Ta-Nehisi Coates sounds off on reparations and admits he's optimistic about America

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates was just getting to the good stuff May 8 at Butler University when the moderator cut off a Q&A session with the audience. It was a powerful place to end, Tamara Winfrey-Harris told the crowd, which moaned collectively for a second and then turned to clapping out of appreciation for a man who spent most of his hour on stage sparking inspiration and intrigue.

Coates was talking about gentrification, and anyone who closed their eyes would've said he was preaching about gentrification. Winfrey-Harris, vice president of community leadership and effective philanthropy at Central Indiana Community Foundation, was right about that being a powerful place to end their conversation, but it felt like Coates — a best-selling author and MacArthur Fellow — was just getting warmed up.

"Gentrification is a cute word for theft," he said. "The solution is pretty easy: Stop stealing. That's one. And return what you stole. That's two."

The question came from a young woman who said gentrification isn't happening at the same pace in Indianapolis as in larger cities such as Boston and New York City — the audience groaned in disagreement — and asked what people being displaced should do.

Coates said it goes back to his famous 2014 essay in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations," and that gentrification is not happening randomly or by accident. It's part of a system that produced two centuries of slavery, followed by Jim Crow, followed by mass incarceration. It's easy to keep stealing from people who have already been stolen from, he said.

Coates said something on this scale will take "radical" change to address, though he didn't get into what exactly that would look like, and that wishful thinking just won't be enough.

"We want to feel like we can will our way to things, you know what I mean?" he said. "And we have. We can. But not that. ... It's not just that Black people have an infinitesimal amount of wealth compared to white people. It's that because of segregation, Black people only live around other people who have an infinitesimal amount of wealth. Their entire network is other people who've been stolen from."

For much of his writing career, which became national in 2008 when he started writing for The Atlantic, Coates has been widely branded as a political and social pessimist. It's something almost completely out of his control now, Coates said, since he's become more popular and less in control of his own image. (He said he's got "champagne problems" now.)

One of the difficult parts of being a public figure, Coates said, is evolving. People hang on his every word, and the longer he goes, the more articles and columns and tweets — he quit Twitter in 2017 after a feud with Cornell West — there are to dig up in contradiction to something he may be taking a new stance on.

The first thing Winfrey-Harris asked Coates in Clowes Hall was about what he's learned about race since writing his first book, "The Beautiful Struggle," in 2009.

"That's an easy one," said Coates, whose new novel, "The Water Dancer," comes out in September. "I didn't understand how fundamental the Black experience was to the American experience."

He understood the basics, that African Americans contributed a great deal to America and "slavery was bad," but he didn't understand how deeply rooted racism has been in America's history and what slavery meant to America. He compared not knowing the full history of African Americans in this country to taking the eggs out of a cake recipe, and it's "not a cake anymore."

"I didn't understand that you couldn't have an America without Black people," Coates said.

When Winfrey-Harris asked how Americans can get past this "not knowing" phase Coates described, he said, to the surprise of those who may have wanted more of a gut-punch response about ignorance and racism, the country is doing a "reasonably decent job" getting past "the system" that doesn't want people to know about slavery, sharecropping, discrimination, segregation and so on. He cited the removal of Confederate statues as an example.

Doing "reasonably decent" at something is rarely taken as an endorsement, and it wasn't necessarily that when Coates said it, but it's different from him telling Stephen Colbert in 2017 that he's "not the person you should go to" for hope.

But in front of a capacity crowd, including high school students who got free copies of Coates' 2015 National Book Award winner, "Between the World and Me," Winfrey-Harris couldn't help but notice:

"You sound like an optimist," she said.

"I never understood the pessimist thing," Coates responded. "I thought I was a pretty fun guy."

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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