By now, many JOTWELL readers will already have read (and re-read, and maybe even already assigned for class) Ta-Nehisi Coates’ stunning article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” In this JOTWELL recommendation, then, I write not so much to recommend the article as something we like (though for those readers who have not yet read, I ask, “What are you waiting for?”) but to ask a different question. I write because after reading this journalistic masterpiece, which blurs the line between multimedia reportage, impassioned advocacy and rigorous scholarship, I am provoked to ask, in all seriousness, shouldn’t we scholars be rethinking the form that we use to do what it is that we do? Why aren’t more of us doing what he’s doing?
First, a brief review. Substantively, the article can be divided into four parts (though Coates divides it into ten). In the first part, we are introduced to Clyde Ross whom we meet in 1920s Jim Crow Mississippi. Whites steal land and a horse from the Ross family with impunity. Ross and the story move to 1960s Chicago, where Ross is robbed again, this time fleeced through a scheme in which houses are sold “on contract,” a draconian rent-to-own scheme in which buyers late on their payments can be evicted and left with no property or refunded equity. Finally, through Ross, we are introduced to the debilitation of modern-day North Lawndale Chicago—income and wealth half the rate of white communities, poverty, unemployment and infant mortality at twice the white rates, skyrocketing crime rates and a plummeting population.
In the second part of the article, Coates begins to build the case for reparations. He chronicles the way in which the country’s industrializing economy was built on the foundation of slavery, with slaves as labor for cotton (and cotton exports) and slaves as a source of revenue and currency themselves. Coates documents the central role that the U.S. legal system played in making possible both slavery and Jim Crow. During slavery, property law created two classes of people, those who owned property and those who themselves were the property owned.
During Jim Crow, law excluded blacks from the benefits of the New Deal programs: Social Security, the GI Bill and the FHA government-subsidized mortgage program definitively excluded blacks, to help whites. The same government programs that opened up credit channels for whites to facilitate their flight to the suburbs also drew maps with red lines around black neighborhoods to show brokers where lending was prohibited. With no access to credit, black buyers like Clyde Ross who were in search of the “American dream” were instead easy prey for sellers “on contract” and of course they had no legal remedy. White homeowners’ associations used restrictive covenants to create and then maintain segregated neighborhoods. Law enforcement turned a blind eye to organized white terrorism, doing nothing to redress victims of race riots in Tulsa, Memphis and elsewhere. And decades later, local government law directed public housing projects be built in black neighborhoods, further concentrating already existing pockets of poverty and public need. (I’ve heard more than one reader remark after reading this historical narrative that they’d had no idea just how central government was to Jim Crow oppression.)
In the third part of his piece, Coates takes on the arguments against reparations. He unmasks questions about whom and how much might be paid, diagnosing them as motivated by the desire sidestep the deeply troubling questions that a robust reparations debate would raise. As Coates points out, to seriously consider reparations would require the country to squarely acknowledge its own sordid past, to chasten American exceptionalist narratives of freedom and democracy with other stories of terrorism, violence, murder, thievery and exploitation. Coates also points out that in the same way that post-war German reparations to Israel required policymakers to reckon with the magnitude of the holocaust, US reparations would require a racial reckoning of government responsibility for white supremacy. (The US was so afraid of the discussion in fact that Colin Powell withdrew from the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in South Africa because the subject of reparations was put on the agenda.)
In a short coda, Coates adds the story of sub-prime mortgages, quite literally layering the interactive map of predatory lending on top of the pre-existing map of segregation. Like the bank-backed contract borrowers of yesteryear, sub-prime lenders and the banks that funded them targeted black neighborhoods with higher-interest loans and onerous terms. Coates doesn’t say it, but blacks lost three times as much as whites in the crash: according to the Pew Research Center, the median net worth of black households fell by 53% between 2005 and 2009, compared to a fall of 16% for whites, whose home equity typically accounts for a smaller fraction of their wealth.
Coates builds a solid historical and sociological foundation for his argument, citing to great scholars like Thomas Sugrue, Patrick Sharkey, Douglas Massey, Arnold Hirsch and Robert Sampson. But Coates is at his most powerful when he weaves the scholarship together with the intimate stories of people like Clyde Ross, Billy Brooks and the freedwoman Belinda Royall. His in-your-face rebuke for failing to even take up the question of reparations is also pretty impossible to ignore.
Coates piece is hard to peg, stylistically. Certainly the storytelling and the call to arms mark the work as a certain kind of journalism, and perhaps even advocacy (though Coates shies away from the word in interviews). In terms of medium, “A Case for Reparations” takes full advantage of what Journalism 2.0 has to offer. Reminiscent of the New York Times’ groundbreaking article on an avalanche, Coates’ piece is full of photo galleries, interactive maps and compelling videos. These embedded images give the presentation immediacy and urgency. We see Clyde Ross’s face, we hear Billy Lamar Brooks’ voice and watch him interact with his mentees, and we hear him tell the story of his son’s murder. We tour the abandoned corner blocks of North Lawndale. To use a legal framework, we are looking at the evidence that Coates has amassed in support of his case for reparations.
In the last few weeks, Coates’ piece has blown the reparations conversation wide open in a way that has evoked both envy and inspiration on my part, even as the piece relies for its power on much of the academy’s best work. Yes, yes, I know Coates has worked hard to develop a following, to hone his wonderful craft, and it helps that The Atlantic has thousands more subscribers than does, say, the Michigan Journal of Race and Law.
But here’s a question. Why doesn’t more of our legal scholarship about race look like “A Case for Reparations”? Coates’ writing is gripping and powerful, even as it sits solidly on the foundation of rigorous scholarship. Much academic writing on race seems relatively lifeless and sanitized, by comparison. Why don’t more legal scholars on race weave reportage and storytelling into our analysis, and embed interactive maps and videos into our work? Why don’t more of us submit work to The Atlantic in addition to law reviews or the American Journal of Sociology?
Every scholar I know has wrestled with the question of relevance more generally, whatever we might think about Nicholas Kristof’s question about academics serving as public intellectuals. And whether or not we want to classify ourselves as public intellectuals, we ought to find ways to make ourselves more relevant to this kind of public political conversation. Certainly politics and not law is where these conversations about race and reparations will draw energy, at least for the foreseeable future.