On Monday night, the Atlantic's national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates gave a lighthearted, CliffsNotes version of his 15,000-word cover story, "The Case For Reparations," on "The Colbert Report." Coates' piece argues that social, economic and political injustices against black people have compounded over the years, and even after slavery and segregation have ended, the conditions leave many black communities on an uneven playing field today. To even out that playing field, Coates argues, they need reparations from the government.
"This is well argued, and I can understand it, and I don't want to understand it," Colbert joked.
Likening his piece to a doctor giving a patient a black diagnosis, Coates told Colbert, "We have to know what's wrong in order for there to be any healing in the first place."
Then he made his case:
"Well, we have two problems: The first is I think when you say reparations, people think you're talking about people who are long dead. There are people who are alive who have been disadvantaged and injured by policies that were in our name. The second part of that, in addition to that, that damage is such that it doesn't go away when we don't talk about it. New things happen that are compiled on top of that damage. So, segregation in a city like Chicago...northern city, people don't really think about northern cities being segregated. But segregation in a city like Chicago creates a community of people who are ripe to be plundered when people are looking at things like bad loans, for instance."
Coates also explained that America has prospered off the backs of black people, not just in wealth, but "Our policies, our social safety net, the way we think about housing in this country, social security, the GI Bill -- these things would not have been possible unless we made certain compromises with white supremacists, to be perfectly honest about that."
Though Colbert attempted to stay in character, he took a moment to express his admiration. "You've got a very well-argued, exhaustively researched article here, but you don't have solvency at the end of the article. You don't say, 'this is how we'll do the reparations.'"
Coates hopes that HR 40, which Rep. John Conyers Jr. has introduced to Congress every year since 1989, goes into law. The bill, according to Coyners' site, would require "the federal government to undertake an official study of the impact of slavery on the social, political and economic life of our nation." According to Coates, that's where we should start.