase. Eventually, private prisons became yet another growth industry in the booming economy of the 1990s.

To be clear, Ta-Nehisi Coates is the furthest thing from Bill Clinton. He’s far more courageous and eloquent on questions of white supremacy and is in no position to write or implement policy. There remains, however, a tendency among critics like Coates, presidents like Clinton, and even urban historians like myself to propose modest solutions within established government structures in order to reach the widest possible audience. These are solutions that, at base, preserve the integrity of the Constitution (as currently written) and that rely on persuasion and appeals to the hearts and minds of Americans and immigrants alike, especially when it comes to addressing the condition of black people.

For Coates, Representative Conyers’s HR 40 is the starting point for the new reparations movement. It’s a proposal to spend $8,000,000 to study the impact of segregation and slavery. But as shown in Coates’s own essay – a mere sampling of the scholarship of American racism and exploitation – we at least know enough to get the ball rolling on this reparations thing already. We also know enough to question additional attempts to substitute expert consultation and elite-run committees for more forceful attacks on segregation, lynch law, and mass incarceration.

Immediately after World War II, in an effort to protect the country’s fledgling reputation as the global defender of democracy, President Harry Truman convened his Committee on Civil Rights, the nation’s first. The committee was chaired by Charles Wilson, the chief executive officer at General Electric. Wilson, in one of his first acts as America’s ranking civil rights officer, started dismantling wartime rent controls, attacking the incomes of America’s poor tenants. Rather than pursue allegations of black veterans terrorized by white vigilantes or investigate other hate crimes, Wilson tasked local civil rights boards in the South with investigating “just what civil liberties and constitutionally guaranteed rights are knowingly and deliberately denied that minority group of U. S. citizens…landlords who are subjected to ‘rent control’” [my emphasis]. In the eyes of General Electric’s CEO, landlords represented a minority whose complaints were “concrete, direct and easily ascertainable,” unlike “a very large proportion of the complaints of other un-named minorities [which seem] largely imaginary, visionary, abstract, and unfounded.” [9] One can safely presume Wilson is talking about African Americans there, given the results. Truman’s civil rights commission did little to empower black renters and even less to protect black labor. It did nothing to regulate discrimination by white businesses. And it made no effort at all to challenge the abiding standard of “separate but equal.”

By the 1960s, protest and remarkable personal sacrifices by countless thousands had changed the legislative environment for civil rights. Nevertheless, the constancy of having to work through established government channels seemed to slow the onset of greater racial literacy about various sources of racial inequality. In response to the apparent “urban crisis” of the late 1960s, the Kerner Commission offered one of the most far-reaching indictments of white America ever given. As the commission’s most cited line rings out, “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Yet, even in making such a compelling charge, the Kerner Commission refused to implicate the federal government as one of the chief enablers of housing segregation and chronic black poverty.
Clinton’s National Conversation Race developed under a similar impulse, trying to keep the government out of the crosshairs in an effort to reach the widest possible audience. For Coates, the government clearly remains front and center, but beyond an admonition to approve Conyers’s resolution for further study, there’s actually nothing else, at least nothing right now, for the government to do.

I do not mean downplay the importance of education, information, and reasoned debate. Is there, as Coates points out, a general white denial about this country’s indebtedness to slavery and segregation? No doubt. Should we continue to bring that history to the fore? With our dying breath. As an historian, I’ve given my adult life to that proposition. But I quarrel with the notion that some vague sense of renewal and reckoning is what we need, even if it’s driven by $8,000,000 in new research in the humanities and social sciences.



[3] Elisabeth Colson, “The Impact of the Colonial Period on the Definition of Land Rights,” in Victor Turner, ed. Colonialism in Africa, 1870-1960, Volume 3: Profiles of Change: African Society and Colonial Rule (Cambridge University Press: 1971),

[4] Miami News, 14 June 1956.


[6] John Hope Franklin, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giraux, 2005), 363.


[8] My thanks to Dorian Warren for this analysis of the Current Population survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[9] Correspondence from Charles Wilson, Chairman Civil Rights Committee to unnamed party living at 977 S.W. 5th Street, Miami, 29 January 1947, President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, 1947, Proquest Twentieth Century Black Freedom Struggles.

NOTE:  See The Case For Repair, Part 2.  This post has been edited.

N. D. B. Connolly is Assistant Professor of History and Co-Director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program at the Johns Hopkins University.


About LaDale Winling

LaDale Winling is assistant professor of history at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His book project, Building the Ivory Tower, examines the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. Learn more about him at Urban Oasis.

20 thoughts on “The Case For Repair, Part 1

  1. Selective reparations is what Ta-Nehisi Coates is arguing. So, let’s forget American Indians and treaties not honored or Chinese American slave labor on the Rail Road’s.

    1. The goal of his piece was to chart the specific relationship between institutionalized white supremacy and African-Americans. I’m sure he would agree that other groups could mount cases for reparations on their own terms, but those specific arguments, charting those histories, is outside the scope of his piece.

  2. Slavery of all races has been since time began as we know it. Quiet as its keep, slavery still exists in more ways than one.
    Children all around the world and that includes the United States practice sex slavery, I would include our work environments are slave shops. This madness won’t stop until mankind has a change of heart. It is a spiritual depravity that is at work here, yes, good against evil.

    With respect to reparations, personally I would say give that a rest. What’s done is done if our Native American brothers are not respected in this country and the “government” signed treaties making grandoise promises which they had no intention of keeping what makes Coates think is the difference now?

    Hatred, racism, biggotry and any other description is wrong on so many levels. What I believe should happen now is for all people to earnestly seek to focus on why this division still exists and further to find the true divide (capitalism) and level the playing field for all people.

    There is no reason on God’s green earth for anyone to be hungry, homeless or deprived of education. The hearts of men towards each other must change .

  3. Hello. Freshly Pressed brought me here. I find it strange and disturbing that Black Americans would benefit from separation and/or segregation at the expense of other Black Americans.

    If Black Americans want to separate, then bye & be gone, but not at my expense. It’s hard enough out here with white racism and all.

    [Disclaimer: I’m a Black American.]

  4. I think the “spiritual renewal” is in the other direction. Reparations offers a chance for the oppressor to save their own soul, not that of the oppressed. That’s certainly how I read it in the context of the Israel-Germany example.

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