By Ta-Nehisi Coates
About a year ago, I published “The Case for Reparations,” which I thought in many ways was incomplete. It was about housing and how wealth is built in this country and why certain people have wealth and certain other people do not have wealth, and the manifold implications of that, and the roots of that, through slavery, through Jim Crow, indeed through federal, state, and local policy.
The buzzword in that piece was “plunder.” If you want to understand the relationship between African Americans and the country that they inhabit, you must understand that one of the central features of that relationship is plunder—the taking from black people in order to empower other people. Obviously, enslavement, which lasted in this country for 250 years—the period of enslavement in this country is much longer than the period of freedom for black people—is the ultimate plunder. It is nothing but plunder; it is a total of your body, of your family, of your labor, of your everything—of your very essence.
And that plunder enriched this country such that in 1860, at the time of Civil War, the enslaved black population in this country—one-third of which constituted the amount of people living in the South—was worth something on the order of $3 billion, more than all the combined capacity of the nation. All the assets, all the banks, all the railroads, all the nascent factories and businesses in this country put together, were worth less than enslaved black people in this country. So plunder is not incidental to who we are; plunder is not incidental to what America is.
When you think about the period of Jim Crow and the stripping of black people’s right to vote, this is not the mere stripping of some sort of civic ceremony. It’s the stripping of your ability to have any sort of say in how your tax dollars are used. It’s this constant stripping, this taking away of rights that allowed us to enter into a situation that I talk about in “The Case for Reparations,” where—within the 20th century—you have programs being passed by which white families can accumulate masses of wealth through housing. The main group of people who are cut out of that are black people.