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Race and Reparations

By Gregg Sangillo

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will appear at American University on November 5.

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will appear at American University on November 5.

McCabe Lecture Series

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an incisive public intellectual and a rising star in journalism. As both a national correspondent and blogger for The Atlantic, he's written penetrating essays on race, politics, popular culture, and social justice.

In an explosive June 2014 Atlantic cover story, Coates argued that centuries of slavery and systematic racism should be addressed with reparations for African-Americans. "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," he wrote.

On November 5, Coates will appear in Ward 1 to discuss ideas from his article. The event is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences Dean's Office as part of the McCabe Lecture Series. He'll give a 45-minute talk, followed by a moderated discussion and questions from the audience.

Moral Justification

American University faculty members interviewed say there is a moral justification for a historic redress.

"There was deliberate and direct harm being perpetrated against African-Americans both before and after slavery, and even continuing into the present day," says Theresa Runstedtler, an associate professor in the History Department in CAS.

"The argument is that there was unpaid labor for centuries, and that labor helped to build the country. And if there's going to be any movement towards acknowledging and recognizing that, then there needs to be compensation," says Clarence Lusane, a professor in the School of International Service. "It's not about whether there are black millionaires, or some black people are doing fine. It's a historic injustice that needs to be made right."

Everything is Connected

In The Souls of Black Folk, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." Even in the age of Obama, faculty members say the problem persists in the twenty-first century. For evidence, look no further than the recent turmoil over a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

Coates tied together many different facets of white racism—slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining and housing discrimination—in making his case. AU professors agreed that racial inequality should be understood holistically.

"You can draw a cultural and economic line from the end of slavery to the prison-industrial complex, where the Black Codes enabled the infrastructure of the South to be built by prison labor," says Celine-Marie Pascale, a sociology professor and associate dean for undergraduate studies in CAS. "You can't separate the [current] mass incarceration of people of color—in particular young men of color—from that kind of a labor system."

"The thing that connects everything across time is the structural dimension of white supremacy," says Runstedtler, who teaches African-American history. "Coates refutes this notion that, 'Well, African-Americans must have done it to themselves.' There was no break in the oppression. It just continued."

Lack of Talk, Lack of Action

Some AU professors believe the U.S. never came to grips with its racist past, and there's little dialogue about rectifying current racial inequities.

Pascale compares the American predicament to post-apartheid South Africa, where she spent time in 2006. Though reconciliation there hasn't gone well, she says, there are refreshingly candid discussions about race. "When I turned on the television, everybody had a story about apartheid. They talked about it," she explains. "Without even the commitment here to talking frankly about racial realities, we're kind of lost."

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, has been introducing his H.R. 40 reparations bill (named for the forty acres and a mule that freed slaves were originally promised) every congressional term since 1989. It's a modest measure—simply establishing a commission to study reparation proposals—yet it has gone nowhere.

Why the resistance to such a debate? Professors say confronting historic, structural racism in the U.S. raises all sorts of questions about national identity and white privilege. "This idea of American exceptionalism and being this beacon of democracy and the free market on the world stage—it's not consistent with this history," says Runstedtler. "Coates is right in saying that we at least need to have the conversation. And the reluctance to have the conversation is in some ways more troubling than the lack of a solution."

In addition, misconceptions about reparations might impede efforts to implement them. "When I think about reparations, there's a mistaken idea that this means, 'Oh, the government will cut a check for so much money to each person,'" says Pascale. "With reparations, I think about investing in communities that have been historically disenfranchised—so building the infrastructure of good educational systems and good health care systems."

Lusane says reparations could be devised a variety of ways, with multiple elements included. "That gives latitude to how you can address the issue, once you accept it as a moral commitment," he says. This could mean grants, government programs, a monument, or other measures. "The most significant thing, though, is whether there is a public acknowledgment."