Understanding the racial disparity present in America’scurrent wealth gap requires looking back at the historical roots of poverty inthis country. Currently, people of colorbear the overwhelming brunt of economic disadvantage. According to a report from the United StatesCensus Bureau, in 2016, the poverty rate for African Americans was 22%,compared to the rate of poverty for Whites, 8.8% (Semega, Fontenot, , 2017, p.
12). This racialdisparity in wealth distribution reveals a history of cultural, government, andsocietal systems designed to prevent African Americans from benefitting fromthe same opportunities as White Americans. These policies, dissected in detail byTa-Nehisi Coates (2014) in his article, “The Case for Reparations”, have leddirectly to the current impoverishment and political disenfranchisement ofAfrican American communities. Fromcolonial slavery to the recent recession, Coates argues that African Americanshave repeatedly and purposefully been used by systems to ensure the racialstatus quo. Martin Luther King, Jr.
alsoaddresses these issues in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech for the March onWashington, bringing attention to the condition of African Americanspost-Emancipation. King notes that for all of the successes we had experiencedas a nation, African Americans remained in a unique position of poverty due tosegregation and discrimination (p. 1).
King’sspeech, like Coates’ article, calls out an America who for too many yearsfailed to make due on its promise of liberty and justice for all of itscitizens. Historical Context of PovertyThe historical context of Coates’ case for reparationscreates a roadmap that traces the roots of poverty in this country. African slaves were not just property to beowned, creating wealth through labor, but they were also assets and countedtoward their owner’s wealth (Coates, 2014, p.
63). After the abolishment of slavery, AfricanAmerican labor continued to be exploited with sharecropping, an agriculturalarrangement where landowners would undercut their African American farmers,paying them several times lower than the going market rate for a crop (Coates,2014, p. 57). Through the century thatfollowed the Emancipation Proclamation, land seizures, predatory lending, anddiscriminatory housing policies did their best to prevent African Americansfrom owning land and homes, and took financial advantage of those who could. Redlining, the practice of not extendingmortgages in geographic areas populated by people of color, kept home valuesdepressed in African American neighborhoods (Coates, 2014, p. 58). This encouraged housing segregation that inturn affected the quality of services available in neighborhoods, such asschools.
These policies kept AfricanAmericans from accumulating wealth and assets, which stunted economicadvancement and created conditions for endemic poverty. The racial disparity of the wealth gap is nota new occurrence, it is a long-lasting symptom of our history of racialinequality. These housing programs did not occur in a vacuum, either. They were accompanied by poll taxes andviolent political intimidation strategies, such as lynching, aimed to silencethe African American vote (Coates, 2014, p. 56). In this bleak context, it is no wonder thatKing needed a dream to sustain his hope for the future of his people inAmerica.
Without the protection ofpolitical and social systems that were supposed to protect and represent them,African Americans were continually tapped for America’s development withoutsharing in any of the rewards. Thesedire circumstances constituted what King called “the fierce urgency of now”(1963, p. 2). For King, justice couldand should not wait to become reality for African Americans, they had waitedlong enough.The harm done by slavery and discrimination should not bemeasured only in economic terms, of course. The negative effect that poverty has on mentalhealth, school outcomes, social development, and interpersonal relationships iswell documented and extends from early childhood into adulthood.
If children are raised in impoverishedcircumstances, they stand a greater chance experiencing developmentalchallenges, having difficulty in school, and engaging in dangerous or riskybehavior (Maholmes, 2014, p. 4). Thesepatterns follow children into adulthood and create a cycle of poverty that isdifficult to break, often replicating conditions that affect future generations. When poverty is buttressed by social policies, like thoseCoates describes in detail, it can conspire to keep entire populations underits heel. In his article, Coates relatesthe experience of Clyde Ross, an African American man creating a life for hisfamily in Chicago during the 1960s. After purchasing a home on contract from an unscrupulous lender, Rosswas faced with financial straits that caused him to take on second and thirdjobs to keep up with monthly payments and repair costs. Ross recounts the stress and shame he felt atfalling victim to predatory lending, saying he felt unable to provide for hischildren (Coates, 2014, p.
57- 58). Theacute levels of stress that families living in poverty experience impact allinvolved (Murphy & Cooper, 2015, p. 10). The effects ofpoverty move beyond the family and spread into communities.
Racially segregated neighborhoods often meanthat African Americans find themselves living in pockets of concentratedpoverty. Living in an area of concentrated poverty carries its own risks,including higher crime rates and poor school quality (Murphy & Cooper,2015, p.10). Billy Lamar Brooks, Sr.,another African American gentleman profiled by Coates, speaks to this when hedescribes how African American neighborhoods blighted by government housingpolicies create ideal conditions for violence and gangs to thrive (Coates,2014, p.
