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Ta-Nehisi Coates on Reparations: Parts I and II of X

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR

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civLast month, The Atlantic published journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lengthy argument in favor of reparations for African-Americans. It is an impassioned plea, to be sure, yet notably measured and meticulously researched. Coates begins his case with a history lesson, and a reference point in the form of a man named Clyde Ross:

Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law…[but] many of Mississippi’s black farmers lived in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants. Tools and necessities were advanced against the return on the crop, which was determined by the employer. When farmers were deemed to be in debt—and they often were—the negative balance was then carried over to the next season. A man or woman who protested this arrangement did so at the risk of grave injury or death. Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system.

Coates illustrates the oppressive economic reality for African-Americans in the post-slavery south:

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. ‘Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,’ the AP reported, as well as ‘oil fields in Mississippi’ and ‘a baseball spring training facility in Florida.’

Clyde Ross eventually moved north to a Chicago neighborhood. He found a job, and a wife. He bought a home. Nevertheless, he was forced to buy that home “on contract,” a predatory practice which, Coates explains, is indicative of the way in which hardship followed Ross– and many others– into the north, and into the mid-twentieth century:

Ross had tried to get a legitimate mortgage in another neighborhood, but was told by a loan officer that there was no financing available. The truth was that there was no financing for people like Clyde Ross. From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure, from ‘restrictive covenants’ to bombings, to keep their neighborhoods segregated.

Their efforts were buttressed by the federal government. In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for Clyde Ross. The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated ‘A,’ indicated ‘in demand’ neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked ‘a single foreigner or Negro.’ These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated ‘D’ and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.

Clyde Ross is ninety-one years old today, and he still lives in the same neighborhood where he bought his home in 1961. Coates describes it as a “ghetto:”

North Lawndale is now on the wrong end of virtually every socioeconomic indicator. In 1930 its population was 112,000. Today it is 36,000. The halcyon talk of ‘interracial living’ is dead. The neighborhood is 92 percent black. Its homicide rate is 45 per 100,000—triple the rate of [Chicago] as a whole. The infant-mortality rate is 14 per 1,000—more than twice the national average. Forty-three percent of the people in North Lawndale live below the poverty line—double Chicago’s overall rate. Forty-five percent of all households are on food stamps—nearly three times the rate of the city at large. Sears, Roebuck left the neighborhood in 1987, taking 1,800 jobs with it. Kids in North Lawndale need not be confused about their prospects: Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center sits directly adjacent to the neighborhood.

And the problems, Coates points out, extend far beyond one neighborhood:

Chicago’s impoverished black neighborhoods—characterized by high unemployment and households headed by single parents—are not simply poor; they are ‘ecologically distinct.’ This ‘is not simply the same thing as low economic status,’ writes [Harvard sociologist Robert J.] Sampson. ‘In this pattern Chicago is not alone.’

Coates cites examples of a persistent wealth gap, and of persistent segregation nationwide. He goes on to say:

With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage. An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating.

Using the story of one man’s journey from sharecropper’s son to elderly city-dweller, Coates begins to make his case in his article’s first two chapters. In the coming weeks, I will examine his piece further as he fleshes out the nexus between history and the circumstances of today.

–Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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3 Comments to “Ta-Nehisi Coates on Reparations: Parts I and II of X”

  1. […] For Parts I and II of X, please click here. […]

  2. […] Parts I and II of X, please click here. For Parts III, IV, and V, click […]

  3. […] Parts I and II of X, please click here. For Parts III, IV, and V, click here. For Parts VI, VII, and VIII, click […]

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