As I write this, it’s been about three months since the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover story about reparations. That’s not a very long time relative to the span of a human life, but it’s significantly longer than the average lifespan for most Internet #longreads. And indeed, his “The Case for Reparations” has already lived something close to a full life. The initial fugue of praise, critique, and recriminations has long passed; the article has been filed away in the archives. “Reparations” is no longer trending on Twitter.
No surprise there, but it’s a shame to see the moment pass so quickly. Coates would be the first to admit that his essay doesn’t break any new ground conceptually, but it is nonetheless an important and remarkable piece of writing, if for no other reason than because it was necessary. The events of the past couple of weeks are a testament to its necessity, to which Coates alluded earlier this week.
Given what’s happening now in Ferguson, “The Case for Reparations” demands to be revisited. So much of what Coates writes about in his essay—from redlining, to policing, to racial wealth stratification—is crucial to understanding what’s happened in that St. Louis suburb. There are, of course, plenty of other towns in the United States that could serve as worthy case studies in the enduring legacy of American white supremacy. But cable news shows and the national press aren’t covering the drama of structural racism as it unfolds in those other towns. Ferguson is the example that has become impossible to ignore.
But even that which is impossible to ignore may still be easy to misinterpret. For example, although critiques of police militarization in Ferguson may be well intentioned and pretty much correct, they also miss the point to a large degree. The American criminal justice system has terrorized African Americans for centuries; whether or not it uses military hardware to do so, is relevant, but not strictly pivotal. As Tamara K. Nopper and Mariame Kaba recently wrote in Jacobin:
The problem with casting militarization as the problem is that the formulation suggests it is the excess against which we must rally. We must accept that the ordinary is fair, for an extreme to be the problem. The policing of black people—carried out through a variety of mechanisms and processes—is purportedly warranted, as long as it doesn’t get too militarized and excessive.
It does matter what toys the cops get to play with, but the context for their behavior matters more. It’s worth noting that Ferguson’s police force is almost entirely white, in a city that’s 60 percent black. The same applies to the town’s mayor, city council, and school board. And then there’s the fact that the city itself, as it exists today, was dramatically shaped by the racist housing discrimination practice known as “redlining.” The city’s very geography is the product of racist public policy and business practices.
None of which makes Ferguson unique. Coates begins “The Case for Reparations” with a story of one man’s experience with redlining in Chicago—just one more example out of millions.
Nor is this the first time that America’s long history of racial oppression has set the stage for confrontations with the police. The 1967 Kerner Commission, established by President Johnson to explore the root causes behind the race riots of the 1960s, placed America’s racial caste system at the center of their analysis. When historian Blair L.M. Kelley writes that “Ferguson is America,” she’s not wrong.
And like Ferguson, America is a place stricken with far more than just police militarization. If we’re going to even begin to ameliorate this country’s root-deep racial inequities, we need to do more than relieve the police of their grenade launchers. We need to remedy centuries of malicious practices that have etched themselves into the topography of this nation.
There are no “solutions” for social and political diseases on racism’s order of magnitude. But there are remedies, ways to improve the situation a great deal. Improving this particular situation means correcting for profound economic disparities; and almost by definition, correcting for those disparities means transferring vast quantities of wealth into communities that are currently starving for it. Call it reparations or call it something else, but dismantling economic racism necessarily means redistributing along racial lines.
Nothing can undo the past four centuries of state-sanctioned larceny and terror. And reparations will not erase the memory of what’s happened in Ferguson. But erasure isn’t the point; what America needs is not collective amnesia, but a collective reckoning. As Coates writes in his original story, “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
Add recent events in Missouri to that incalculable tally of our present sins.