MSNBC's Chris Hayes Makes the Case for Reparations with The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates

MSNBC's Chris Hayes Makes the Case for Reparations with The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates

On Friday’s broadcast of MSNBC’s “All In,” host Chris Hayes discussed the “history of economic plunder and exploitation” that were called key features of white supremacy in America with The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Transcript as follows:

HAYES: You hear it all the time these days. The notion the country`s election and re-election of a black president represents a final break with racial harms. Because of this one man, Barack Obama, the country`s racial history has been redeemed and we are all living in a new country in a new era, untainted by all that unpleasantness from before.

Well, in an epic and masterful and highly controversial essay that everyone is talking about, perhaps the greatest essayist of our time, in the cover piece for “The Atlantic” called “The Case for Reparations”, Ta- Nehisi Coates — as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sin of the future.”

Coats traces the long dark history of economic plunder and exploitation that are essential features of America`s tradition of white supremacy and racial hierarchy, not just in the days of slavery or the days of reconstruction or the lynching era of the Jim Crow self, but up in the north in the boom years after the Second World War, where government policy, private action and even mob violence all worked to destroy black wealth.

What this essay does is tell a story about debt that has been accrued, a real monetary debt, the displacement of wealth from one group of people used to fatten the pockets of another group of people. It`s about America`s tendency to not see injustice as an injustice when the perpetrators get away with it for enough time.

For Coates, to ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of natural lying. And there`s nothing more anathema to current conservative conversation on race than that inconvenient truth.

And joining me now is the one and only Ta-Nehisi Coates. Congratulations on the essay.


HAYES: You`ve been working — you and I have been talking about this essay for two years.

COATES: On the other show.

HAYES: Yes. That`s right. Since I was on “UP.”

So, let`s start out with what is the — what`s the case? What`s the argument in a nutshell for people that have not read the essay? What do you want people to walk away with?

COATES: The basic feature is really, really simple, defining our relationship between black America and white America is taking, is plunder, is stealing, and this is obviously true — I mean, most explicitly in slavery a period of 250 years but it continues after enslavement into debt, peonage, and sharecropping in the South, into racial terrorism, when you are talking about the seizing of people`s bodies, into through some of the most progressive policy that, you know, we erected during the 20th century throughout our housing legislation, throughout our G.I. bill.

Basically, you know, just a defining feature in terms of how the two communities have related in our history.

HAYES: You — you tell the story in the beginning, and I think this is a really important point, because I think one of the ways we think about — I will speak for myself. One way I had sort of been brought up to think about race and racism was as a problem of exclusion, of hatred.

COATES: Right.

HAYES: Of people saying and doing mean things, of doing horrible, violent things and of constraining people`s freedom, like you couldn`t go to that water fountain, you couldn`t go to that pool and that that was the injury. And you really put a lot of emphasis on this on the fact that actually — no, no, it was taking stuff.

COATES: Right, right.

HAYES: Taking stuff was the core feature.

COATES: Right, right, plunder.

HAYES: Plunder.

And you tell the story of a guy named Clyde Ross. This is from the video that came out with the essay. This is Clyde Ross. Take a listen.


CLYDE ROSS: My name is Clyde Ross. I was born in Clarksville, Mississippi. I bought this house in 1958. I paid $26,000 and the house was worth $12,000. That means I was overcharged quite a bit.

We have been cheated out the right to be human beings in a society. We haven`t been cheated out of buying homes at a decent price.


HAYES: That`s — that`s Clyde Ross. He started down in Mississippi and you tell the story of the plunder, just one individual person, the plunder he experienced.

Tell me that story. It starts with a horse.

COATES: Yes, well, it starts with — Clyde Ross, let me just say, one of the I think unfortunate things that happens when we have this discussion is there`s a focus on poverty as though African-Americans were, quote-unquote, “working class, middle class” and have things, not themselves subject of plunder. And you see the opposite of that in the case of Clyde Ross, they had funds, they had mules, they had cows, they chickens, all of it was taking from them.

HAYES: This is back in Mississippi.

COATES: This is back in Mississippi in the 1920s, and Clyde Ross grew up under a situation where basically white folks in Mississippi could take when they wanted to take, right down to his horse, his only possession as a child.

HAYES: Explain, like, what, they just showed up one day?

