By Ta-Nehisi Coates
In “The Case for Reparations,” I tried to move the lens away from the enslaved and focus on their descendants. Narratively, I thought it made a much more compelling read and I it got us past the “but they’re all long-dead” argument. Also, once you understand enslavement as central—not ancillary—to American history, you can then easily intuit that it would have some serious effects on policy 100 years later. When you then consider what directly followed enslavement—disenfranchisement, pogroms, land theft, terrorism, the entire suite of plunder—it seems inconceivable that 20th-century domestic policy would not be awash in white supremacy.
On some vague level, I understood this to be true. Some years ago (before I came here) I read Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier. No one who wants to understand the shape of America’s cities and suburbs can afford to skip this book. I would go so far as to say that you can’t really talk intelligently about urban policy without grappling with Jackson’s work. Crabgrass is ostensibly a history of the suburbs in America, but it ranges from antiquity to the 20th century and puts the American obsession with a front lawn and detached housing in context. That makes for great reading, and then, about halfway through the book, the bombshells start dropping. In painstaking detail, Jackson shows how the Federal Housing Administration and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation subsidized segregation, and helped author the wealth gap. I’d heard the term redlining before, but Jackson’s book really laid out, in detail, how federal policy worked.
I thought of Jackson’s book years later when I picked up Isabel Wilkerson;s The Warmth of Other Suns. Where Jackson outlines the racist policies of federal, local, and state government toward American cities, Wilkerson’s work (among other things) tells us how black people responded to those policies. More importantly, for my work, she reversed a popular trend to conflate impoverishment with racism, and pretend as though “the black poor” are the “real” problem. If only quietly, Wilkerson builds a strong case that the policy of the American government has not been to encourage a black middle class, but to discourage it and open it for plunder.
Chicago is one of three cities that feature prominently in Warmth. Having had some experience reporting in the city, I began to consider focusing there. The other candidate was Detroit. I wish I could have gotten both. I did a mini deep-dive on Detroit history some years ago, and I strongly suspect that a long, beautiful magazine story about history and could be written from there, if some journalist would take up the challenge. I tried some years ago and failed. (You can read my attempt here.) Two important books featured prominently in that attempt—Robert Conot’s American Odyssey and Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis.
Conot’s book has been forgotten, and I don’t really know why. It’s a long, deeply readable, history of Detroit from its earliest origins. In my research, I did not encounter a better one volume history of the city. It shows how examining Detroit’s “crisis” as though it began in the 1960s is a mistake. Sugrue’s book is more recent and has fared a lot better. It localizes much of what Kenneth Jackson discusses and—again—shows just the degree to which racist violence shaped the Detroit we know today.
I decided to focus on Chicago after reading Arnold Hirsch’s essential, if dense, Making the Second Ghetto. Hirsch’s book can be read in conjunction with Sugrue’s, though Sugrue is less in the weeds and more readable. But again, if you want to understand modern Chicago, you can’t do without Hirsch’s work. Every time I hear someone speak about “black on black crime” in Chicago, I want hurl a hardcover of Making The Second Ghetto at them.
The “Making” part is important and here is when the core of my reparations argument began to form (emphasis added):
Ghetto-building does not make for an edifying tale. To speak of agency and policy is, ultimately to speak of responsibility. The ‘Second Ghetto’ did not just happen. It was willed into existence.
As an aside, in each of these books, I thought I saw the dim outline of an argument for reparations. It was as though the authors were going right up to the edge, and saying “Won’t someone rid America of its troublesome amnesia.”
Having decided to focus on Chicago I went to Beryl Satter’s history of contract lending in the city, Family Properties. The Warmth of Other Suns is the mother of “The Case for Reparations.” Family Properties is the father. No two books were more important to me in my research. Satter’s book is many things at once. It is a history of housing. It is an analysis of relationships between black and Jewish communities. And it is a family memoir (her dad was both a housing activist and a landlord.) But most importantly it is an account of how federal policy was used to fleece people—many of whom are still living. It was in Satter’s book that I first came across the name Clyde Ross. There’s some lovely karma in this, because Ross was profiled in the pages of this magazine in 1972. But I didn’t even know about the 1972 article—nor did my editors—until I read about it in Family Properties.
What I saw in all of these books that was so damning was intent. Government policy toward African-Americans is not an argument for the ineffectuality of government, on the contrary it is an argument for just how effective government can be. The intent of mid-20th-century policy was the elevation of a white middle class and the preservation of white supremacy. The policy was a rousing success. That became apparent reading some of the “place-based” sociology evidence. Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place, Robert Sampson’s Great American City, and Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid. I recommend reading these three together. Massey and Denton’s book gives you the national numbers on segregation and its effects on black people. Sharkey’s book shows how those numbers have not changed since the early ’70s and how they are perpetuated in black neighborhoods. Sampson’s book focuses, with laser-precision, on those effects in Chicago.
Each of these books are indebted, somehow, to the work of the great sociologist and public intellectual William Julius Wilson. But there is a shift in each of these. Massey and Denton are directly in debate with Wilson—they believe Wilson downplays segregation. Sharkey and Sampson (I suspect) see themselves building on Wilson’s neighborhood focus. But their work is also in conflict with the view that the black impoverished class is the “truly disadvantaged.” Certainly they are “more” disadvantaged groups, but racist policy continues to be a grievous injury. If I were going to start again I would go like this:
1.) Crabgrass Frontier, by Kenneth Jackson
This gets us grounded and immediately dispenses with the popular notion that our cities and suburbs were unplanned. I can not stress how necessary this book is.
2.) The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
I would read this to get a more intimate history in the mix early. It’s very important to remember that beneath all of this are the lives of individual Americans. Warmth is the finest piece of journalism I’ve read on America in a very long time.
3.) The Origins of the Urban Crisis, by Thomas Sugrue
This picks up on a lot of the research in Crabgrass around redlining, but zooms in on Detroit. It also adds another feature: pervasive white violence. The thing to understand about racist “policy” is that it existed in consort with racist private policy, racist civic groups, and racist people.
4.) Making the Second Ghetto, by Arnold Hirsch
A tough read, but an essential, granular analysis of how Chicago’s ghettos were “made.”
5.) Family Properties, by Beryl Satter
The perfect compliment to Hirsch. Satter’s book breathes more, and connects all of that policy to actual people in North Lawndale. More disturbing: Satter shows that public policy made private plunder possible.
6.) American Apartheid, by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton
In a sense, a compilation of the effects of everything you will have read up to this point. Massey and Denton demonstrate that African-Americans are not just another “ethnicity” on the come up, but the most hyper-segregated group in American history.
7.) Great American City, by Robert Sampson
Back to Chicago, one last time. Again, a book about effects. Sampson is no longer in the realm of history. His data is very recent and very depressing.
8.) Stuck In Place, by Patrick Sharkey
By this point, you will likely be thoroughly bummed out. I was. Sharkey finishes us off by critiquing the “progress” made after the Civil Rights movement. Again, we see the enduring and pervasive effects of segregation. A bracing and important read.