- Ta-Nehisi Coatescritically acclaimed writer. He is the author of several books, including We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.
We speak with renowned writer Ta-Nehisi Coates on the lasting legacy of American slavery, how the national dialogue about reparations has progressed in the past five years and his testimony in favor of reparations at a historic hearing last month, in which he took direct aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Coates says, “It is absolutely impossible to imagine America without enslavement.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: As we continue to talk about the call for slavery reparations, we spend the rest of the hour with Ta-Nehisi Coates, who testified at Wednesday’s hearing. He’s the author of several books, including We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. He is also the author of Between the World and Me, for which he received the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. He is now a writer-in-residence at New York University.
AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi’s seminal 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” helped spur new calls to make amends for slavery. Today he joins us for the hour.
Ta-Nehisi, thanks so much for being with us. Can you talk about the origins of this hearing, the first in a dozen years, and the bill that is being considered and what you hope to come of this? Did you ever dream that this is what would come of—well, it’s been going on for decades, but five years ago you intensified the discussion with—your Atlantic piece on reparations?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, it’s been—I have to be honest, it’s been absolutely fascinating to watch. I think the thing that people need understand about the fight for reparations is precisely how old it is. I mean, this goes back to Belinda Royall, who sued the estate of Isaac Royall back in, you know, postcolonial times, after the American Revolution; up through Callie House in the 19th century; into James Forman Sr., who was a leader at SNCC, making his demand for reparations; up through N’COBRA and people like professor Charles Ogletree. So, this is a long, long fight. And when I published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, my hope was to just make my entry into that fight. I didn’t expect it to quite get here. I think this is definitely progress. I don’t think this is anywhere near the end goal, but I think yesterday was progress.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Ta-Nehisi, you made, of course, a number of extremely powerful remarks during your testimony, among which you said, quote, “It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.” So, for our international audience and others who aren’t quite as familiar with this history, could you explain what you mean by that—it’s impossible to understand America without this inheritance?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, sure. You know, the two great crimes in American history is obviously the destruction of this country’s Native American—the near destruction, I should say, not the destruction—the near destruction of this country’s Native American population, the theft of their land, and on to work that land was brought in native Africans into this country, beginning in 1619. Those twin processes profoundly altered the shape of the world and made this country possible. Obviously, first of all, you know, the land on which America and Americans currently reside was the land of Native Americans, but the people brought in to break that land just transformed it.
The profits derived from slavery are more extreme than I think are commonly acknowledged. As I said yesterday, in 1860, the combined worth of the 4 million enslaved black people in this country was some $3 billion, nearly $75 billion in today’s share of dollars. Cotton, in 1860, was this country’s largest export—not just its largest export, it was the majority of exports out of this country. So, from a financial perspective, just the economics of it, it’s absolutely impossible to imagine America without enslavement.
The onset of the Civil War, the greatest preponderance, the greatest population per capita of millionaires and multimillionaires in this country was in the Mississippi River Valley. It wasn’t in Boston, wasn’t in Chicago, wasn’t in New York. The richest people in this country were slaveholders. Most of our earliest presidents were slaveholders. And the fact that they were presidents is not incidental to the fact that they—to their slaveholding. That was how they built their wealth. That was how Thomas Jefferson built his wealth. That was how George Washington built his wealth. Individual slaves were the equivalent of, say, owning a home today. They were people, but turned into objects of extreme wealth. So, just from the economic perspective, there’s that.
And just forgive me for extending a little bit, but there’s also the fact of what America actually is culturally. Our greatest export today is our entertainment, and it is our culture. It is impossible to imagine American culture without jazz, without the blues, without hip-hop. It’s impossible to imagine American cinema without, regrettably, Birth of a Nation. It’s impossible to imagine American literature at this point without James Baldwin, without Toni Morrison. All of these are the primary, secondary, tertiary fruits of slavery. And so, if you strip slavery out of America, if you strip black people out of America, you really don’t have an America.
AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, I wanted to go to a clip of you speaking at this historic hearing yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee chair, answering Chairman Jerry Nadler.
