Writer Discusses History of Racism in America

Ta-Nehisi Coates was in Paris last summer while the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin was under way. When the not-guilty verdict was delivered, “I was happy not to be in America at that moment,” said Coates.

Coates, author and national correspondent for The Atlantic, delivered the 2014 Robert R. Wilson Lecture in Public Law Thursday at the Sanford School of Public Policy. He reviewed the history of the black experience in America. Our democracy was founded on the systematic taking of the wealth and labor of black people, and this pattern continues today, he said.

Many people were surprised at Zimmerman’s acquittal, but Coates was not. “There is nothing in American history to make you think that he would be found guilty,” he said.

Racism has been a core part of America from the very beginning, he said, citing the colony at Jamestown in Virginia, which had African slaves within 10 years of its founding.  Racism is not simply “white people being mean to black people,” he said, but a key structural element of our nation and society.

By the early 1800s, there were more multimillionaires in Mississippi than anywhere else in the country.  The worth of enslaved Americans was $3 billion, and cotton represented 60 percent of all U.S. exports.

“Slavery was our original big business,” he said, similar in scale to the petroleum business today.

“Regrettably, the plunder does not end with slavery,” he said, discussing the ways that policy, law and white supremacy since the Civil War have manifested. The New Deal was meant to build middle-class wealth, but Social Security originally left out farmers and domestic workers. The sharecropping system in the South forced black families into debt peonage, frequently on land they had owned that was stolen by whites. The federal housing authority secured home loans, except for blacks, and the practice of “redlining,” in which banks refused loans in neighborhoods where blacks lived or were only given predatory contract loans, further stymied attempts to build black wealth.

“We think of racism as a disease of the heart, (as if) racist people live under a bridge and don’t make policy,” he said.

Such practices are still with us today, he said, discussing the predatory subprime loans given by Wells Fargo, which targeted black people.  He read records of those cases where bank employee talked openly about “ghetto loans,” being given to “mud people” and where the majority of the houses brought with such loans were abandoned within a few years. He called the high percentage of incarcerated blacks “deeply immoral,” and asked, “Is it a mistake that mass incarceration (of black men) followed the Civil Rights Movement?”

During the question and answer period, Coates did not offer solutions. As a writer, he said, “My role is to cause trouble, to make people go home a little bit troubled, a little bit worried.”

An audience member asked, “What can we do, would it help to retell the story of American history?”

He said Americans do not want to confront the mythology of the country, such as, “The idea of individualism – I built this – no, you didn’t, you stole it.  Who are you then? There are reasons why people look away.”

For a collection of tweets from this talk, read this Storify article sfy.co/bcvh (credit @Sunnygrrrl).