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Ta-Nehisi Coates on How Cities Are Winning Reparations for Slavery

Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses reparations after Charlottesville.

The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend came after thousands of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists descended on Charlottesville to protest the city’s plan to remove a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee. The effort to remove this statue was spurred in part by the African-American city Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, who convinced his fellow city councilmembers not only to vote to remove the statue, but also to create a “reparations fund” for Charlottesville’s African-American residents. For more, we speak with award-winning author and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in 2014 penned the influential piece for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.”


AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi, as we begin to wrap up, I wanted to go to one of the stories that got so much attention, that you wrote, and that was “The Case for Reparations.” Interestingly, we had Wes Bellamy on before these mass protests and the white supremacist rally this weekend. He’s the vice mayor of Charlottesville, the only African-American city councilman, one of five. And he’s the one who was originally pushing for the statue of Robert E. Lee to come down. He couldn’t get that approved. And instead, though, he got something like an $8 million reparations fund to deal with equity in Charlottesville. And it was after that was passed that then they just moved ahead. Is that right, Juan? I mean, you were just with Wes Bellamy in Austin at a conference of progressive cities, where they said, “OK, we’re going to take that down, too.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, he was able to get the one final vote, a 3-2 vote on the council, to then agree to also take down the statue. But before that, the white councilmembers tried to placate him by agreeing to an equity fund for the black community in Charlottesville. It occurred to me this might be a potential, at the local level, at the municipal and state level, for politicians to begin demanding equity funds as a form of reparations, to beginning it from the ground up instead from the national government down.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s where all this began in Charlottesville. And if you can comment on that issue, an issue that you were not originally for, reparations, and what it could look like today, as even today, after the terror attack, Wes Bellamy is on the air talking about how important it is, once all the media leaves, to talk about equity in the critical institutions of Charlottesville, that have remained, for so long in the past, separate and unequal.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, see, this is why I come on Democracy Now!, right? Because I just got informed, because I wasn’t — I actually was unaware of all of that.

But I think the story points to — you know, honestly, to two things. And the first thing is that if there were to be reparations in this country, I actually think it would happen like that. I think it would be a series of small local cases based on very, very specific claims. We think of reparations as this grand sort of action, you know, the Supreme Court passing judgment, for instance, that black folks are owed X number of billion or trillion dollars, or Congress perhaps passing a bill, signed by a president, and then, you know, there being this national reparations fund. It’s not so much that I’m against that, but I suspect what will actually happen, or what would actually happen, in terms of a practical thing, is you would see folks look into specific instances. Virginia, for instance, I believe, you know, had a reparations fund for African Americans who were denied access to public schools in the wake of the response to Brown v. The Board. The sterilization cases in North Carolina, where black women were sterilized, and there were reparations claims made on their behalf. The torture of African Americans in Chicago by Jon Burge, a gentleman who worked for the Chicago Police Department, a successful reparations claim was made there. I think you would more see it in that sort of way. And so, you know, I’m happy, A, to see that happening in Charlottesville, but I’m also happy that the gentleman there didn’t stop there. I think oftentimes people think, you know, “Well, if we win this, that means the end of all struggle, and we can go home and, you know, just relax and have a beer.” I’m happy to see that he continued.

AMY GOODMAN: Do these grassroots movements give you hope —


AMY GOODMAN: — right now across the country?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, they’re all we have. They’re all we have. They’re all we have. I smile when I see them. I’m happy to see them. They’re all we have right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the White House, you have Stephen Bannon. There’s questions whether he’ll remain, but of course there have been those questions for many months right now. You have Sebastian Gorka. You have Stephen Miller. These are well-known people who represent this white nationalist strain, this thread, where you have Stephen Miller, one of the advisers to President Trump, actually holding the White Press news briefing last week and saying perhaps the poem by Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor,” should be removed —

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: — from the Statue of Liberty, that it shouldn’t have gone up there to begin with, it wasn’t a part of it originally.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right. I mean, these folks represent the worst in us. You know, they represent the worst in America. And again, I cannot emphasize that the path was laid by mainstream, acceptable politicians, who heard, you know, this birther business, who saw all of this, who heard people, you know, consistently lobbing racist attacks at the president, and did nothing and just stood aside. And so, you know, the idea that the party would then be taken over by a much more extreme or much more vocal sort of white supremacy is not shocking. If you did nothing, you know, if you didn’t speak up during the Obama era, when these claims of racism, when these charges of racism were being lobbed, if you just stood aside, you’re part of the problem, you’re part of how we got here, you know. And you don’t get off by, you know, after somebody’s been killed in Charlottesville, making a statement about white supremacy at this late hour, after the fruit has already come to alms.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Ta-Nehisi Coates, thanks so much for being with us. That does it for our show. His forthcoming book, We Were Eight Years in Power.