TA-NEHISI COATES: It’s been said, I think, or alluded to, repeatedly throughout this conversation, that somehow wealthy African Americans are immune to these effects. But in addition to the wealth gap that’s cited, one thing that folks should keep in mind is that, quote-unquote, “wealthy African Americans” are not the equivalent of, quote-unquote, “wealthy white Americans” in this country. The average—the average African-American family in this country making $100,000, which is, you know, decent money, actually lives in the same kind of neighborhood that the average white family making $35,000 a year lives in. That is totally tied to the legacy of enslavement and Jim Crow and the input and the idea in the mind that white people and black people are somehow deserving of different things.
If I injure you, the injury persists even after I actually commit the act. If I stab you, you may suffer complications long after that initial actual stabbing. If I shoot you, you may suffer complications long after that initial shooting. That’s the case with African Americans. There are people well within the living memory of this country that are still suffering from the after-effects of that.
REP. JERROLD NADLER: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking at the hearing. And with that, I want to go back to just a clip of what the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
MAJORITY LEADER MITCH McCONNELL: I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We’ve, you know, tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to point out that the question that he was asked, about reparations, about apologies for slavery, was asked by a young African-American reporter named Eva McKend of Spectrum. His comment is being heard everywhere, but the reporter herself is only being talked about on Democracy Now! And the significance of this, Ta-Nehisi? And then, if you can talk about the bill that’s being considered? I mean, you yourself said, when you started your historic piece five years ago on “The Case for Reparations,” you yourself weren’t convinced.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. And, first of all, I want to thank you for shouting out that reporter. That actually has meaning, because you need a black reporter there in the first place to actually ask the question to set all of this in motion. So that’s true.
No, no, no. I, you know—and to be honest with you, for instance, the previous answer I just gave you on, A, the economics of enslavement and its relationship to this country, I would not have been able to give you that answer. I think—so, when I started in 2014, I actually was, at that point, for reparations, but you’re referring back to something I wrote in 2012, when I was against. I wouldn’t have been able to give you that answer. I didn’t have that level of knowledge. And beyond that, I didn’t have the level of knowledge on how it persisted. I mean, I had a vague sense of segregation, Jim Crow, etc., in the hundred years after, but I didn’t know about redlining, not in that degree of detail. And I didn’t know how this extraction, as I call it, of wealth from the African-American community laundered through the state into the white community through redlining, through the FHA loan program, through the GI Bill. I just didn’t have knowledge of that. And once I saw that, it’s like, wow, this is a persistent pattern of extraction that needs a really, really radical answer. At that point, reparations made total, total sense to me. But I will add that it made sense to plenty of people long before it made sense to me.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ta-Nehisi, could you talk about—I mean, how do you think conversations about reparations in the American public sphere have changed since the publication of your Atlantic piece?
TA-NEHISI COATES: You know, I’m not—you know, that piece got a lot of attention. I’m not totally convinced that that’s why this is happening right now. A, I just, you know, just really want to say again that people have been fighting this battle for a long time, and so it’s like you put drops of water in a glass, and eventually, you know, the glass tips over, and you see some sort of larger effect. I was building on the work—you know, when I published in 2014, only, what, 10, 15 years ago, there had been Randall Robinson’s The Debt, you know, as I mentioned earlier, the efforts of Charles Ogletree. So there have been all of these little sort of efforts that didn’t get the same degree of coverage. That’s the first thing.
And I also think having your first black president followed up by, you know, someone who I’ve referred to as your first white president has had a tremendously radicalizing effect on a lot of people.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about—I mean, this discussion about reparations, immediately, last night, on the talk shows: “What are they talking about? Giving checks? Who exactly would be involved? Who would get the money? How would this be determined?” Go back to when Abraham Lincoln signed a bill emancipating enslaved people, the slave owners around Washington, D.C., being given reparations for each—
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —enslaved person that they freed.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: What was it? $300 a person?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. I can’t remember the number, but, yeah, you’re exactly correct. And in fact, Lincoln offered that to several—this idea of—it was called “compensated emancipation” at the time. And he offered it to several of the border slave states—Delaware, I believe, Maryland, Kentucky also. That was a plan to compensate the actual slaveholders.
