Heard on the Hill

Ta-Nehisi Coates wants you to stop laughing about reparations

Writer takes aim at reparation critics like Mitch McConnell

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates testifies about reparations for the descendants of slaves during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Dave Chappelle has a sketch imagining a future in which African Americans are awarded reparative damages due from centuries of American slavery and discrimination. The routine features newly rich black people “blowing” their payments on rims, menthol cigarettes and rap record labels. The sketch is a smorgasbord of stereotypes conveying the message that the concept of reparations is so preposterous that it’s OK to make fun of it.

But fewer people are laughing now. And that’s largely because of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and his 2014 landmark essay “The Case for Reparations.” The 15,000-word article, published in The Atlantic, didn’t just deal with chattel slavery; it focused on housing discrimination and predatory lending practices that robbed many black Americans of their wealth. According to reparations proponents, that legacy is largely responsible for the ongoing racial wealth gap, wherein the typical white family owns 10 times the assets of the typical black family.

On Wednesday Coates joined Sen. Cory Booker, actor Danny Glover and several others, including a reverend, an ex-NFL player and an economist, to discuss reparations before the House Judiciary civil rights subcommittee. The panel specifically wanted testimony on HR 40, which would create a commission to study the history of slavery in the United States and the effects on black Americans.

The reparations debate didn’t just pop up. It’s been a part of the racial justice discourse for centuries. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued field order 15, promising former slaves 40 acres and a mule. Former Rep. John Conyers Jr. introduced HR 40 in 1989, but the bill has never gone anywhere. (Conyers resigned from Congress in 2017 following sexual harassment accusations.)

Outside the hearing was absolute pandemonium, as people who’d arrived at the Rayburn House Office Building as early as 7 a.m. crowded the entrance trying to get in. Capitol Police officers repeatedly yelled for them to clear the way.

The atmosphere inside was just as emotionally charged. Audience members booed or clapped as witnesses and lawmakers made points. At times it even resembled a church service, with several onlookers shouting “Amen.” 

The hearing coincided with Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the last slaves, in Texas, discovered that slavery had been abolished.

Just as the tone of the reparations debate has shifted, so has Coates’ own thinking on the issue. He is now a passionate advocate for racial reparations, but this wasn’t always the case. At first he was skeptical, but through writing about the black American experience, he came around to support the initiative. In Coates’ view, the American government is complicit in the plunder of black wealth, and his writing explores what the country owes to its black citizens.

“If Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemmings,” Coates said.

Coates used his opening statement to sharply rebuke Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said during his Tuesday press conference that he doesn’t believe blacks are owed reparations for “something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible.”

Coates, responding to McConnell’s “familiar reply,” said it’s a “strange theory of governance that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations.” Nevertheless, he listed events from the “relentless campaign of terror” that’s taken place during McConnell’s lifetime, including redlining and civil rights-era violence. The victims of those actions are still alive, “and I’m sure they’d like a word with Majority Leader McConnell,” Coates said.

Republicans, largely absent during the first hour of the hearing, were represented by ranking member Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who spoke emotionally about his personal connection to the issue. Johnson adopted a black child years ago who is now grown. Some in the audience hissed when he said slavery was committed by a “small subset of Americans” and that any reparations payments would be “unconstitutional.”

Other Republicans, such as witness Burgess Owens and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, used the moment to excoriate the Democratic Party for its past support of slavery. Gohmert at one point reminded the audience that notoriously racist Birmingham lawman Bull Connor was actually a Democrat.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina has said he does not support a reparations bill. When pressed recently about why he doesn’t, the senator responded it would be too difficult to determine who would get payments and “blah blah blah.”

Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas said HR 40 will be moving forward, but first McConnell needs to “read the bill.”

After Wednesday’s hearing, Coates admitted that he’s still getting used to his role as advocate.

“I’ll be quite honest,” he said. “This is not the most comfortable position for me to be in. I consider myself a writer. I consider myself a journalist. It’s my hope to continue that work, but I felt the issue was so important I had to speak to it.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.