diversity | May 27, 2014

A Major Atlantic Cover Story by Ta-Nehisi Coates Looks at the History of Racism in America

A 16,000-word Atlantic cover story about racism in America, released this month, is one of the most talked-about, commented-on, and boldly ambitious works of nonfiction in recent memory. Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Beautiful Struggle), the story is called “The Case for Reparations,” and, as the stark all-type cover lines proclaim, it is about "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." It's about the generations of racist treatment toward black people in America, and how that treatment is still resonating today. It won't get better until we square up and face what has been done, and make peace—emotionally and spiritually, as well as through government-run initiatives—and restore equality.

"The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago," Coates writes, "but such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere." Throughout, Coates explores the still-felt impact of slavery, despite the promise made, long ago, of freedom, democracy, and equality. The income gap between black and white households, for instance, has been roughly the same for the past 40 years. More than 60 percent of black Americans are raised in poor neighborhoods, and foreclosures accumulate disproportionately in minority neighborhoods within racially segregated cities. "It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear," he explains. "The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us."

But what can be done to right two centuries of wrongs? How can the nation find reformation, and restitution, after so many years? Reparations have to be more than simply writing a cheque, says Coates. There must be a spiritual renewal, too. "What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts," says Coates. "What is needed is a healing of the American psyche."

Coates is author of The Beautiful Struggle and a senior editor and writer for The Atlantic. In his talks, he delves into the conflicted and hopeful state of black America today. To book Ta-Nehisi Coates as a speaker, contact The Lavin Agency.

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