An exceptional nation of exceptional acts

June 21, 2016

Ta-Nehesi Coates was born in Baltimore in 1975 to a Black Panther father who was a librarian at Howard University, and a mother who taught him to read at age four and to write as an examination of conscience when he got into trouble.

The only one of seven siblings without a college degree, Coates is an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, has taught writing at MIT, and currently teaches at City University of New York.In the memoir written for his 15-year-old son, Between the World and Me, Coates claims fear was the reason for the violence, belligerent music, and extravagant dress of black youth in his childhood.

It was his father’s fear—for Ta-Nehisi—that caused him to punish his son with a belt. His father said, “The police can beat him, or I can.”

Coates matriculated at Howard, which he calls “The Mecca,” where he read Malcolm X, Chancellor Williams, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey, among many black thinkers. He was constructing a dream of universal black nobility, a black “trophy case.” Coates meant this dream to counter “The Dream,” which white Americans use to separate themselves from humanity.

History teachers challenged Coates’ view. Did black skin really convey nobility? What about blacks who’d practiced slavery? He came to see himself as human, and whiteness as based on power rather than ethnicity. He answered Saul Bellow’s quip, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” with, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”


 He received wide notice for his June 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” The case is that American wealth is based on white supremacy, and reparations are required to make black victims whole. Kidnapped Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. At the beginning of the Civil War, about one-third of Southerners were slaves, 70 percent in some counties. A quarter of white Southerners owned slaves, and one-third of cotton states’ income came from slavery.

In 1840, slave-produced cotton constituted 59 percent of US exports. Because US revenue derived from tariffs, slavery bought the abolitionist states’ industrial infrastructure.

Jim Crow, the period of segregation between Reconstruction and the mid-20th century, skirted the Thirteenth Amendment. Sharecropping meant black farmers worked white land, receiving a portion of the revenue. Share sizes were arbitrary and volatile, while sharecroppers bought supplies on credit from the landowners. The family of Clyde Ross, featured in Coates’ article, lost their farm through similar manipulations to whites with whom they did business.

The Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson affirmed the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Combined with disenfranchisement, it transferred wealth from black pockets to white. Through taxes, blacks provided superior schools and other services to whites. One egregious difference in service was the lack of police protection for the 3,446 blacks lynched between 1882 and 1968.

The Federal Housing Authority guaranteed home loans, but neighborhoods thought to be “unstable” were mapped in red and home loans there were not guaranteed. The chief criterion was the presence of black families.

Banks followed suit, denying loans to black families. Speculators bought houses in “unstable” neighborhoods, and sold contracts-for-deed to black buyers at inflated prices. Interest was higher, and buyers often lost their homes to foreclosure. The speculators then re-sold the houses. One speculator said that if you weren’t making $100,000 a year ($700,000 today), you were loafing.

In 2012, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $175 million to settle claims that it steered black home buyers towards subprime loans. The bank recruited endorsements from black celebrities and held “generational wealth-building” seminars, while referring to their products as “ghetto loans” and black customers as “mud people.”

Although the reason for reparations is to make citizens whole, Coates regards society’s acknowledgement that it has done wrong as primary. “I propose taking our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard...We look at ourselves as pioneers in terms of liberty, in terms of freedom, in terms of enlightenment values. I firmly believe that reparations is a chance to be pioneers.”

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