Ta-Nehisi Coates at U of T: A Case for Reparations

On November 3rd from 7pm to 9pm, I was privileged enough to sit in on a talk by Ta-Nehisi Coates: American journalist, educator, and senior editor of The Atlantic. It was unreal to me, not only because I was hearing such a famous journalist talk in person, but also because I was seeing the culmination of months of hard work finally coming to life. I am an executive on the Arts and Science Student’s Union, and together with our partners from UTSU, Faculty of Arts and Science, the History Department at U of T, and the Centre for Study of United States, we had been planning this event for almost two months.

I remember in the beginning of the school year, during one of our first meetings, the executives of ASSU were sitting around boxes of pizza (or TimBits, if it was a morning meeting. I don’t recall) discussing whether or not we should host a speaker event. We had just finalized the plans for a screening of “The Internet’s Own Boy” complete with a Q&A session with director Brian Knappenberge, and flushed with the success of having an exciting new event to plan and look forward to.

Several ideas were tossed around, and there were favorable responses to a screening of “The Ivory Tower” or a panel of speakers to discuss the escalating situation of missing and murdered indigenous women. And then, ASSU President Abdullah Shihipar suggested Ta-Nehisi Coates. Following the publication and excellent response to his “Case for Reparations” published in The Atlantic this summer; it was safe to say that the team was game to extend an invitation for Coates to speak at U of T.

But it would be expensive. And time consuming. And require unreal organization skills.

“We haven’t had a speaker event in over ten years, maybe it’s time we’ve hosted another one,” reasoned Executive Assistant, Jane Seto.

And so, it was decided. Ta-Nehisi Coates would be coming to town. 

A key feature of Ta-Nehisi’s talk was his stark honesty and down-to-earth approach to highly complex matters. So following in this pattern, I will also be honest – I have a very elementary working knowledge of Black Slavery in America. Yes, I have taken HIS102 and know the basics of colonialism, segregation, and the civil war. But if you attempt to engage me in an intellectual discussion or debate on the role of African-American slavery in America, I will be of no use to you.

I went into this event having read the article by Coates, but doing little external research on my own. I suppose I didn’t know exactly what to expect, all I know is that the talk that transpired turned out to be a lot better than my expectations. After two months of hyping this event, announcing it, sharing it, and discussing it, that’s saying something.

I didn’t even recognize Coates at first, standing up by the podium in a sharp black suit and no glasses. I had become accustom to the image of him we used in our event advertising posters: hat, slight smile, and glasses. Up close, he is much more approachable than the 10-foot slide he appeared on to advertise the event during our ASSU General Meeting. Coates began his talk with a discussion on the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri, Ferguson. He talked of Trayron Martin and Sean Bell, and how the fact that they were both young, black men is not just a coincidence. He talked of how the targeting and profiling of black men in America is the result of hundreds of years of slavery, criminalization, and plundering, and why it’s time for America to pay its dues.

You see, slavery and racism were not just “bumps on the road” to the creation of democratic, equal, free America. Coates stresses that the cruelty and inequality of America’s past are not simply outliers and deviations on a path of good intentions, but rather the path itself. History has turned America into a passive player, a country with strong ideals and good values that fell into a trap of discrimination and enslavement. Coates, however, argues that America helped create and maintain discrimination and enslavement via national policies and regulations such as redlining regions with a high concentration of Black residents.  

In his speech, Coates maintains that the ones who did the crime should serve the time. In this case, the biggest player in slavery and subsequent discrimination against Black people is the state. Therefore, it is only right that the state pay reparations to the descendants of the slaves it plundered from all those years ago –the people who still face racial profiling and subtle racism as a result of the policies of long ago.  

Ta-Nehisi Coates during a Q&A with Peter Loewen, Director of the Centre for the Study of the United States and the American Studies Undergraduate Program

According to Coates, the biggest challenge to reparations is the “why should I?” attitude of taxpayers.

“Why should I pay for something I didn’t do?”

“I didn’t encourage slavery, so why do I need to contribute to reparations?”

“I wasn’t even alive then, so I shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s mistakes.”

“Okay,” Coates reasons, “I don’t drive. Does that mean I’m exempt from taxes for highway maintenance? I don’t support the war in Iraq. Does that mean I can stop paying taxes?”

Black people were paying into states and governments, which denied them services for years. Alternatively, just because you don’t pay a tax does not mean you do not benefit from the services it provides. A state that does not pay for the benefit and resources of all of its members is no state at all.  

The state of America paying reparations is not simply handing descendants of slaves a fat check or a tax break, and saying “here’s payback for the last three hundred years.” It is not a convenient way of alleviating white guilt. Reparations are a way for the state to acknowledge that what it did was wrong, and to apologize formally to the people that it has wronged – both in the past and present. Reparations are not a means to the end of forgetting slavery or pretending that it now okay, but rather the first of many steps to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and promising a better, more humane future. After all, a state that can humble itself to acknowledge past mistakes, apologize for them, and take steps to compensate those affected is a better state for everybody.   

One of the refreshing things about Coates was his candor and honesty. He did not use cue cards or a pre-scripted speech, and I suspect many of the things he said today were uttered for the first time. Despite the fact that he was introduced as a “public intellectual,” Coates did not pretend to be the all knowing intellectual, master of the universe. In fact, he admitted to actually despising the title of “public intellectual,” and all the connotations and expectations that went along with it.

Several questions were asked of him during the Q&A session regarding what reparations for enslaved African-Americans meant in the Canadian scope of things, or even if a comparison could be drawn between Aboriginals of Canada and African-Americans of America. While Coates did effectively answer each question using his knowledge of American and Canadian history, he prefaced it with the admittance that he is not an expert on Canadian policy or politics.

While some members of the audience may have found his inability to extrapolate his suggestions for the American government to the Canadian government disappointing, I found it admirable. With a weighty title like public intellectual and the responsibility of speaking in front of an audience of educated and opinionated people, it can be tempting to pretend to know the answer, even when you don’t.

After the talk, the executives of ASSU went backstage to thank and talk to Ta-Nehisi one last time. After shaking his hand, I told him that I admired his bravery in admitting he did not know everything there is to know regarding Canadian law, history, and policy. Such a thing can be scary in front of an audience that has such high expectations of you. Ta-Nehisi smiled, and thanked me. “Many people do talk about things they really have no clue about, write books about them even. But I feel it’s better to be honest, because if I stand up there and talk to you about something that I don’t really understand, that’s disrespectful to you.”

And with that, Ta-Nehisi Coates respectfully concluded his visit at the University of Toronto and opened discussion on reparations for African-Americans in the United States.  

ASSU President, Abdullah Shihipar with Ta-Nehisi Coates