And I should say, that’s a global pattern throughout history. The country of Haiti, for having the temerity to actually liberate itself from enslavement, was forced to pay reparations to France, the country that had actually enslaved the people there. So this is a global pattern with people enslaved.
It is only for questions of power that we find ourselves able to countenance the idea that people who have done the enslaving should have been compensated, and that was fine, and not just people who were enslaved, but people who were suffering the effects of that afterwards, should not be compensated.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what are the possible—
TA-NEHISI COATES: I should—I’m sorry, can I just add—can I add just one quick thing also, Amy? This whole thing about who should get a check, and should we cut checks, you know, I understand those questions. That’s great. Those people should support H.R. 40, though, because that’s what H.R. 40 does. It tries to get that figured out, and get that math figured out, and figure out the best way to do it. But if we don’t actually have a study, we can’t actually answer those questions. You can’t ask a doctor to make a diagnosis before there’s an actual examination. Those people who have all of those questions should support H.R. 40. They should be its biggest supporters.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates, I want to go back to some of the enduring legacy of slavery in the U.S. The House Budget Committee held a hearing on poverty in America, and Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, called for a “moral budget,” framing the epidemic of poverty as a, quote, “moral crisis.”
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: It is tragic in a society where our first constitutional duty is to establish justice and promote the general welfare—the general welfare—that we will allow the injustice of poverty—43.5% of people are poverty and low-wealth, and people here who could teach this society—and we would walk away from our constitutional values and walk away from our spiritual values, that tell us that it is dangerous for a nation not to lift up the poor.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. Barber is wearing a sash that says “Jesus was a poor man.” And I just want to point out, so, you’re having this hearing on Juneteenth, and the Budget Committee is having this historic hearing on Juneteenth. And you’re actually speaking at exactly the same time. That hearing culminated three days of the Poor People’s Campaign—of course, picked up from the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life as he led the Poor People’s Campaign. Democracy Now! was there on Monday at the Trinity University when Dr. Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis questioned nine presidential candidates about this issue of the connections of poverty and racism, saying this issue of extreme poverty was not raised once in one of the presidential debates of 2016. Can you talk about this trajectory, from slavery to what we’re describing today?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, again, you know, I think, in this moment, one of the reasons why this sort of—you know, all of these questions, that may have been off of the table in 2016 or off the table in 2008, it’s not that people weren’t raising them. You know, it’s not that people weren’t making the point. But I just think, you know, in reaction to what’s going on to this country, in this country right now, people are just much, much more open, you know?
And in terms of poverty and race in this country, again, you know, one of the things that I really, really wanted to stress is, the level of poverty specifically that you see in the African-American community is not accidental. It’s not accidental. This is part of the process. The process of enslavement involves stealing something from someone. It involves taking something from someone. Jim Crow was theft. First and foremost, it was theft. If I tax you or if tell you you have to be loyal to this country and pledge fealty to its laws, but then I don’t give you the same degree of protection, I don’t give you the same access to resources that I give to another group of people, I have effectively stolen something from you. I have stolen your tax money. I have stolen your fealty. I have stolen your loyalty. So, when the state of Mississippi, for instance, taxes black people and then builds one facility for education and another for—one facility for education for whites and then an inferior facility for blacks, that’s theft. That’s theft. If I build a public pool system and then tell you you can’t use that public pool system, that’s theft.
