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Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates gives Mitch McConnell a thorough history lesson on reparations

“Victims of that plunder are very much alive today,” the author and journalist told members of Congress on Wednesday.

Writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates testifies during a congressional hearing on reparations on June 19, 2019.
Writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates testifies during a congressional hearing on reparations on June 19, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a congressional hearing on reparations on Wednesday, using a brief but effective history lesson to rebut the senator’s recent claim that reparations are not “a good idea.”

“We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance,” Coates told a packed room gathered for hearing on HR 40, a House bill that would create a commission to study the historical need for reparations. “It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.”

On Tuesday, one day before the hearing, McConnell said that he opposed reparations, explaining that they are not needed and that it would be difficult to determine who should be compensated for generations of enslavement and discrimination under Jim Crow.

”I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago when none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” the Kentucky senator told reporters. “We’ve 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.”

Coates, the author of “The Case for Reparations,” a 2014 Atlantic article that pushed discussions of reparations further into the national spotlight, argued that McConnell’s comments dismissed the very real impacts of slavery in America and ignored that many living black Americans directly experienced Jim Crow and other forms of legalized discrimination.

“For a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror,” Coates said. “A campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”

“Victims of that plunder are very much alive today”

After describing the vast economy built on the backs of enslaved men and women and the “torture, rape, and child trafficking” they endured, Coates then listed several acts of racism and injustice against African Americans that occurred during McConnell’s youth.

He cited two stories in particular: the 1944 state-ordered execution of 14 year-old George Stinney — who was swiftly convicted (and later posthumously exonerated) for the murder of two white girls — and the severe beating and blinding of Isaac Woodard, a black man arrested and disabled by police officers hours after his honorable discharge from the Army in 1946.

“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,” Coates said. “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,” he added. (A full video of Coates’s opening testimony can be watched here.)

Coates was not the only critic of McConnell during the Wednesday hearing. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who recently introduced a Senate companion to Lee’s reparations study bill and spoke at the hearing on Wednesday, said that the majority leader’s remarks showed “ignorance.” The hearing, held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, was the first time in more than a decade that reparations have been discussed in Congress.

Other members of Congress also criticized McConnell’s remarks in a meeting prior to the hearing. “Mitch McConnell has zero credibility on questions of racial, social and economic inequality,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) told the Associated Press.

Coates’s statement was one of many at the hearing supporting studying reparations not only for slavery, but for decades of discrimination afterwards. “While emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open,” Coates said. “And that is the thing about Sen. McConnell’s ‘something’: it was 150 years ago and it was right now.”