Ta-Nehisi Coates essay “The Case for Reparations,” is, without a doubt, a highly controversial perspective on a highly controversial issue. In any day and age, but especially today in the current political climate, talking about race in any fashion is at the least uncomfortable and at the worst downright suicidal. This essay, however, goes a step beyond even that, to discuss the idea of reparations- compensation in some form to be paid to Black Americans due to the grievous injustices inflicted upon them through years of slavery and discrimination.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that the vast majority of white people would be against or at least a little hesitant about this idea. It’s uncomfortable, costly, etc., etc.; the brain leaps to make all sorts of excuses to why reparations aren’t feasible. Ta-Nehisi Coates knows this, probably all too well. Yet still he makes his case.
He begins with a fairly reliable method of intriguing an audience- he provides a specific case study, the personal story of one man named Clyde Ross who endured some of the injustices to which Coates refers in his case. It’s always easier to become more invested in a story if there’s a person at the face of it, so Coates frames the rest of his essay through the initial frame of Ross. One the audience is somewhat invested and relating to the story, it becomes much easier for Coates to then delve into his more specific research. Even while conveying Ross’ story, Coates carefully integrates relevant research relating to both Ross and his larger case, such as information on redlining in Chicago.
Coates then broadens his scope and reveals that Clyde Ross’ situation is not unique- in fact, Ross is actually one of the somewhat lucky ones in this tale. He’s not dead. He hasn’t been lynched. he got out of the South, and he still has his house- things which cannot be said of everyone.
At the same time Coates broadens his scope, he also dives down the rabbit hole, taking the audience with him. One figures that if we’re already discussing the topic of slavery, why not go all the way? Ross’ story has already taken us halfway there. Coates masterfully writes a brief history of Black enslavement and post-emancipation injustice, darting here and there to give the full picture of the last 500 or so years in stark, depressing detail. At the same time, it’s captivating: Coates weaves history together in a way that makes sense and doesn’t feel like a textbook. Every sentence he writes is purposeful and deliberate, as if he is building his towering case with words instead of bricks.
Ultimately, Ta-Nehisi Coates manages to create a masterwork out of an impossible subject through the sheer skill of his writing and expansiveness of his research. That, I suppose, is the takeaway here- if one writes and researches in the right way, even the most impossible audience can be made to lend an ear.