67 – 68). Current Systems of DiscriminationOver fifty years later, the societal and governmental forceswhich created the context for King’s “fierce urgency of now” are still at play(1963, p. 2). Illustrating this, Coatesconnects the history of rapacious home lending to African Americans to thepresent day. The housing crisis thatushered in the Great Recession of the first part of the 21st century wasspurred on by subprime mortgages, many which were extended to communities ofcolor. Lenders from major banks admittedto specifically targeting African American homebuyers who were convinced totake out problematic loans (Coates, 2014, p.
71). Entities such as law enforcement have donelittle to improve their relations with African American communities, resultingin disillusionment and fear, fueled by the pervasive shooting of unarmedAfrican Americans by police officers. IfAfrican Americans have a lack of faith in major institutions of government andsociety, it is due to centuries of systemic betrayal and is emblematic ofanother debt for which America has failed to make recompense.Monetary Reparations and ReckoningThe failure of America to live up to its promise to itsAfrican American citizens gives cause to the call for reparations. Many people can recall the latter part ofKing’s “Dream” speech with its iconic refrain of “I have a dream” (1963, p.
4). Less attention is paid to the first partof his speech, however. Perhaps this isbecause King correctly attributes the station of African Americans in 1963 asbeing squarely the fault of a country failing to embody its ideals.
Bycomparing the country’s founding documents to promissory notes due to allAmericans, regardless of race, King sets up the idea that the right to “life, liberty,and the pursuit of happiness” is something that is guaranteed, is promised. Jim Crow laws, police brutality, lynching, theterrorist tactics of the KKK, racially restricted housing policies- all areevidence that America has defaulted on this promise to its African Americancitizens, and as such, the country is in debt to them. This insistence on acknowledging the nation’spast policies of white supremacy may also be why many are not familiar with thepoints about reparations that Coates makes. Often, reparations are dismissed and notdiscussed outside of academic circles (Coates, 2014, p.
69). If reparations were taken seriously, as Coatesbids, Americans would have to think critically about the myth of their countryas an idealized democracy and bastion of equal opportunity. The financial allusions made with King’s metaphoric use ofpromissory notes and bad checks should also be paid attention to. King may not have made specific reference tofinancial reparations in his speech, but this is something that Coates does adeft job of explaining throughout his article. Reparations, in a basic sense, are paymentsmade to a wronged party. They are what isdue to a people who have suffered. InAmerica, the African American community is owed compensation for enslavementand discriminatory laws.
Reparations arenot without historical precedent, either. Coates describes instances of former slavesreceiving payment in cash and acreage for their service upon being grantedfreedom (2014, p. 61). It is importantto note, however, that both Coates and King take pains to communicate that itis not enough to just materially compensate African Americans for theirsuffering.
America also needs to acceptthe moral responsibility for its treatment of African Americans. Reparations are more than financialcompensation, more than just an acknowledgment of past wrongs. They confront our history and make Americans takeresponsibility for creating and perpetuating injustice using the very systemsthat should serve all citizens.
Reparations force America to own the campaignsof violence and intimidation that prevented Black Americans from exercisingtheir full citizenship and sharing in the country’s economic success. As Coates so succinctly states, reparationsare a reckoning (Coates, 2014, p. 70). Hope and Self-ExaminationDespite the harrowing history that King’s speech refers toand Cotes’ article describes, these men hold onto hope- hope that America canstart paying its debt to its African American citizens, and hope that WhiteAmericans can face the emotional turmoil of what centuries of discriminationand violence have wrought. While this ismost easily seen in the renowned second half of King’s speech, it is actuallyin the first part where King hints that still has faith in America. King says, “we refuse to believe that the bankof justice is bankrupt. We refuse tobelieve that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity ofthis nation” (1963, p.
2), believing that the country has reserves of wealthand opportunity to spare. King also hashope that White Americans will realize that their own destiny is directlyrelated to the destiny of African Americans (1963, p.3). White Americans will be unable to fullyrealize their own freedom if they do not acknowledge and respect the freedom ofAfrican Americans, which cannot be done with the weight of slavery on theircollective chest. In this, Kingforeshadows Coates’ assertion that the country as a whole will never move pastour legacy of racism, will never achieve freedom from our mythos, without thereckoning of reparations.Coates, too, has hope. He does doubt that the country could everfully compensate African Americans for their trials, but his hope lies in thepotential for Americans to increase self-awareness by engaging critically withour history (2014, p.
69). In his finalexample of reparations, Coates points to West Germany making payments to Israelfor those who suffered in the Holocaust. He acknowledges that reparations could neveranswer for that atrocity, but says that the resulting conversations within WestGermany and with Israel began a process of national self-examination (Coates,2014, p. 71). In this comparison, Coateshopes that by instituting a similar program of reparations, America may beginits own reckoning process.
Half a century has passed between King’s speech and Coates’article, but hope in the potential of humans to grow and heal by confrontingour past connects these two pieces. Itis the imperative of White Americans to prove ourselves, and our country,worthy of their hope.