COATES: They literally just showed up one day and said we want that horse, and they took the horse and put it on the racetrack. Yes. Yes.

It got much worse than that his brother, for instance, who had epilepsy, had an epileptic fit in town, they took him and they put him in Parchman prison. Anybody who knows anything about Parchman prison understands that it`s essentially 20th century slavery at that time. Never saw his brother again. It could never even recover the body.

HAYES: So, he was raised in a world, this is in the 1920s in Mississippi, family had some assets, in which those assets up to and including the human life of the family member can be at any moment —

COATES: Seized.

HAYES: White people can show up and say “yoink”. That`s ours.

COATES: Yoink is the feature of the story basically. That should have been the headline.

HAYES: That should have been the headline, yoink, right?

COATES: Right.

HAYES: Because — and eventually that is precisely the thing that pushes him up to the North, right?

COATES: That`s right.

HAYES: There`s a great line in there what`s seeking is the protection of law.

COATES: The protection of law, which is the first thing he said to me and I did not understand what he was saying. When he outlined what was going on in the south which is no black lawyers, no black judges, no black prosecutors, no black people with any sort of stake in the legal process at all, with any sort of positions of power in the state, that`s no law if you`re black.

He comes to the North and he thinks he`s going to get away with that. You know, on some level, there is a change. I don`t want to undersell that. But he came to the North at a time when home buying was effectively being subsidized by the federal government. We think that, you know, our, you know, idea of homeownership something a matter of just rugged individualism, but the government engineered this, except for black people.

And Clyde Ross was a part of that generation of folks who had jobs, who was working a job, ended up working three jobs and could not get a legitimate mortgage to buy.

HAYES: Federal housing authority basically invented redlining — redlining being — I mean, they were literally read maps. Federal Housing Authority said we will not underwrite mortgages in these neighborhoods because there are black people.

COATES: That`s right. And that practice then spread out to the private industry which, you know, didn`t need much of a push. It`s more of a collusion, in fact, and themselves, even without the push from the government said, you know, we will not give loans to black people.

And I just want to, you know, push this point home. That didn`t just affect black people. It affected white people.

If you were an individual decided maybe you didn`t want to be racist and you just had no problem with black people moving in, you had great incentive to leave anyway. Because the property values in your neighborhood were going to decline.

HAYES: When black people moved in, the property values, partly because of federal housing policy would actually decline, whether you were racist or not, people are moving out.

COATES: Right.

HAYES: So, he buys on what is called a contract sale.


HAYES: Which is basically a straight hustle. Again, yoink.

COATES: Right, yoink. Again, basically, it is all of the problems of renting, with all of the problems of buying and none of the rewards of either. At any moment, should you miss a payment, the person who holds the lease can immediately take the home from you, keep the down payment, keep all the pages that you`ve made up to that point.

In fact, they set it up is that is what actually happened.

HAYES: They are trying to, basically this person comes in, a contract sale, I am both the seller and the lender?

COATES: Right. Right. I don`t tell you that. I don`t tell you all that.

HAYES: Yes, I don`t tell you that. And you are now working your way out of debt to me. You missed a payment, I can say, you missed a payment, I`m taking all the back money, even if you paid 80 percent down on the house —

COATES: Right.

HAYES: — and the equity of the house and I`m putting you out?

COATES: That`s exactly what happened. This is serious, add this quickly. I got a call from my mother this morning, and I don`t want to get emotional here, but I grew up in west Baltimore, my grandmother lived in west Baltimore. There was a home I went to every day after school.

My grandmother bought that home on contract and I didn`t even know that until my mother read the story and explained that to me. My grandmother was Clyde Ross — you know, basically came up, raised three kids in the projects, sent them to college, worked cleaning white folks` floors and managed to buy a home and this is the only way she could do it. This is very similar story.

HAYES: And so the accrued — what the results of the plunder, right, the argument is we got — we had slavery, you don`t actually even linger on slavery that long. Not that big a part of it.

COATES: You don`t want to buy the reparations of slavery argument, come on.

HAYES: Let`s talk about plunder just in the 1950s, right?

COATES: Right. Right.

HAYES: OK. What we have created is this wealth gap, right? And this great Chris Rock meditation on what wealth means I want to play because I think it really gets something key here. Take a listen.

COATES: Right.


