Something Unmentionable About America

Sorry for the longish silence at this end. I’ve been ill (nothing serious) and tied up with work.

Regular service resumes shortly, but I had to drop by and tell you all to go and read something. It’s a very, very, very long piece by Ta Nehisi-Coates. It’s 16.000 words — that’s right, I counted — and about 120.000 characters, so it’ll take you at least the better part of an hour to read, but this is not only the single greatest piece of long-form journalism I’ve read in years, it is also absolutely required reading if you have any kind of interest in the US, racism, history or the idea of justice.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve been a fan and a reader of Coates’ blog for years, so it’s been wonderful to watch the ideas in the piece mature over time, and now find expression in a vivid, thoroughly researched, and extraordinarily well-written piece. Chris Hayes called him our greatest living essayist, and you could definitely make a strong case for that proposition.

The piece, called “The Case For Reparations” is a history of modern African-American life showing how white supremacy continues to have a detrimental impact in the current generation of African-American families. Both in housing inequality — a topic Coates explores at length — and in the wealth gap between white and black families.

Framing this history as basically a history of white people taking black people’s stuff (either directly, or in post-slavery years through the unequal distribution of public goods, predatory lending schemes or welfare services specifically designed to omit black people).

Coates says that America needs to discuss reparations to the African-American community as a possibility. Having that conversation will entail acknowledging the wrong that was done and is being done to people of African-American descent. It will be a necessary clearing away of a purposeful national untruth, a myth where the sin of slavery was cleansed in the fires of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Struggle. That myth has been drawn across the actual history, in which the injustice continued to have effects not just within living memory, but right up until the present day.

I want to quote the whole thing, but I’ll give you a longish quote from a particularly central section near the end of the piece.

The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office. The laments about “black pathology,” the criticism of black family structures by pundits and intellectuals, ring hollow in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America’s relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer.

And this destruction did not end with slavery. Discriminatory laws joined the equal burden of citizenship to unequal distribution of its bounty. These laws reached their apex in the mid-20th century, when the federal government—through housing policies—engineered the wealth gap, which remains with us to this day. When we think of white supremacy, we picture Colored Only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.

On some level, we have always grasped this.

“Negro poverty is not white poverty,” President Johnson said in his historic civil-rights speech.

Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences—deep, corrosive, obstinate differences—radiating painful roots into the community and into the family, and the nature of the individual. These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice.We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

It’s a powerful and convincing argument. And I think that no matter how much you happen to know about the subject — I’ve been looking into the subject of racism for some time now — you’ll come away learning something new from his piece. He takes the discussion to a much higher level than it has ever been at. Go and read it, for the love of God. Especially if you live in the US.


  1. swo8 said:

    We certainly need a renewal of the political and economic system, here in Canada too. I don’t know what it is going to take to get the movement started, but I sure there are many who would jump on the band wagon with us.

    • Release said:

      Got to make it happen, though. Have to get organised.

      • swo8 said:

        It will happen. Already a lot of people share the same thoughts. There are a lot of good people out there.

  2. katherinejlegry said:

    I was glad to see you posted again. Hope you are feeling better! I had just finished reading the Ta Nehisi-Coates article and then looked to see what you were writing… and alas, we are on the same proverbial page! I agree everybody should read it. You do a true good service with your recommendations, sir.

    • Release said:

      Cheers for the well-wishes! I hope people read it. It’s a real conversation starter.

      • katherinejlegry said:

        Indeed it is a conversation starter. I had been talking to my husband pre-reading of the Coates article, that I was hearing the black communities in America discussing reparations more and more, and that I didn’t think white people in power were ever going to go for that. That the neo-con (“Tea Party” so-called patriot) emergence in our political system is indicative of the old south never having let go or gotten over their “loss” of property (slave labor), as well as the NRA lobbyists essentially being the legitimized KKK and holding the senate hostage to do anything to reduce gun violence, and that corporate interests will not give up their money to invest in reconciliation was only part of our dialogue. If white people admit to their crimes of robbing people of their cultural identity, as well as stealing people from their lands and then relinquish power not just for the sake of ideological equality but rather for a level economic playing field, they risk losing all power. Because african americans, latinos, native americans, etc. are all talking about reparations and getting their lands back. White people have to keep up the illusion of democracy in the face of such anger and resentment. I don’t think guilt and shame work in general. I think it does the opposite to the oppressor creating massive defenses and walls to be built. So, the field is tricky. In any case, I felt validated by Coates’ article… that what I’ve been trying to express to other white people, he has written about historically/factually well in addition to being entirely linguistically approachable, as well as referring to and linking to other good articles for his research. A must read to be sure.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: