Just one day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke out against reparations for slavery, author Ta-Nehisi Coates passionately argued in favor of them at a Wednesday House hearing on the topic — rebutting McConnell’s argument that they are not a “good idea.”
The Kentucky Senator spoke to reporters Tuesday on the eve of the House Judiciary hearing, saying he didn’t think “reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.” He added that the U.S. has tried to deal with its “original sin” of slavery by fighting the Civil War, passing civil rights legislation and electing its first African American President, Barack Obama.
“We’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that,” McConnell said.
Coates, a former national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the 2014 cover article “A Case for Reparations,” used his five-minute opening statement at the House hearing to strongly disagree.
“This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations,” he said. “But well into this century, the United States was still paying out 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.”
Coates, now a writer-in-residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, also said that half of the country’s economic activity was derived directly or indirectly by about a million enslaved African Americans. He added that “by the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America.”
He also noted that although slavery ended long ago, racism is far from over.
“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,” Coates said. “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.”
He added that “while emancipation dead bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something”: It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.”
New Jersey senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker also testified before the House, saying “we as a nation must address these persistent inequalities,” and calling for an open discussion on how best to compensate Black Americans.
Wednesday’s hearing took place on Juneteenth, the day enslaved people in Texas were freed in 1865, after the news of emancipation finally arrived in the state.
Read Coates’ full opening remarks here, as transcribed by The Atlantic:
Correction, June 19
The original version of this story misstated the state that Senator Mitch McConnell represents. He’s a Senator from Kentucky, not Alabama.