By Natalie Rodriguez
We all make difficult choices every day. However, for Ta-Nehisi Coates, these involved choices that would keep him safe from physical harm. Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, shared his stories with the Dominican community Feb. 26 in a lecture sponsored by several campus departments.
Coates said: “This is a conversation about plunder and at the root… is this idea the primary relationship between African-Americans and a country in which they live is a relationship of plunder. It’s a relationship of having national policy, state policy and local policy for over 350 years extending back to colonial America all the way up into modern America of taking things out of one community in order to advantage another community.”
Born in 1975 in West Baltimore, Coates grew up surrounded by violence. At a very young age he knew that things such as the way he wore his hat, what he wore to school and what path he took to get home could affect his chances of safety. Coates said, “When I was in middle school two thirds of my brain was thinking of school, the other third part of my brain was preoccupied on physical safety.”
Coates soon realized that his neighborhood was not the only one besieged by violence. When he visited African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, he noticed that many others lived in similar conditions.
When he was young, Coates noticed a discrepancy between white characters on television and the people in his neighborhood—everyone on television was white. Their choices centered on trivial things such as who they would take to prom. Coates said, “Even at that young age, 11 or 12, I was aware that there was some great chasm between the world and me. Between the way that I lived and between the way everyone else I knew lived.”
Coates wanted to understand this chasm and examined statistics that sociologists produced for Black neighborhoods. He found that white families have a dollar for every five cents an African American family has. Even though some African-American families have wealth that is considered middle class, many do not live in middle class neighborhoods.
Coates grew up with his mother and father, both college graduates. Even though Coates’ family life was healthy, he was still surrounded by violence. This motivated Coates to become a writer and an educator. He recently wrote the article A Case for Reparations, where he brings awareness to the limited means African-Americans had to purchase homes in the 1900s.
For Coates, it is important to take sentiment away when talking about racism. In his speech, he explained that people tend to think of racism as something of the past—something only bad people do—but anyone can have racist thoughts. Instead on focusing on conversations that are sentimental and evading, Coates said conversations about race should focus on historical evidence. He said, “I can’t get into your head. I can’t understand your motives but I understand the math and the math doesn’t really care about your motives.”
For Coates, the “math” comes from the long history of African-American families being taken advantage of regarding home ownership. In his article, Coates discusses how home ownership for white families became more accessible in the 1990s when the federal government decided to aid them. Buyers had easy access to loans and could receive the deed to their house before paying it off. If for some reason they couldn’t pay off the loan, the government would intervene and pay it off. However, Black families had no access to these loans. Instead they were deceived into buying houses on contract. This meant that families would have to make a down payment to receive a loan but only be handed the deed after the loan was paid in full. If they missed a payment, they could be evicted. Additional hidden fees were added and if anything malfunctioned in the house the family had to pay for it. Coates called this a “massive affirmative action” where one group was benefitted while another was excluded. According to him, this is why many black communities have so many problems of poverty and violence.
When an audience member asked what students should do to address the chasm or if they felt stuck because of racial inequality, Coates said: “We’re talking about 350 years of plunder. This will not be fixed in your lifetime. I know it won’t be fixed in my lifetime, it probably won’t be fixed in my grandkid’s life time should I be so lucky. I think that the first thing to understand is the monumental challenge in front of you. You are not going to heal racism.”