Affirmative Action, Affirming Access, and Coates’ Case for Reparations – Part 1

by Dr. Denise O'Neil Green | May 27, 2014 10:00 AM

When I arrived home Friday, May 23 after work, my partner asked me had I heard about the Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations.  I told him no.  He was somewhat surprised given that I always seem to be on top of everything, but I had not heard.  So, immediately I went to Twitter and searched “case for reparations”, and found a plethora of tweets affirming this article as a must read.  As I scanned through the tweets, one led to me a Bill Moyers interview with Coates.

american-flag-in-tatters-1Reparations has been in American discourse since slavery…anyone remember the notion of “40 acres and a mule”?   I was curious to learn what’s so different about Coates’ proposal in comparison to past ones.  After hearing Coates explain his argument on Bill Moyers and All In with Chris Hayes, I found it was very compelling.  It made me think about the continuous struggle that America has had with reconciling its past and present treatment of African American people.  Moyers said every American should read this article and I agree.  However, what I gleaned from the interview is that Coates gives all American citizens, and the state in particular, a logical, evidenced-based rationale for Black poverty, its connection to reparations, and why a debt is owed due to intentional state actions and collusion by private companies that established and maintained a system of white supremacy that dates back to slavery.

In Race Matters, Cornel West asserts that Black America has suffered from “too much poverty and too little self-love” (p. 93).  He further argues that if Black poverty were eliminated, and racial and sexual discrimination halted with “good will and meritorious judgments” of those in power, affirmative action would no longer be needed.  According to West, affirmative action is a redistributive policy, albeit weak, but a policy that provides opportunities for Black people to rise out of poverty through educational, housing, healthcare and employment opportunities (See: The Cornel West Reader and Race Matters).  Given the litany of recent U.S. Supreme Court cases related to affirmative action policy, one could erroneously assume that affirmative action seems to be synonymous with higher education admissions and scholarships. But originally, affirmative action was expected to affirm access for Blacks well beyond higher education.

Because of “the vicious legacy of white supremacy – institutionalized in housing, education, health care, employment and social life – [it] served as the historical context for the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Affirmative action was a weak response to this legacy.  It constituted an imperfect policy conceded by a powerful political, business, and educational establishment in light of the pressures of organized citizens and the disturbances of angry organized ones” (The Cornel West Reader, 1999, p. 495).

Coates’ case for reparations takes us back to why affirmative action and race-conscious policies, albeit weak and growing weaker by the day given the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s decision for Schuette, were forged in the first place.  The reason is a system of white supremacy and he makes us confront that system head on.  And while we may not want to look at ourselves squarely in the mirror and accept that this is an essential part of America’s DNA, I believe Coates has begun the autopsy, blowing the dust of this cold case, called Reparations.

Tell Me Your Thoughts:

What do you think about “The Case for Reparations”, Ta-Nehisi Coates piece, or the idea of reparations in general in the United States being dispersed to the descendants of slaves?

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