In "The Case for Reparations," the cover story in the latest issue of the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out a devastating chronicle of the policy choices that have systematically denied African-Americans protections of the law and opportunities to better themselves. The gap in wealth, health and achievement between black and white Americans, he argues, is the result of deliberate decisions by government and powerful private institutions.
Much of Coates' focus is on the wholesale theft that African-Americans have experienced since the government changed their status from property to potential property owners. By making those losses tangible — losses that range from a suit for church and a beloved horse to the opportunity to purchase a home on the same terms as white people — he shatters the fiction of a discrete and racist period in American history that is past.
To settle this appalling tab, Coates proposes not specific, economic recompense but something altogether different: a national reckoning with the inextricable relationship between democracy and slavery. Such a confrontation and effort at reconciliation would provide many sharp shocks to the American self-image.
"A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's rendering has meaning to us," Coates writes. "Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling 'patriotism' while waving a Confederate flag."
There is wisdom in this idea, but it does not account for an important participant in any such reckoning: mass culture.
Culture matters, through both images that become an indelible part of our national self-image and the stories we tell ourselves through music, popular movies and television. But it has become much harder for any single person or idea to capture the mass imagination, much less to achieve a substantial and collective understanding of American history and identity.
Popular culture has fragmented to an astonishing degree, and this splintering stretches across all forms of media. In 2013, only one album in America, Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience, sold more than 2 million copies. Three decades prior, Michael Jackson's Thriller moved 1 million records in a week. A proliferation of cable networks, radio shows and online publications has made it far easier for viewers, listeners and readers to burrow into their comfort zones.
This has also created important new opportunities. A television ecosystem where executives must now nurture potential hits helped make Shonda Rhimes a major force in Hollywood. A need to think more carefully about the needs of historically underserved audiences led to news experiments like NPR's Code Switch, a blog that reports thoughtfully and creatively on race and ethnicity.
But though voices long muzzled or dismissed now can not only survive but thrive, they may not carry as far as those that came before, when words and images were produced in a moment when U.S. consumers had fewer options.
When Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, a nostalgic portrait of antebellum South with a bitter critique of Reconstruction, was adapted for the screen in 1939, the movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture and reached more than 14 percent of Americans during its first two theatrical runs, an astonishing penetration of the market. The 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of the memoirs of Solomon Northup, also won Best Picture. It, however, reached a little more than 2 percent of Americans.
The prospects for any sort of legislative response to America's racial history are daunting enough. Coates' recommended prescription is a modest bill that Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., has been trying to advance for a quarter-century. That legislation merely would mandate the study of racial injustice and the advancement of proposals for reparations. Yet in all that time, Conyers has been unable to persuade the very niche audience of his congressional colleagues that it might be profitable to re-examine their understanding of racial history and policy.
Coates calls us to nothing less than a rewriting the American legend and learning it all over again. There are many obstacles to the work he would ask us to do. Among them is that, while we still have the capacity to tell big and beautiful stories about ourselves and our country, the audiences for them have become so much smaller.
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