CHRIS ROCK, COMEDIAN: I`m not talking about rich, I`m talking about wealth. Because wealth will set (EXPLETIVE DELETED) free, OK? Because wealth is empowering. Wealth can uplift communities from poverty, OK? Wealth is passed down from generation to generation. You can`t get rid of wealth. Rich is (EXPLETIVE DELETED) you can lose with a crazy drug habit.


HAYES: Right. Wealth is this thing that there`s stability to one of the things we see is this unbelievable gap in household wealth between white people and black people, even — even when you normalize for income. Even people with masters degrees or law degrees, you normalize across these things. We see this persistent racial wealth gap.

COATES: Right. This is the thing, again, you know, just to bang on this. You know, inequality is a very big problem in America than wealth, right? And it`s something that, you know, obviously, believe in the fight against inequality.

But this is not just a matter of poverty. Racism is an actual real thing with actual consequences and the wealth gap is the biggest illustration of that.

HAYES: Black graduates twice as likely to be unemployed as white college graduates. I saw a crazy statistic, all college graduates, same age range, unemployment was 5.6 percent, 12.4 percent, you go through all the ways in which race, not socioeconomic status, not poverty urge right —

COATES: See, Chris, I think we are laboring under a dangerous illusion and this is really one of the motivating features for this essay and that is that if you are black in this country and you play by the rules, you go to college, you get married, you know, you delay having kids, you will be OK. You probably will be OK but you won`t be equal.

HAYES: Right.

COATES: You won`t end in equality. That`s not a solution for ending — that`s good advice for individuals, but that`s not an anti-inequality.

HAYES: But the argument you have gotten from Barack Obama on responding reparations, you get from white liberals, you get from conservatives, you get from black liberals, you get from all sorts of people is, basically, anything like reparations is completely impracticable, (a), and, (b), we have had all sorts of redistributive programs in this country, we had war on poverty, we`ve got Medicaid, we had the Great Society, we have had all kinds of Head Start, we have had all kinds of redistributive policies that have redounded disproportionately the benefit of black Americans, black people are disproportionately poor.

And so, you know, we are doing it, we are trying to, we are redistributing.

COATES: Yes. Well, first, just two quick things. The president gives the argument with all due respect to President Obama, he gives the argument that you expect President Obama to give. I don`t expect President Obama to come on and support reparation.

In terms of the impracticality argument, all I got to say to this is the following. In 1859, Frederick Douglass was arguing for the liquidation of, what, trillions of dollars of wealth in the form of human slaves, OK? I can`t think of anything that was more impractical than what Frederick Douglass was arguing for. It happened.

And right now, if you talk to anybody, they would say Frederick Douglass had a correct and moral position. Everybody would say that was totally the right thing to do. I`m just not particularly swayed by it.

HAYES: You think the moral case is compelling enough here that whatever practicable aspects —

COATES: I think we can do what we want to do. That`s what I think. I think if we decide a world in which we decide —

HAYES: What does that look like, right?

COATES: The first step is outlined in the article is support John Conyers bill H.R. 40 to study, to study enslavement and effects to of the legacy of enslavement and see what remedies might possibly be there should we find something wrong. And a lot of people get frustrated with that they want me to have an outline —

HAYES: Yes. Yes.


COATES: Exactly. But we haven`t even studied it. You got to get your hands around the actual problem.

You know, I did what I could. You know what I mean? I spent two years looking at this and tried to do the best that I could.

But we need an actual serious study. I mean this is a huge thing.


COATES: I mean, to calculate not just enslavement but to calculate housing discrimination to calculate, you know, education, school segregation, to calculate criminal justice policy, to calculate all of that and figure out what the effect has been on African-Americans and how much of that we can actually pass. I mean, this is a huge deal. This is not a small thing.

HAYES: Right.

COATES: So, I did what I could.

HAYES: You got the one historical moment in the essay that I did not know at all was the very heated debate in Israel, as a young nation, about reparations from Germany. There was this huge conflagration over it.

COATES: Right.

HAYES: And one of the things fascinating about it is Germany ended up paying reparation and that investment was key to a young nation in its electrical grid and all these things, right? Investment and wealth, as Chris Rock said, wealth really does matter.

Ta-Nehisi Coates from “The Atlantic,” the piece is “The Case for Reparations”. It`s an absolute must-read. Thanks, man.

COATES: Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for your help, Chris, seriously. Thank you.

(h/t RCP Video)

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