Ta-Nehisi Coates at Dominican

The prominent Atlantic author talks about his famous essay


On Feb.26, at Dominican University in River Forest, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of “The Case for Reparations,” the George K. Polk award-winning essay published in the Atlantic last year, explained how the West Side of Chicago figured so prominently in his groundbreaking storytelling. 

“There’s this woman Beryl Satter who wrote this book [“Family Properties”] about contract lending and buying in Lawndale and I read the book and I called Beryl and I asked her were any of the people who were involved in the protests alive. She said she didn’t know and she sent me over to someone else who was in contact with quite a few people. So, that’s how it happened,” Coates said, describing how he came into with the North Lawndale residents profiled in his essay.

“I spent quite a bit of time in North Lawndale,” he said.

The following is an abridged version of his lecture he gave to students, faculty and community leaders at the college:

It’s just a supreme pleasure and honor to come back to Chicago. I adore Chicago. I think every major story I’ve done for the Atlantic, I’ve invented some excuse to come to Chicago and I think my editors have noticed that on my expense report. 

There are many reasons why I come to Chicago. It’s the best food town I’ve ever been to—we can start there, at least in the United States. 

Besides that, I took some time away from the country and I was overseas for a little while and Europeans would ask me, when they come to America where should they go. Everybody wanted to see New York. Obviously, I’m from New York. I live in New York. I spend most of my adult time in New York. I adore New York. But I would always tell them that if you want a city that reminds you of America you should come to Chicago. 

That is for good reasons and for bad reasons. Tonight, I’m going to talk about the bad reasons. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.

“The Case for Reparations” is really a story about Chicago. The biggest thing was to take it out of the picture that people have when they think about reparations and that is strictly as a check dispensed to individual African Americans for something that happened to their ancestors 150 years ago.

The case or reparations as it should be articulated, in its most principled format—and even before I wrote the article, as it was being articulated by academics and by other activists who weren’t writing for publications like the Atlantic—extended into our lifetime. It wasn’t a matter of people who are long dead. That was the root of the case, but in fact there were people who were very much alive today, some of them living on the West Side of Chicago in the neighborhood of North Lawndale.

The case for reparations, at its root, argues for less of a conversation about the heart of white Americans and for a greater conversation about the pockets and the pocketbooks of African Americans. This isn’t about reforming how people feel and about sensitivity. 

The primary relationship between African Americans and the country in which they live is a relationship of plunder. It’s a relationship of having national policy, state policy and local policy for over 350 years, extended back into colonial America all the way up to united America, of taking things out of one community in order to advantage another community.

Families live within broader communities. You can’t just look at one household. What sociologists have been able to glimpse—specifically a young man named Patrick Sharkey at New York University who does these great neighborhood studies, one of the things he’s able to glimpse is that the average black family that makes $100,000, tends to live in a neighborhood that resembles the average white family that makes about $30,000. 

So, we’re talking about violence and a host of social disorders. So, even black people who you think of as middle-class or upper middle-class, don’t actually tend to live in environments that are middle-class or upper middle-class.

When people tell you about poverty and about these communities, they say, ‘Well if you just had a mom and a dad who lived with you, everything would be okay.’ But see, I had a mom and a dad in one house. Both of my parents were college graduates. Both of them held down jobs. I had books all around me. I had what one might call a very, very healthy family life. But that couldn’t save me. That couldn’t prevent a situation where one-third of my brain, everyday, had to be dedicated to the preservation of my person. Something else was going on. Something bigger had to explain that chasm.

The word segregation actually has real meaning and the meaning is to isolate a group of people over here and to take their stuff. That’s the bottom-line. Segregation is my right to tax you if I’m living in Mississippi, where so many black folks in Chicago come from, and build an entire public university system and bar you from attending it. It’s my right to take resources out of your community and build a library system across the state and bar you from using that system. It’s my right to take resources out of your community and build public pools and bar you from the right to swim in those pools. 

The model of plunder—taking things from other people in order to advantage yourself—continues. And it continues right here in Chicago. 

I was at Cornell and a young lady stood up and said to me, ‘You know I’m very happy to be here at Cornell, I’m very proud of myself; but when I go out people say to me that I’m only here because of affirmative action.’ I told the young lady, don’t you worry about that not even a little bit, because here’s the deal. The entire white middle class in this country was formed by massive, massive affirmative action. It’s so big that they don’t even call it that—it’s called government.

To read more of Coates’s lecture, log onto www.austinweeklynews.com.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com