On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held the first congressional hearing on reparations in more than a decade. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the 2014 Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations,” was one of the first to testify. Coates began by directly addressing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who on Tuesday said, “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.”
Coates’ response was a catalog of the crimes against black people by the federal government in McConnell’s own lifetime, as well as all of the things that the government pays for that certain individual taxpayers are not directly responsible for.
Here’s what Coates said:
This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance: that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for, but we are American citizens and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the founders, or the Greatest Generation, on the basis of the lack of membership of either group. We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance.
It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery. As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement “shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of America,” so that by 1836, more than 600 million, or more than half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America: 3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined. The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling, nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror. A campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.
It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement. But the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders. And the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs, coup d’etats, and convict leasing; vagrancy laws and debt peonage; redlining and racist G.I. bills; poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism. We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama, and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader. What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation deadbolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Sen. McConnell’s “something”: It was 150 years ago and it was right now. The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women, and there is of course the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share.
The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement and reject fair-weather patriotism. To say that a nation is both its credits and its debts. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is, not whether we will be tied to the “something” of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.
Coates’ opening testimony garnered applause. Later, responding to a question by Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, Coates explained why he felt that H.R. 40, which would create a commission “to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans,” is necessary:
Relatively recently there was a statue guard here in the Capitol that I believe had statues of Gen. Lee and Alexander Stephens, and one has to ask: If in the Capitol, people understood the history of this country, why there would be statues honoring people who led a revolution to destroy it? One would have to ask, if that history were well understood, why in for instance the state of Mississippi, there still was a flag flying, dedicated to people who tried to destroy this country. Why only a couple of years ago we saw the murder of Heather Heyer that was precipitated by a movement to erect a new group of statues and remove the statue of Gen. Lee. And so while it’s been well studied, I don’t know that Americans quite understand it. At this very point you can get at least a plurality of Americans who will tell you that the Civil War was about states’ rights, with no conversation about states’ rights to do what. In terms of the differences in approach today, what I would say is that why we need H.R. 40. … I think the proper thing to do is a) for this body to convene a committee and convene a discussion to study exactly what the damage was and what potential remedy might be offered, and also to convene conversations around the country. Just attendant to that, I also would like to say there’s been a lot of, shall we say shade throwing on the notion of cutting checks. I just want to say, in the spirit of openness, in the spirit of actual study, I don’t think we should necessarily rule out cutting checks. There are people who deserve checks. And I think that actually should be part of the study. We aren’t ruling out any solution. I don’t think we should rule out that one either.
You can watch Coates’ opening testimony in its entirety below: