“All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in a powerful much discussed 16,000- word piece in The Atlantic. While much of the buzz sparked by the article—rightly, considering that it is entitled “The Case for Reparations”– has focused on reparations both as a conceptual notion to push the national dialogue around race and as a policy vehicle to ‘settle with old ghosts’, what has stuck with me is the way that Coates constructed his argument. In short, while I certainly spent a lot of time mulling over the case for reparations in terms of substance, I spent an equal amount of time dissecting the piece in terms of style and form.
At Living Cities, I lead our communications work, focused on fostering the spread of experimentation and adoption of promising approaches to move the needle for low income people in U.S. cities. So, a big part of my job is thinking about, testing, and measuring ways of communicating our mission, purpose, and vision for broader understanding of the issues on which we work. How, I pondered, had Coates succeeded where so many others had failed in terms of speaking of those things that ‘must go unspoken’—things like institutional and structural racism— and challenging others to do the same in a way that elevated the conversation above the standard rhetoric? Indeed, I have been encouraged by the level and diversity of thought emerging from the commentary, critique, and conversation about this piece.
While the social sector, in our communications, is very conscious of allowing for additional interpretations and possibilities, offering careful quantification and qualification of positions, and acknowledging opposing arguments, sometimes we do so in such extreme ways as to obscure the important points that we are making—points that, if understood and rendered actionable could make a world of difference in terms of advancing our missions. Coates’ article, on the other hand is unflinching in its reporting. He weaves historical context, reporting, storytelling and opinion together adeptly, shedding a harsh light on our past and our present; and holding us all collectively responsible for our future. He states plainly that “to ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying.” The conflating of these things is just one example of a common practice that I have seen (and probably perpetuated at times in my own content) in social change communications, and one that I think that we must get much better at untangling. At Living Cities, for instance, we are currently in the early stages of an organizational change process focused on more explicitly and intentionally applying a racial equity and inclusion lens into our work. This will necessarily mean giving a lot of thought to how we must change our narrative around poverty and inequality, and how these forces intersect with race.
Recently, my colleagues at Living Cities, Alison Gold and Jeff Raderstrong, shared their reflections on the article and on the effectiveness of reparations to achieve the goals outlined by Coates. Alison argued that reparations will not change systems that continue to produce inequitable outcomes for African Americans in the US; and Jeff noted the significance of the reparations discussion in terms of pushing us as a nation to “take a hard look at who we are…and whether or not we are living up to the democratic values that our founders espoused.
These are both, I think, strong hypotheses, and ones that are deeply related to the questions that we are asking ourselves as part of Living Cities’ racial equity and inclusion agenda. And, Coates’ assertion that “wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced” resonated with me as a call to action.
So, as we continue on our journey to learn about and better confront both the overt and more insidious ways that racism continues to dictate people’s life chances, we are committed to doing so in public—here on our blog, on social media, and on other platforms where we share what we are learning. And, I am eager to test some of my own hypotheses around why Coates’ argument itself (whether or not you agree with his conclusions) was so resonant and far-reaching. Is it time, I am asking myself, for the social sector to be more fearless in calling out things that we know to be true—like that systems, structures, and policies (e.g. laws, housing policy, and education funding), in ways both explicit and implicit, work to exclude people from opportunity, in part based on race? And, can we do this while still maintaining that we do not, despite what we do know, have all the answers about what to do about it. Coates’ article suggests that we should, and we can. While he skillfully makes a solid case for reparations, in the end the bill that he supports would purely call for a Congressional study of slavery and make recommendations for “appropriate remedies.” Wicked problems, he seems to acknowledge, then, cannot be debated or solved by one man with a platform and a story. But what that man, woman, or organization can do is plant the seed to make what was once (troublingly) unspoken, spoken.
This blog is part of a series in which Living Cities staff have reflected on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” Read the prior blogs in the series on Reparations and America’s National Identity and Systems Change.