Previously published on BillMoyers.com
Signs of overt racism still are all around us, be it a New Hampshire police commissioner's use of an ethnic slur to describe President Obama or an NBA team owner's disturbing remarks about black athletes and fans. By now, we all know the drill, the media call these people out for their ugly words and we play our parts, shaking our heads in sad disbelief -- then return to our daily lives.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, thinks it's time for a bold step to change the way we talk and think about race in America. This week, I speak to Coates about his June cover story for the magazine, provocatively titled "The Case for Reparations." In it, Coates argues that we have to dig deeper into our past and the original sin of slavery, confronting the institutional racism that continues to pervade society. From the lynching tree to today's mass incarceration of young African-Americans, he says we need to examine our motives more intently and reconcile the moral debt and economic damage inflicted upon generations of black Americans.
For one, Coates points to a century of racist and exploitive housing policies that made it hard for African-Americans to own homes and forced them to live in poorer neighborhoods with unequal access to a good education, resulting in a major wealth gap between black and white. In fact, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households, according to a Pew Research Center study.
"There are plenty of African-Americans in this country -- and I would say this goes right up to the White House -- who are not by any means poor, but are very much afflicted by white supremacy," Coates says. By white supremacy Coates says he refers to an age-old system in America which holds that whites "should always be ensured that they will not sink to a certain level. And that level is the level occupied by black people."
Coates explains to me: "I am not asking you as a white person to see yourself as an enslaver. I'm asking you as an American to see all of the freedoms that you enjoy and see how they are rooted in things that the country you belong to condoned or actively participated in the past."