A student’s case for reparations

By Zachary Hands, '15  |  Photo by Larry Canner

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Baltimore native and national correspondent for The Atlantic, addressed an audience of students, faculty, and members of the community at Loyola University Maryland’s annual Martin Luther King Convocation.

Zachary Hands, ’15, wrote the following reflective response to Coates’ lecture.

I had read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, “A Case for Reparations,” before he spoke at Loyola University Maryland’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation on Jan. 19. I suspected I knew what I would hear when he came to Loyola. I was not wrong. He spoke in detail about the history of segregation against black people, particularly in the housing industry, from the post-Civil War period until around the 1960s. He spoke of Jim Crow and the racist practices during the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

Coates’ “case” deflects contemporary arguments that we need to have about equality, education, the justice system, and law enforcement. When he did speak about contemporary issues, however, he was right on the mark. His soliloquy on income inequality is something every person in this country needs megaphoned into their ears. His brief monologue on institutionalized racism should also be at the fore of American debate.

As I listened to Coates, I found myself considering whether reparations are even something that should be discussed.

For people whom this directly affected, I’m fully behind righting that wrong and assuring they are compensated for one of the darker collective periods in this country’s history. However, I think our focus needs to be elsewhere. There are issues of civil rights that are fixable—that we should work together on—right now.

Whether we like it or not, this country has a significant number of people who don’t realize or don’t believe that our justice system has inherently become an apparatus of racism. These people do not see the crippling effects of income inequality. They want to take things “back to the way they were.” We have to deal with a lot of white, conservative, straight, old politicians who think the 1950s are a poster child for the future, who consider all welfare recipients to be “takers,” and who hold the social positions of the Puritans. Even if we should be at a point where we seriously discuss reparations, we aren’t.

My biggest issue with Coates’ case is the broad brush he uses. He believes that even those who are not directly involved are still responsible for our racial issues. In some ways, that is true. But not with any level of depth, and certainly not with anything that wasn’t cast by ingrained societal pretenses.

Racism isn’t going to die with reparations or programs to foster tolerance and understanding. People discriminate. People compartmentalize others based on race, religion, sexuality, and class status.

That said, while we’ll never be able to rid the world of discrimination entirely, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can’t do to try…

The point that I would make to Mr. Coates is that we’re more in this together than he’s let on. I’m in this with you. There are so many millions of people who are in this with you.

Unless you have been oppressed or discriminated against, you cannot possibly understand what it’s like. I have no idea what it is like to be black. I don’t know what it’s like to have people lock their doors when you walk by their car—just as most people don’t know what it’s like to be gay and witness a national discussion about whether or not you can marry a person you love.

What I would like to see, what I hope we can work toward, is tolerance, compassion, and understanding. What I hope we can find is a uniting force for all Americans. That is what we need. We need to come together, to collaborate, to try to understand one another, to actualize what the American dream was originally about.

Let’s work on giving everyone a fair shot by working together, not by working as individual lobbying firms amongst those we identify with. We’re never going to combat these things unless we work together using realistic tactics to combat all inequality.

If we do all these things together, the reparations will make themselves.

We’ve got a lot of work to do. Let’s get started.

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