And so, that is the long history of this country, that doesn’t end, again, conservatively, until 1968. And so, there are people who are very, very much alive who have experienced that, who are suffering the after-effects and effects of that. And that’s what, you know, as far as I’m concerned, the whole movement around reparations is about. And I suspect—I didn’t hear Dr. Reverend Barber’s comments, but I suspect there’s quite a bit of overlap there, too.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask, Ta-Nehisi, about what may be a changing perception of the position that the African-American community in the U.S. is in, and a possible change in what ought to be done about it. A recent survey by the Associated Press found that 52% of Americans believe the government doesn’t put enough resources into improving the conditions of African Americans, but only 30% think the government is obliged to compensate for past racial discrimination. Your response to that, and the distinction between the two?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I think people—again, I think people are—you know, I said this yesterday—I think people are very, very uncomfortable when we start talking about the things in America’s past that do not credit us. Again, we have no problem at all taking credit for the things that people who are no longer here, who were in our past—we have no problem taking credit for their efforts. You know, you take somebody like Mitch McConnell, who does not want to be responsible for enslavement that happened 150 years ago, but, yet and still, wants the right to operate his business or operate his career in a building that was built by enslaved people. And so, we have no problem taking the credit, the benefits for what was done in our past. But when you start talking to people about actually paying that back or actually some sort of evenness around that, you know, a lot of discomfort comes up.
I understand that. I would like to also take only my paycheck and not have to pay my bills. I would like that, too. That would be great, you know? But I think if this idea of patriotism and citizenship is to mean anything, you know, you can’t, as I say, be a fair-weather friend to your country. You can’t decide that your past only matters, you know, that you want to invoke your country as a land of the free, when you want to go invade Iraq, for instance, and then, when you’re being called to be responsible for what made it possible for that country to be called “land of the free” in the first place, to act like you don’t owe anybody anything or you’re not part of it, especially, as I said yesterday, when a lot of this happened in your own lifetime. It isn’t the past. It happened while you were alive. Mitch McConnell was 26 years old by the time the Voting Rights Act was passed. You know, so this is very well within the lifetime of living people today.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Coleman Hughes, the columnist for Quillette, undergraduate at Columbia University, who spoke out against reparations.
COLEMAN HUGHES: I understand that reparations are about what people are owed, regardless of how well they’re doing. I understand that. But the people who are owed for slavery are no longer here, and we are not entitled to collect on their debts. Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims. So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent.
AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, can you respond to Coleman Hughes, who testified at the same hearing that you led off?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, I mean, I think the testimony was that one should not receive payment that would properly be due to the enslaved. But this country is, to this very day, receiving payment that was due to its enslavers. That’s the way inheritance works in this country, however one might feel about that. If I assemble a mass of money, I have the right to pass that on to my kid. My kid has the right to do whatever and then pass it on to their kid. And so, there’s something fundamentally injust if I have secured that money by taking it from one group, and then I pass that money on to my kid. My kid, by the way, continues—continues—to do injustice to the descendants of that other group, and we’re allowed to continually collect.
I don’t want to fall into this trap, and I really, really tried to make this clear yesterday. This didn’t end with enslavement. Reparations isn’t just about enslavement. There was the 250 years of enslavement, that period of theft. After that, there was a hundred years of terror, that period of theft. And, you know, I would argue, in fact, our present system of mass incarceration emerges right out of that.
And so, you know, this notion that a nation somehow only—especially when we’re talking about its damage, that it only lasts through the lifetime of its present generation is clearly ridiculous. The state itself would fall apart if that were true, if all of our treaties were broken when this generation died, if all of our taxes and responsibilities. If we said to pensionnaires, you know, “We will no longer pay you, because the people that made the decisions about those wars are no longer alive,” we would have a huge problem. As I said yesterday, to this very day, or at least, I should say, as recently as 2017, we were paying pensions to the heirs of Civil War widows. I mean, this is tremendous that we would recognize our ties to the past when it comes to certain things, but not other things.
AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, we have to break. And I also want to point out Ta-Nehisi is speaking to us from Washington, D.C., where he testified yesterday, and he’s speaking in front of an image of the Capitol, which was built by enslaved people. Ta-Nehisi Coates, writer-in-residence at New York University, author of a number of books, including We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, that includes his “Case Against [sic] Reparations”—his “Case for Reparations.” We’ll be back with Ta-Nehisi in a minute.