Understanding Reparations is a Metropolitan History Issue. Also, Let’s Not Teach Any More History

Check this video, which accompanies Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” on The Atlantic. Then please read the article.


Coates’s piece has been making a big splash in my virtual circles, and with good cause. There is much to discuss about Coates’s argument, and I’ll probably update this post with links to other writers and bloggers who offer a constructive comment on it.

Update: Nathan Connolly’s piece on the new blog of the Urban History Association is terrific.

I would like to mention, however, that the impact the article made on me was in the way that it connected the historical processes of migration and urbanization to the perpetuation of racial inequality. If the typical American is willing to accept that slavery was a system of horrific racial abuse and exploitation, and that the Jim Crow practices of the post-Reconstruction South were likewise brutal and undemocratic, the case for reparations generally falls off the rails somewhere after the March on Washington. Understanding the ways that racial prejudice and economic, political, and cultural exploitation and exclusion work requires understanding the ways that race has been woven into the fabric of metropolitan America.

This is, of course, what urban and metropolitan historians of race and ethnicity do, and Coates shows his work, referring readers to an excellent reading list describing the ways that the housing markets, among other urban institutions, perpetuated segregation and thus grossly unequal opportunity networks for black Americans outside the South and both before and after the era of Civil Rights.

The Great Migrations of African Americans out of the South to northern cities, in particular come under scrutiny. These migrations were certainly transformative, but Coates disrupts the narrative of progress toward equality (with help from Beryl Satter’s Family Property and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns) by explaining how predatory schemes like contract buying (how black buyers denied participation in the legitimate home credit markets were exploited by home sellers, who would receive monthly payments directly from buyers but retain title all equity in the home until the contract terms were fulfilled and could reclaim the property for any violation of a contract, including one missed payment).

The online version of Coates’s article is particularly useful because it provides multimedia supplements about historical figures and incidents like the Chicago Contract Buyer’s League, which in the late 1960s rallied residents of black Chicago neighborhoods to identify the terms of their oppression. Crucially, as both the League then and Coates now argue, the oppression of black Chicagoans was not a vestige of poverty or ignorance held over from the rural south, but an ongoing series of crimes against them, abetted by the state.

In return for the “deprivations of their rights and privileges under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments,” the league demanded “prayers for relief”—payback of all moneys paid on contracts and all moneys paid for structural improvement of properties, at 6 percent interest minus a “fair, non-discriminatory” rental price for time of occupation. Moreover, the league asked the court to adjudge that the defendants had “acted willfully and maliciously and that malice is the gist of this action.”

Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer appealing to the government simply for equality. They were no longer fleeing in hopes of a better deal elsewhere. They were charging society with a crime against their community. They wanted the crime publicly ruled as such. They wanted the crime’s executors declared to be offensive to society. And they wanted restitution for the great injury brought upon them by said offenders. In 1968, Clyde Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer simply seeking the protection of the law. They were seeking reparations.

This is the core of the claim to reparations: identifying racism as a massive series of crimes. Unfortunately, as George Lipsitz has argued in How Racism Takes Place, the “public pedagogy” of place tends to obscure the political action and racial intent behind segregation and naturalize it. Lipsitz uses the them of crime to critique the now-classic HBO series The Wire, noting that the state-sanctioned exodus of whites from the city of Baltimore and the systemic denial of housing credit and opportunity to black residents, underlying all of the failures of the city’s institutions, was “the crime The Wire couldn’t name.”

It’s worth noting here, as an aside, that viewing the case for reparations in the context of how metropolitan space organizes economic and social advantage and disadvantage totally undercuts an argument against reparations that most people regard as a conversation-ender: that it would be difficult to distinguish the descendants of slaves from other persons of African ancestry in the US. Of course, the case for reparations begins with slavery and the wealth expropriated from black slaves. But that expropriation has continued through the public crimes of metropolitan segregation, and any person who is black in America, regardless of the duration of their roots in the country, is adversely affected by living in a society organized this way.

Much of the best of metropolitan history is an attempt to understand these crimes, and the ways in which they have been abetted, ignored, and excused. Coates may not dig as deeply into the nuances of these historical issues as many academic historians do, he nonetheless does something that academic historians are somewhat reluctant to do, which is to connect knowledge of the past not only to understanding our collective arrival in the present, but to map out paths to an alternative future.

In totally unrelated news, the city of Boston’s public schools will no longer be maintaining independent history departments (h/t Erik Loomis @ Lawyers, Guns and Money)

One comment on “Understanding Reparations is a Metropolitan History Issue. Also, Let’s Not Teach Any More History

  1. […] I’ve seen the light. My critiques of market-based development, political fragmentation, and historically institutionalized racism in metropolitan America are way off base. In fact, suburban sprawl is the […]

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