Ta-Nehisi Coates Delivers Searing History Lesson After Mitch McConnell Rejects Reparations

In dismissing reparations, the Republican leader appeared to argue that Obama’s election had been progress enough.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Ta-Nehisi Coates, the celebrated and influential author of “The Case for Reparations,” on Wednesday directly challenged remarks made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the day earlier, during which the Republican leader came out against reparations arguing that “none of us currently living are responsible” for slavery.

“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,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. According to McConnell, the historic racism stemming from slavery had largely ended with the Civil Rights Act and the election of the first African American president. 

“This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations,” Coates said in his opening remarks at the first congressional hearing in a decade on reparations. “But well into this century, the United States was still paying our 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.”

Rejecting McConnell’s central argument that slavery took place during a historical period with little relevance today, much less the ability for the modern government to address, Coates continued his impassioned testimony by listing the racial injustices McConnell had indeed been alive for.

“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 majority leader McConnell,” Coates said. He added, “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 for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.”

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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