Members of the University community crowded Rackham Auditorium Wednesday evening to hear acclaimed journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss the history and institutionalization of anti-Black racism in America.
“In this country, we believe racism to be a kind of psychosis,” he told the crowd. “A kind of insanity, a sort of inexplicable madness.”
The speech, part of the University’s month-long Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, was sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender along with the Department for Afroamerican and African Studies, the Ford School of Public Policy and the Center for the Education of Women. Some students and faculty were turned away before the event began because the auditorium was at capacity.
“I hope to provoke people; I hope to give them what they brought me here to do,” Coates said in an interview with The Michigan Daily before his speech. “I hope to leave people talking.”
Coates, whose background is primarily rooted in historical studies and journalism, not activism, focused his lecture on facts and data to make a case for reparations.
According to Coates, the history of African Americans is rooted in exploitation. He said slavery was responsible for fostering institutionalized racism in America because it legalized the use of Black labor for economic profit, criminalized Blacks who tried to learn to write and barred them from voting, effectively preventing them from participating in society.
“The fundamental feature of slavery, of enslavement, of all the great physical violence it took to maintain the system is the fact that attribution is plundering,” he said. “It’s important to understand the plunder wasn’t a side product; it wasn’t incidental.”
For example, Coates said during the 18th and 19th centuries, slave-picked cotton accounted for the majority of American exports and the country’s richest region was in the South, where cotton plantations thrived.
Even after slavery was abolished with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Coates said African Americans were still oppressed by a sharecropping system designed to reduplicate slavery within the confines of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed the institution. Sharecropping refers to the system in which newly freed slaves worked someone else’s land in exchange for some of the crops produced. Because former slaves lacked resources and land to begin their life post-slavery, the system exploited Black citizens in a form similar to slavery.
“We live in a country that, for at least 350 years, the policy was to ensure black failure,” Coates said in a seminar for students before the speech. “And it was largely successful.”
Transitioning to the present day, Coates described the ways in which housing discrimination barred Black families from living in certain areas, thus inhibiting their access to good schools. Though paying taxes to the government, Coates said Black people contributed money to a government that barred them from many public institutions like quality schools.
“Ultimately, the case for reparations boils down to a very simple concept,” he said. “If we know that the African American community in this country for the lion’s share of its history has been subject to plunder at every level of our society … then perhaps some small amount, some significant amount of what was taken from you should be given back.”
Following his lecture, Coates held a question-and-answer session with the crowd, responding to a host of questions primarily examining modern day racism. Coates also hosted a smaller seminar for around 30 undergraduate and graduate students before the speech.
During the Q&A session, asked Coates about his thoughts on multiple issues, including gentrification in Detroit, and the fight to reduce drug-related incidents in the United States.
Coates said gentrification is an after-effect of the years of housing discrimination, when specific states and private companies made it legal for certain neighborhoods to receive unequal public benefits based on the demographics of their residents.
“Detroit’s population has been declining for a long time,” he said. “The question to ask is, ‘Why is this happening to begin with?’ ”
During the smaller seminar, Coates spoke more personally, discussing his journey to become a journalist and writer, as well as the confluences between writing and activism.
Rackham students Austin McCoy, Hakeem Jefferson and Courtney McCluney moderated the discussion. The students said they hoped to learn how Coates uses scholarship on African American history and American society as a journalist.
“I’m just really excited to know that there’s someone who cares about the work that we’re doing, and wants to spread it broadly and make arguments using our work,” McCluney said.
Coates told the group he had an unorthodox upbringing and childhood compared to other journalists and authors. His father, a Black Panther during the 1970s and 1980s, taught Coates to revere Malcolm X as the leading African American civil rights hero, not Martin Luther King Jr., as the majority of Americans did.
Though he read and wrote throughout his childhood, Coates said his performance in school was “abysmal.” After studying history at Howard University for a few years, where he wrote for the school paper, he dropped out to pursue a career in journalism.
In both the seminar and in an interview with the Daily, Coates said the future for equality for African Americans will not be attained until the agenda of those in power or a critical mass of people aligns with the agenda of social activists. However, he added that individuals actively opposing racism also have a role to play.
“What they’re doing is not insignificant,” he said. “What they’re doing is exactly what they should be doing. You make the argument, you make the argument, you make the argument, and when the sky opens up you take your chance. But it’s just not open right now.”