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Ta-Nehisi Coates ripped into Mitch McConnell over reparations



Influential writer Ta-Nehisi Coates passionately condemned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell during a Wednesday congressional hearing on reparations for the descendants of slaves.

The legislation being discussed would authorize a commission to study the legacy of slavery and how the country could address it.

Coates began his testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties by addressing McConnell’s argument that Americans shouldn’t be responsible for providing reparations in part because “no one currently alive was responsible for” slavery.

Coates argued that reparations should be designed to address not just slavery, but the long legacy of Jim Crow segregation, state-sponsored racialized terror, and white supremacy — of which many victims are alive today.

“Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores,” Coates said. “For a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”

Coates went on, “[McConnell] was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. He was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for [civil rights] legislation by a government sworn to protect them.”

He added, “Victims of that plunder are alive today — I’m sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.”

Read more: Here’s why reparations have suddenly become a hot button issue ahead of the 2020 presidential race

Republicans have largely rejected Democratic-led calls for a commission to study reparations. They argue that reparations for black Americans would be unfair to white Americans and immigrants who shouldn’t bear the costs of past wrongdoing. And they posit that there are more efficient, less divisive, and more just ways of addressing racial disparities.

2020 Democratic presidential candidates, for their part, have expressed mixed feelings on reparations. Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are among the contenders who have explicitly endorsed reparations, while Sen. Bernie Sanders notably said he thinks there are “better ways” to support marginalized communites than “just writing out a check.”

On Tuesday, McConnell argued Americans have already done their part to address the legacy of slavery and that it would be “pretty hard to figure out who to compensate” with reparations.

“We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation,” he said. “We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country.”

McConnell’s remarks provoked criticism from those who pointed out that he and his party vehemently opposed Obama’s election. McConnell has also for decades fought to shrink government benefits, including Medicaid and food stamps, that many poor black Americans rely on.

The top Republican on the House sub-committee, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, urged “self-reliance” among African-Americans.

Coates helped ignite a national conversation about reparations with his 2014 essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” in which he argued that policies designed to address racial disparities are not enough. He wrote that the country must reckon with its history in order to have any chance of ridding the nation of white supremacy.

“To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying,” he wrote in the Atlantic. “The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same.”

Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas earlier this year introduced H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, which is named for the government’s broken promise to transfer 40 acres of land and a mule to every former slave.

“I did not pick cotton, but I will say that those who picked cotton created the very basic wealth of this nation, for cotton was king,” Jackson-Lee said during her statement on Wednesday.

Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, actor and activist Danny Glover and other civil rights activists testified in support of the legislation. Coleman Hughes, a 23-year-old writer who told the committee he has “only ever voted for Democrats” testified in opposition to the legislation, as did former NFL player turned conservative pundit Burgess Owens.

“We as a nation have not yet truly acknowledged and grappled with racism and white supremacy that has tainted this country’s founding and continues to persist in these deep racial disparities and inequalities today,” Booker said.

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