The Case for Reparations: Ta-Nehisi Coates Visits Yale

“Racism created race,” Coates said. His words echoed soundly in the SSS lecture hall, contributing to a wider discussion about race in America that continues to gain momentum on Yale’s campus and beyond.

On Friday March 27th the Black Student Alliance at Yale, the Yale College Dean’s Office, the Office of the President, and the African American Studies Department hosted a discussion with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic who wrote the nationally-recognized article “The Case for Reparations.”

The discussion pushed against American society’s ignorance and complacency over the fact that this country’s previous slave-based economy played an important role in making it a worldwide powerhouse. Coates argued that America’s economic success both internationally and domestically can trace its origins to the exploitation of Black people. The prosperity of institutions such as Yale owes its success to that old slave-based economy.

Before delving into the economic roots of racial division in America, Coates began the discussion on a personable note by reminding his audience of the country’s racist past through his experiences growing up.  He noted something as simple as the clothing he used were possible threats to his safety: “About two-thirds of my brain was school work and one-third of my brain was concerned with the safety of my body.” Sadly, Coates’ words summarize a reality that many young Black people have to face every day walking home from school. These consequences, as Coates so argued, stem from a long history of economic coercion that Black Americans had to face since the country’s agrarian age.

Throughout the discussion, Coates argued that resources denied to Black people even after emancipation by discriminatory laws have caused the racial divide in contemporary American society. Property, voting, and education were all basic rights and privileges that Black people were historically unable to obtain and remain limited in access to even to this day. Tracing back the economic roots of the racial divide we see today, Coates noted that “if you want to find the wealthiest area in the country in 1860, forget Boston, you go to Mississippi Valley”—a region that had the largest per capita income drawn mainly from cheap slave labor, and remains a region where much of the old wealth comes from the antebellum era.

Still, slavery, according to Coates, was not the only factor that hindered Black people’s socioeconomic progress. The inability to gain valuable property pushed Black people to the side and limited their investment and employment in this country’s capitalist industry. At the end of the discussion, Coates recognized that societal questions should now focus on white American identity and whether or not that identity is tied to the old slaveholding society.

The general opinion of Coates’ discussion was widely receptive. Sana Mojarradi ’18 stated that she enjoyed how “he [Coates] broke down housing discrimination” and how Coates developed certain issues that are not usually discussed from an economic perspective while also appreciating Coates’ bold statements on America’s self-imposed domestic terrorism.

Sydney Young ’18 shared some of the same sentiments, noting that she “liked the way he [Coates] put everything into the perspective of the present and how people like to think about this ideal America to just turn off all the bad things.” Another audience member Birdy Assefa ’18 summed up the discussion by stating that “slavery is the road we took to become a great country” and that acknowledging this will help alleviate the racial divide that continues to plague the United States.

by Oscar Garcia-Ruiz