Ta-Nehisi Coates revisits case for reparations, five years after landmark essay

Victoria Bekiempis and Oliver Laughland in New York
Photograph: NBC NewsWire/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s watershed essay The Case for Reparations was published in June 2014, the idea of financial recompense for the descendants of slaves was thrust to the forefront of US public discourse.

Coates’s 15,000-word article in the Atlantic contended that nearly every institution tied to American history, public and private alike, plundered resources and wealth from African Americans. This “piracy” overwhelmingly enriched white Americans while bolstering racist institutions, enabling oppression to continue from the civil war’s conclusion until the present.

Now, five years after Coates’s essay was published, the first congressional hearing on reparations in a decade will take place today, on 19 June, or Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the US. Coates and the actor Danny Glover, who has long voiced support for reparations, are poised to testify at the House hearing.

Related: Reparations: Democrats renew debate over how to heal the legacy of slavery

While it had some detractors, Coates’s essay nonetheless helped reframe the perception of reparations, which had for decades been considered a bold but fringe idea that was sometimes the punchline of jokes.

The former Democratic congressman from Michigan, John Conyers, first introduced a bill that sought to establish a reparations commission, with the aim to simply explore what a program might entail, three decades ago in 1989.

The legislation was reintroduced every congressional session with little to no progress.

Related: To fight racism, we need to think beyond reparations | Bhaskar Sunkara

“John Conyers tried for years to get a bill,” said the veteran civil rights campaigner the Rev Jesse Jackson. “But there has been a refusal even to study it. It’s only if you study it then you can begin to approximate reality.”

Black families have an average net worth of $17,100, a tenth of the average accumulated wealth of white households, according to US government statistics. Economists routinely point to the legacy of slavery as a starting point to explain the wealth gap.

Although Coates’s essay sparked waves of adulation in the media, less than two years later, during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary race, the issue was completely absent from debates.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ruled out a program of targeted reparations during the campaign. It had also been overlooked by America’s first African American president, Barack Obama.

But this year, in a hotly contested primary season that has seen more than 20 candidates seek the Democratic nomination for president ahead of the 2020 election, the issue has risen to the surface once again.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have voiced support for the idea of compensating descendants of slaves, though their ideas on how it should be done vary dramatically. Sanders has staunchly opposed race-focused programs. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have supported universal initiatives to help close the wealth gap for lower- and middle-income Americans. Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro have discussed a taskforce to study possible race-specific reparations. Marianne Williamson has mentioned a $100bn fund to pay slaves’ descendants directly.

Jackson, who campaigned on the issue during his runs for president in 1984 and 1988, insisted that this in and of itself was a positive, if long overdue, step forward.

“There was never an attempt to repair the damage done to a people,” Jackson said. “Even 40 acres and a mule was just talk. Even then, the few who got it were driven off their property.”

The Texas Democratic representative Sheila Jackson Lee, the resolution’s new sponsor following Conyers’ resignation, introduced the measure again in 2019. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in Congress, said in February that she favors a reparations study.

Booker has also secured at least one dozen co-sponsors for his Senate reparations bill, which would launch a commission to study slavery’s impact on African Americans – and come up with possible ways to repay descendants, according to the Root.

Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a congressional representative of New York, supported reparations in a discussion with Coates this year.

Following a request for comment, an assistant to Coates said he wasn’t adding any more interviews to his schedule. But in a recent interview with the New Yorker, he expressed optimism about how the dialogue on reparations has shifted.

“I think people have stopped laughing, and that is really, really important,” Coates said. “Does it mean reparations tomorrow? No, it doesn’t. Does it mean end of the fight? No, it doesn’t. But it’s a step, and I think that’s significant.”