• AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
  • U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. in 2013. Conyers has been seeking consideration of reparations for African-Americans since 1989.

In January 1989, John Conyers Jr., a Democratic congressman from Michigan, introduced H.R. 40, a bill concerning reparations for African-Americans. Conyers chose the number 40 as a reminder of an earlier reparations—the 40 acres of coastal land that General William T. Sherman ordered given per family of freed slaves in Georgia and South Carolina in January 1865. (Later Sherman offered them army mules as well; thus the phrase “forty acres and a mule“.) The 40 acres reparations lasted a minute; President Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, evicted the former slaves from the land in the fall of 1865.

Conyers did not specifically seek reparations in H.R. 40. His bill merely called for a commission to examine the impact of the nation’s 250 years of slavery, and the discrimination that followed, on living African-Americans. The commission would then suggest remedies.

But even a discussion of reparations apparently was too much to ask for. The bill didn’t get out of committee. Conyers tried again in 1990. And in 1991. And he’s tried every year since. The bill has never made it out of committee. Conyers was 59 when he first introduce it; now he’s 85. Last month, at a conference hosted by Chicago State University, Conyers said he’d try again this year.

Now H.R. 40 has received a big lift from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” in the June Atlantic. Coates reminds us of the central role that slaves played in building America’s wealth, and of the harm done them in the process. And he shows how the injustice to African-Americans continued after slavery, with decades of discrimination in housing, jobs, and schools. And how it persists today through segregation.

Coates focuses on Clyde Ross, a resident of Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood who’s now 91. Like many African-Americans who migrated to Chicago, Ross was born in Mississippi. His parents owned a farm, but Mississippi authorities seized it when Ross was small. The family became sharecroppers, subject to the landowners’ annual fraudulent count:

If cotton was selling for 50 cents a pound, the Ross family might get 15 cents, or only five. One year Ross’s mother promised to buy him a $7 suit for a summer program at their church. She ordered the suit by mail. But that year Ross’s family was paid only five cents a pound for cotton. The mailman arrived with the suit. The Rosses could not pay. The suit was sent back. Clyde Ross did not go to the church program.

In 1947, Ross came to Chicago and began working as a taster for Campbell’s Soup. In 1961, he and his wife bought a home in North Lawndale for $27,500—from a “contract seller,” who’d paid just $12,000 for it six months earlier. The Rosses bought the home on contract because blacks were redlined out of financing for real mortgages. A contract buyer acquired no equity until the contract was fully paid, and forfeited all of his payments if he missed one. Working three jobs, Ross managed to make his payments and keep the home. But many in North Lawndale lost theirs: “Contract sellers became rich,” Coates writes. “North Lawndale became a ghetto.”

Ross tells Coates, “I’d come out of Mississippi where there was one mess, and . . . I come here and get cheated wide open.”

“The problem was the money,” he adds. “Without the money, you can’t move. You can’t educate your kids. You can’t give them the right kind of food. Can’t make the house look good. They think this neighborhood is where they supposed to be. It changes their outlook.”

The problem is still mainly the money—the lack of it, that is, and all the ills that flow from poverty. For African-Americans, it’s not just poverty, but poverty that in so many families has persisted for generations, and that in Chicago and many other big cities is still concentrated by segregation.

Overt racism is not nearly as common among white Americans as it once was. But wounds inflicted on African-Americans for centuries do not disappear simply because whites are eager to censure Donald Sterling. Coates writes: “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

In black neighborhoods, those effects include lives shortened by disease, illness, and fires; horrific rates of homicide and other violence; inferior schools that lead to joblessness; and sprawling vacant lots and abandoned buildings, as I saw in Englewood yesterday.

  • Steve Bogira
  • On the 400 block of West Garfield Boulevard, one building remains, barely.

  • Steve Bogira
  • A block away, on 400 West Tremont, a former home with wide-open spaces around it and in its roof

Are we really befuddled about the cause of all this, or do we simply prefer not to face up to it?

The idea of reparations for black Americans has been raised often over the years, and just as often swatted aside. Coates cites a Tribune editorial on the subject in 1891: “They have been taught to labor. They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.”

Like H.R. 40, Coates is careful in his essay not to press specifically for reparations, only for formal consideration of them. “After a serious discussion and debate—the kind that H.R. 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans,” he writes. “But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion. . . . What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

He surely wants more than “spiritual renewal,” but realizes that getting into logistics at this point will foreclose the discussion. One step at a time. On MSNBC’s All In Friday, he told Chris Hayes he rejects the idea that reparations are simply too impractical. “In 1859, Frederick Douglass was arguing for the liquidation of, what, trillions of dollars of wealth in the form of human slaves,” Coates said. “I can’t think of anything that was more impractical than what Frederick Douglass was arguing for. It happened. And right now . . . everybody would say that was totally the right thing to do.” Coates added, “I think we can do what we want to do.”