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Q&A: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Chicago and ‘The Case for Reparations’

The writer takes on the media’s ignorance of history, why Chicago is an ideal case study for discrimination, and how uncomfortable it is to undo policies that were racist by design.

Photo: Courtesy of The Atlantic

Last week, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates published a massive cover story entitled “The Case for Reparations.” It’s a case that’s been made with some regularity over recent decades, but Coates extends the breadth of the argument by including a substantial history of housing discrimination and segregation over the 20th century, from FHA-designed redlining in the New Deal era to lending practices during the housing bubble.

It’s a history told extensively in academic literature, but not well understood in the popular or journalistic imagination (though Nikole Hannah-Jones of ProPublica has done some exceptional work on the subject recently, as has the Chicago Reporter’s Angela Caputo on its recent, local history). I’m not sure how well-versed I would be on it if I hadn’t worked with Steve Bogira and Mick Dumke at the Chicago Reader, or if I hadn’t accidentally stumbled upon Beryl Satter’s essential Family Properties in the book box there. As it tends to stay in the domain of academic history, it’s treated as history, in the past-tense sense; but history layers upon itself to become the present. And as Coates put it after completing his piece, ”I’ve yet to engage a historian or sociologist who’s requested that I not be such a downer.”

I spoke with Coates yesterday about Chicago’s role in that history, what we know and don’t know about it, and what we say and don’t say about it.

Almost any city in American could have been used as the foundation for this piece, including Baltimore, where you grew up. Why Chicago?

Chicago had gotten all this attention recently—outsized attention, as far as I’m concerned—for violence, and for murder, quote-unquote black-on-black crime. Even people who are liberals say things like “if white people were killing this number of black people in Chicago, there’d be an outcry.” You know, that black people don’t care about the violence that goes on in their communities. And it just struck me as so ahistorical.

I had some knowledge of housing at that point—not the level to which I had when I was done, but some sense that people didn’t just magically appear in the communities in which they live.

Then, just the fact that Chicago is, as far as I’m concerned, the quintessential American city. It just seems like an ideal place to go in terms of the research.

And there’s so much sociological work on Chicago, and so much great history. It presented the ideal jumping-off point to have this discussion.

One more thing: I love Chicago too. It might be the most beautiful city in America. Just in terms of its layout; it’s just beautiful. Even being in Lawndale, just a gorgeous, gorgeous city. There’s that, too.

One of the things I’ve always found odd about Chicago is that we probably know it better than any city America over the 20th century because of that legacy of sociology. But it doesn’t seem to change policy on the ground. Do you have any ideas about that paradox?

I think it shows two things. The first, here’s the optimistic view. Media is fairly ill-informed, especially when it comes to history. A lot of people don’t just know the stuff. I can’t tell you how many smart people did just not know about the redlining, that it happened in Chicago, or that it happened in major American cities. Ignorant, quite frankly.

Having said that, I’m not even convinced that if people did know, that it would change much. There are limits to what information can do. What’s that famous quote? “In a democracy, you get the government you deserve.” Well, that’s true of us too. We do know a lot. But are we going to do a lot? That’s a different question.

One question I ask everyone who studies this history. Is there a reason racism is so virulent in Chicago? As a Southern transplant it surprised me. It surprised Martin Luther King.

I’m not quite convinced that it is, though. I don’t know that it’s atypical for Northern cities, or ones with a significant African-American population. In Tom Sugrue’s Origin of the Urban Crisis, when he talks about Detroit, there’s quite a bit of violence, riots and everything. New York, the draft riots in the 19th century. One of the most deadly riots in American history. I don’t know that Chicago’s so much an outlier as a pretty good stand-in for how our cities are.

Maybe it’s the expectation from reading history.

We do have that. And that just reflects our ignorance; we think about the riots that happened in the ’60s and the long hot summers. But there’s a long history in American cities of people rioting over housing. It’s not particularly new.

I didn’t really know anything about this history of housing discrimination in the North until well after college; I might not know about it at all if I didn’t live in Chicago. How do we improve the teaching of this part of the history you write about?

From my end, I think journalists need to be better at engaging in history.

You don’t recommend a particular form that reparations should take. The way I read your piece was that reparations could be a moral framework for thinking about policy, as other approaches… don’t seem to be working.

The problem is that we don’t want to reconcile ourselves to these sorts of things. For much of American history—colonial American history—we had policies on a very racist basis. We did specific things to black people. That was the logic of it—we tried to cut black people out of the social safety net, for instance, if you’re talking about the New Deal. We’re much more squeamish about directly addressing that.

Even affirmative action cannot be talked about as something that is supposed to repair the damage done during enslavement, after enslavement, Jim Crow. It’s talked about, legally, in terms of diversity. Which is a separate problem. That isn’t actually the same issue. Diversity can mean anything.

A lot of this has to do with an inability to talk about policy aimed at closing the gap between black and white people in this country that was deliberately engineered. It’s probably going to take some deliberate engineering to fix it. And we try to find ways all around that basic truth.

Having read some of the books you cite, I’m aware that, as long and detailed as your piece was, there’s still much, much more. Is there anything else from your research you wish you could have included?

No, I think given what it was supposed to be, you have to cut off at some point. 16,000 words is a lot. My hope is that other people will pick up the baton and do this.

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