Reparations, Respectability Politics and a call to action

By Galen Rock, Sports Editor


On May 21, The Atlantic published a highly anticipated essay by one of America’s foremost black intellectuals, Ta-Nehisi Coates, entitled “A Case for Reparations.”

The 15,000-word cover story examines the governmental policies and practices from the start of slavery in America to post-civil rights movements that ensured the failure and plight of the black community. Some of the practices are nuanced and explained much better by Coates in his story, but one easily understood aspect that still plays a large part in the plight of blacks is the discriminatory and predatory housing practices.

The Depression-era reform known as the Federal Housing Assistance program, which sought to lower interest rates and lessen down payments for working Americans looking to own their homes, also established a system of rating the credit-worthiness of neighborhoods. Known as “redlining” for the red sections of the map that were deemed a bad risk, the FHA maps did nothing less than provide the legal structure for federally sanctioned racism — a discrimination that attacks not only an excluded prospective homebuyer, but the children and grandchildren of that man or woman.

The effects, as Coates beautifully explains, are still apparent in urban areas like Chicago, Los Angeles and inner cities throughout the country — areas that are being largely ignored. Much like this whole story was largely ignored by mainstream media in favor of a more scandalous and easily digestible narrative.

Hours after “The Case for Reparations” dropped, quotes from NBA owner Mark Cuban were unearthed from an interview at a tech convention on the topic of ousted NBA owner Donald Sterling.

“I know I’m prejudiced, and I know I’m bigoted in a lot of different ways,” Cuban said in an interview shown at the annual GrowCo convention hosted by Inc. magazine, according to The Tennessean, “If I see a black kid in a hoodie on my side of the street, I’ll move to the other side of the street. If I see a white guy with a shaved head and tattoos [on the side he now is on], I’ll move back to the other side of the street. None of us have pure thoughts; we all live in glass houses.”

While the comments are harmless at face value, they are rather insensitive and are more reminiscent of opinions you’d find in a freshman sociology class. Nothing he said was applause worthy, yet many lined up to deliver them anyways.

Two reactions that bothered me deeply were from ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and CNN’s Don Lemon, who are both black males and both, apparently, stricken with Bill Cosby syndrome. By that I mean they are both wallowing in the toxic waters of respectability politics.

Smith and Lemon both basically echoed different versions of the “Pull up your pants and talk right for the white man” defense the misguided usually go to when the “black kid in a hoodie” debate comes up. But in this case and on that day their arguments were far more damaging than Cuban’s.

Respectability politics don’t work and it is extremely insulting to insinuate otherwise.

Racism won’t be overcome by black people peacefully and willfully assimilating, in fact Coates’ piece tells us otherwise. “One thread of thinking in the African-American community holds that these depressing numbers partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior,” he wrote in “The Case for Reparations.”

“The thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance.”

And that is what is so frustrating. Coates’ deeply-felt and deftly-written piece can answer, or at least give us some clarity, into the reasons black people lead the lives they do. Instead, the majority of others, Cuban, Smith and Lemon included, just babbled on about how we look, dress and act, essentially rationalizing bigotry and racism.

According to Coates, even black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000, illustrating that even our most exceptional can’t match the exclusion and generational wealth of white America.

It boggles my mind that this trio received more airtime than those who actually know what they are talking about, not just reciting age-old myths.

We talk so much about the lack of true and powerful black intellectuals, at least my friends and I do. But if you’re watching only ESPN or the pathetic collection of cable news shows, then you could miss out on truly great minds like Coates, a mind that deserves our utmost attention and intellectual capacity.

And that is all Coates is asking for in his piece: a conversation, a dialogue on the plight of a community that has played perhaps the biggest part in shaping our country. No handouts. No washed up excuses or tired rationalizations. Just a simple conversation.

“More important than any single check cut to any African-American,” Coates argues, “the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

In the words of my favorite sportswriter, Bomani Jones, the only thing that should keep you from reading “A Case for Reparations” is “willful ignorance or weakness.” The piece is that important and powerful. Enough to drown out the idiots screaming on cable television.