Mitch McConnell Knows About Reparations? Well Congress Happens To Have Ta-Nehisi Coates RIGHT HERE
We shared with you the breaking news that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes reparations because people who weren't him elected a black president that one time. This wasn't a compelling explanation for author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who testified before the House yesterday in its hearing on reparations and exposed McConnell to the disinfecting light of history.
Coates dismantled the absurd notion that there's a sort of "statute of limitations" for slavery and segregation, as though they were traffic violations instead of acts of war and racial terrorism. We acknowledge treaties negotiated and signed by parties long since dead. And no American has turned down an inheritance because it was money or property they didn't personally earn.
COATES: We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance. It's impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.
Somewhere, there is a white person right now protesting that none of their broke-ass ancestors had slaves, not even a single certified pre-owned negro. However, Coates pointed out that by 1836, half of the country's economic activity was "directly or indirectly" generated from slave labor. More than a million humans toiling in cotton fields for free has an impact. By the end of the Civil War, the enslaved were the "largest single asset in America," equaling $3 billion in 1860 dollars. They never saw a penny of this. Even the final generation of former slaves were never fully compensated for their exploitation.
McConnell's references to "150 years ago" is offensive because it implies that freed blacks were fully enfranchised and not actively persecuted after slavery ended. He knows this is false. He knows the name "Jim Crow." Americans like point to white ethnics (Italians, Irish) or certain "model" minorities who came to this country "with nothing" but still managed to prosper. This ignores that for more than a century, America treated blackness as a crime and sentenced us to a living prison at birth.
COATES: It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders, and the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs. Coup d'états and convict leasing. Vagrancy laws and debt peonage. Redlining and racist G.I. bills. Poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism.
Coates detailed several horrible moments in history for which McConnell was present: George Stinney of South Carolina was executed in 1944 for the brutal murder of two young white girls. Stinney was 14 and wasn't allowed to see his parents until after his trial and conviction. He had no legal counsel while questioned. The trial itself, including selection of the all-white jury, lasted a single day. His court-appointed lawyer offered no competent defense. They made Stinney sit on top of a Bible so he could fit in the electric chair.
All that, and he was innocent.
McConnell was also alive in 1946 when South Carolina police brutally beat Isaac Woodard, a decorated World War II veteran. He had just been honorably discharged and was still in uniform. The sheriff, Lynwood Shull, reportedly beat him for saying "Yes!" instead of "Yes, sir!" The attack left Woodard permanently blind and with partial amnesia.
The Woodard case was tragically similar to modern incidents of police violence. There was some national outcry thanks to celebrities such as Orson Welles and Woody Guthrie. President Harry Truman ordered the Department of Justice to investigate, but the following trial was a joke. Sound familiar? Shull's defense attorney repeatedly shouted racial epithets at the blind black man, and Shull made up some shit about Woodard having a gun and how he feared for his life. Yeah, this really sounds familiar. An all-white jury acquitted Shull (black people were effectively denied the vote and thus couldn't sit on juries). We don't like O.J. Simpson. We think he's a murderer. But this is why it annoys us a little when people claim Simpson's acquittal is when they "lost faith" in the justice system. Shull was never punished for his actions and died in 1997 at a ripe, old age.
Black lives mattered so little in the South that we fled the closest thing we had to a home. The Great Migration's effects are still felt today, as many southern states are dark red and oppressive because racial terrorism chased away almost six million black residents between 1912 and 1970. McConnell is a native of Alabama. This is not news to him.
The urban northeast welcomed blacks with relatively open arms that were then used to pick our pockets. In his 2014 Atlantic article "The Case for Reparations," which McConnell has likely never read, Coates documented how racial redlining in Chicago "looted" black homeowners of close to $4 billion.
COATES: Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they'd love a word with the majority leader.
What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation deadbolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open.
White supremacy acknowledges that the average black family has one-tenth of the wealth of the average white family, but white supremacy takes no responsibility for it. White supremacy must cleanse its conscience about racial inequality by degrading black people. We are to blame when police shoot our children in public parks or when mortgage lenders prey on our dreams. That's the Fox News mission statement.
For black Americans, history has been what James Joyce called a "nightmare from which [we] are trying to awake." This nightmare is the "American dream." McConnell and too many others promote a myth that claims the country paid its mounting debts to black citizens when slavery ended, civil rights legislation was passed, and, yes, when Barack Obama took the oath of office. But Trayvon Martin's killer went free while Obama was in office. And McConnell refused as recently as 2017 to let Elizabeth Warren read the cautioning words of Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor. McConnell uses his considerable power to deny the past and obstruct the future.
If reparations is some crazy "radical" idea, it's no more so than the peculiar notion of paying black people for our labor and letting us move about the country freely. We think the nation can adjust.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle.