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The Return of the Reparations Debate

August 1, 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June 2014 Atlantic Monthly article has rekindled and old heated debate about reparations.  The print issue with its black background and provocative title written in white and red letters, “250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors, America will never be whole.  The Case for Reparations,” has set several copies-sold milestones for the publication.  Despite Coates’ concern with an old conversation, this article has resonated with many writers and journalists through articles, blogs, and talk show conversations defending or decrying his argument.  The essay is massive in terms of length compared to most articles.  Coates’ essay takes up over 16 pages in the magazine and uses over 16,000 words.

But I believe that the way Coates constructed his argument is why so many in mass media wanted to engage in this old conversation.  Coates centers his argument around the life story of  a 91 year-old Chicago resident named Clyde Ross. Coates writes of how Ross’s family had their land in Mississippi taken away without compensation when he was a child.  Later, as a WWII veteran living in Chicago, Ross was misled into signing a bogus mortgage that provided no equity and where house payments were made to the seller.  Both events were common for African Americans during these time periods.  These events, according to Coates, prevented wealth building and were all supported, sanctioned, and legalized by local, state, and federal governments.

I believe that by tying most of his argument to the life of Ross, Coates makes the article powerful enough that MSNBC and other news outlets wanted to devote time and attention to it and restart the conversation on reparations.  Through the life experiences of Ross, we can see the systemic forms of racism that continue to affect his life.  In showing the life of Ross, Coates also provides a very powerful counter argument to those who say that working hard is all you need to succeed.  Coates writes, “Some Black people will be twice as good.  But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast.”

Rhetoric scholar Chaim Perelman would call Coates choosing to use the life experiences of Ross to help make his argument “presence” or the selection of “elements that serve as the starting point of the argument.”  Instead of talking in general terms of African Americans’ life experiences, Coates narrows his focus first on one hard-working, law-abiding individual to show how that life has been negatively affected by discriminatory US policies.  Ross’s life experiences are used to represent the political and economic hardships that Americans of African descent have faced.  As a result of this approach, Coates’ audience may be better able to identify and sympathize with the hardships of Ross and, consequently, African Americans as a whole.

But what may hurt Coates’ argument is using the word “reparations” in his title, simply because it’s primarily associated with righting wrongs committed in America prior to the Civil War. Although Coates clearly explains his definition of reparations and what he thinks the first steps should be, many people (who are easy to identify when they are arguing against the article) would not take time to read the article because they assume Coates is simply arguing for monetary compensation from Americans of European descent to be given to Americans of African descent.  When in fact most of his reasons for supporting reparations are based on 20th century realities.

I do not believe that Coates’ desire for a congressional hearing on reparations would be met but any discussion about the harmful effects of racism should begin with a reading of this article.

If you want to know more:

  • To see a discussion of the Coates’ article, here is an interview given by the author on the Bill Moyers show.
  •  Here is a larger discussion about the topic of reparations.
  • For More information on “presence” see Perelman’s The New Rhetoric pages 115-120.


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