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Coates focuses on racial injustice

On April 11, 2017

More than three thousand people heard author Ta-Nehisi Coates make a case for reparations in his April 4 talk at University of Detroit Mercy’s Calihan Hall.

It was the biggest turnout for an author on campus since poet Robert Frost appeared in 1962.

Coates’ writings – among them the bestselling book “Between the World and Me” and a magazine article, “The Case for Reparations” – have made him one of those most prominent voices on race in America.

It was the reparations piece in The Atlantic magazine that indirectly brought Coates to Detroit Mercy.

Researching the article put him in contact with Detroit Mercy history professor Roy Finkenbine, who introduced Coates at Calihan, describing him as fitting “into that long tradition of African-American intellectuals and activists who personally and searchingly force us to confront the contemporary lies and comfortable myths about race.”

Coates praised Finkenbine for his contribution to his reparations article, which he described as “a story that altered the trajectory of my career in a way that I could not anticipate.”

Coates said he had had a sense that the demand for reparations in America was not a new one and sought to understand the historical context behind it.

He consulted with Finkenbine, a national expert on abolition and slavery.

Finkenbine’s historical research bolstered Coates’ argument that demands for reparations – the notion that descendants of slaves should be compensated – was not an alien thought.

“It was Dr. Finkenbine who filled in that gap for me and let me know that in fact the claim for reparations is as old as this country itself,” he said.

Coates said that the key to his journalism has revolved around which questions to ask.

His pursuit has led him to contemplate questions about the safety of his body – of black bodies – and about the neighborhoods in which most blacks live.

“What was distinctive and different about my neighborhood and the people who lived there?” he asked. “That has been the motivation of all of my journalism. It’s actually the thing that ultimately led me to reparations.”

Coates said that spending time in major cities like Detroit raised his consciousness.

Around the time of the 2008 recession, media coverage of Detroit frequently focused on negative images: the Packard plant, the Michigan Central depot, other abandoned buildings and high crime rates.

“It was something about those stories that really, really bugged me and I just couldn’t put a finger on it – some sort of incompleteness,” he said. “My time here in Detroit, I was learning – I was learning what questions to ask.”

He was taken on a tour of one the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods, nearby Palmer Woods.

“I was like, Jesus, look at these houses. They are incredible and you never see that when people talk about Detroit,” Coates said.

He was impressed with the cohesiveness and resilience of that mostly black neighborhood.

“I was wondering, ‘Why weren’t there more Palmer Woods?’ Not just in Detroit but cities in America,” he said.

He believes it is because the African-American community has less wealth by design.

“This is not conspiratorial,” he said, citing statistics from 2014. “For every black family that has a nickel, a white family has a dollar.”

Coates went over that historical record related to race in America.

“This entire frame of race has been invented to obviate the truth of the fact that the most consistent characteristic – the most consistent way of understanding a relationship between people we call black in this country and people we call white – is the relationship of one group plundering another group of people,” he said.

Slavery made blacks criminals in America, and it justified white plunder of black bodies, he said.

Jim Crow built policies that extracted wealth from black communities, robbing them of their tax dollars and spending it on things they were exempt from, he said.

In big cities like Detroit, blacks were redlined, blocked from FHA loans to get homes, he said.

Blacks continue to be plundered by the criminal justice system through mass incarceration, he added.

Coates acknowledged that racial progress in America might make the idea of paying reparations seem unnecessary, but “when you owe someone, you pay them,” he said.

Coates said that the payment of reparations is the only route to eliminating the impact on black lives in America.

“We can’t forget the North Star,” he said. “We can’t forget where we’re trying to go. We can’t forget what the ultimate goal has to be.”

He closed his talk by reading a humorous letter written by former slave Jordan Anderson to his former master, who had appealed for his return. 

“Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will better be able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again,” Anderson wrote.

At the April 4 event, university President Antoine Garibaldi was the first to speak to the diverse audience of educators, students, religious leaders, business owners, civic organizers, attorneys, political leaders and others from the Detroit community.

Garibaldi said he was honored to welcome fellow Howard University alum Coates to campus. It was, he said, “an ideal setting to hear the provocative and enlightening thoughts and reflections of Mr. Coates on some of the most pressing and vexing issues of our day.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Coates met privately with a small group of Detroit Mercy students and answered their questions.

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