The Case for Reparations
Hope is a powerful weapon in the fight for freedom, equality, liberty and justice for all. The United States of America has always been and continues to be stratified society founded on the ideal that all people have equal opportunities and can pursue happiness through hard work and playing by the rules. The legitimizing ideology, or fantasy, that formerly enslaved or excluded or oppressed people can work hard and achieve the American Dream through luck and pluck is at once liberating and soul crushing.
I chose to share Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 article in the Atlantic Monthly “The Case for Reparations.” Coates frames and organizes his article around the life story of Clyde Ross from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Ross grew up in the 1920s on his family farm that was literally 40 acres and a mule. Like many journalist, Coates understands the power of personal narrative and telling people’s stories. Better than most journalists, Coates understands that history matters, institutional racism matters, and predatory capitalism matters. More importantly, Ta-Nehisi Coates knows BlackLivesMatter. He brilliantly weaves Clyde Ross’s story through the troubling history of countless African Americans who worked hard to gain a toehold in society, only to find the twin evils of debilitating racism and ravenous capitalism conspiring to crush opportunity and defer hope. It’s a long article, but Coates takes readers through the causes and effects of the black migration, the terrorism of lynching, unscrupulous housing policy and practices, and how the federal government perpetuated racism that created the wealth gap today. He engages in great story telling, compelling history, and keeps readers focused on both the financial and moral costs of perpetuating the travesty of equal opportunity.
One of the challenges of teaching college students, particularly at Duke, is that they are investing time, money, and effort to achieve class mobility. They are motivated to make it or make a difference or both. On many levels they believe in the American Dream. All students look for success stories to model their aspirations, and they see the vast number of successful people of color and women in leadership positions at universities and health systems, in businesses and governments, start-ups and non-profits, as well as those in or seeking the White House. My students believe they can make it too. Savvy enough to understand the role privilege and class plays in mobility, it is often frustrating because subtly, perniciously, often silently too many students (including students of color, but less so in my experience) believe that racism matters less today and individual capacity, failings, and choices lead to incarceration, poverty, hopelessness, and downward mobility. They believe that through their capacity, choices, and success they can achieve class mobility based on privilege and merit. Why not? We have so many women and people of color who are so successful.
Coates article enables me to better explain the impact of compounding institutional racism and sexism. It also provides evidence to help contextualize the hypocrisy fueled anger and frustration felt by so many, despite the success of a relative few. Although success can inspire hope, it can generate anger and frustration because it is too easy to forget or ignore or not fully understand that so many people, despite John-Henry like efforts, get mired in the lose-lose cycle of poverty, predatory capitalism, struggling schools, incarceration, and hyper segregated communities. A cycle orchestrated and perpetuated by our government that is putatively so committed to freedom and justice for all.Lee D. Baker is Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, and African and African American Studies at Duke University. He received his B.S. from Portland State University and doctorate in anthropology from Temple University. He has been a resident fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Johns Hopkins’s Institute for Global Studies, The University of Ghana-Legon, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Humanities Center. His books include From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 (1998), Life in America: Identity and Everyday Experience (2003), and Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (2010). Although he focuses on the history of anthropology, he has published numerous articles on such wide ranging subjects as socio-linguistics to race and democracy. Baker is also the recipient of Richard K. Lublin Distinguished Teaching Award, and served as Duke’s Dean of Academic Affairs from 2008-2016.