'Ingenious and powerful,' 'important and compelling', 'stunningly ambitious;' it has 'broken traffic records and vanished from newsstands,' 'setting ablaze' social media. What is it?
It is 'The Case for Reparations,' Atlantic's June 2014 cover story by editor Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The idea has been tossed around since Emancipation, falling out of fashion as of late. Coates brings it roaring back in this long-form piece, calling on Euro-Americans to 1) publicly express their guilt about past oppression, and 2) pay reparation money to their Afro countrymen. Does his argument hold water?
The 17-page article covers much ground, but it seems Coates seeks redress for three major wrongs:
- Land theft
They are three quite different topics, and should be treated as such. We shall begin by addressing the most recent: so-called 'redlining.'
Coates tells the story of Clyde Ross, son of Mississipi sharecroppers who came to Chicago in the Great Migration:
'Three months after Clyde Ross moved into his house, the boiler blew out. This would normally be a homeowner’s responsibility, but in fact, Ross was not really a homeowner. His payments were made to the seller, not the bank. And Ross had not signed a normal mortgage. He’d bought “on contract”: a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither.
Ross had bought his house for $27,500. The seller, not the previous homeowner but a new kind of middleman, had bought it for only $12,000 six months before selling it to Ross. In a contract sale, the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, Ross would acquire no equity in the meantime.'
Why was Ross obliged to buy a house 'on contract'? Because he could secure no regular mortgage financing. Chances are, in large part because he was Afro-American.