Ta-Nehisi Coates

Opening Statement on Slavery Reparations to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary

delivered 19 June 2019, Washington, D.C.

Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address

 

[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Yesterday when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for "something that happened 150 years ago" since "none of us currently [living] are responsible."1

This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance -- that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.

It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the Founders, or the Greatest Generation, on the basis of lack of membership in either group. 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 is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery. As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement (quote), "shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics"2 of America, so that by 1836 more than 600 million [dollars], almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America: three billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined.

The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness3 -- to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of [Senate] Majority Leader McConnell.


Coleman Hughes -- Opening Statement to Congress on Slavery Reparations


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 [or debt bondage], redlining and racist GI bills, poll taxes and state -- state-sponsored terrorism.

We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox, but he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some four billion dollars. 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 dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s "something." It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.

The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share.

The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that a nation is both its credits and its debits; that if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings; that if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street; that if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow; because the question really is not whether we will be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.

Thank you.


Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

See also: Ta-Nehisi Official Website

1 Broader quotation: "I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We’ve, you know, tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that. And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate. We’ve had waves of immigrants, as well, who have come to the country and experienced dramatic discrimination of one kind or another. So, no, I don’t think reparations are a good idea." [Source: Democracy Now!]

2 Broader quotation: "The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation -- not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing US politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible." [emphasis added; source Salon]

3 Allusion to the Declaration of Independence

Original Audio and Video Source: C-SPAN.org

Transcript Note: Principal transcription by South Transcription Unlimited, Inc. | www.southtranscription.com | info@southtranscription.com | (+63) 920.921.8709. Supplementary transcription work and editorial oversight by Michael E. Eidenmuller.

Audio Note: AR-XE = American Rhetoric Extreme Enhancement

Video Note: Audio enhanced video for AmericanRhetoric.com

Page Updated: 2/1/20

U.S. Copyright Status: This text, audio, video = Property of AmericanRhetoric.com.

Top 100 American Speeches

Online Speech Bank

Movie Speeches

© Copyright 2001-Present. 
American Rhetoric.