Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, and occasionally a guest op-ed columnist in The New York Times. His article, "The Case for Reparations," published in The Atlantic's June issue, was a year-and-half-long project looking at how housing policy across the country has historically been used to subjugate African-Americans. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following report.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been called "the young James Joyce of the hip hop generation" and the best writer of this generation.
"When black people get upset about racism, when black people shout about things, you have to understand the historical relationship of African-Americans to this country. It is not a good one," says Coates.
His work often elicits weeks of reaction in the blogosphere.
Such has been the response to his cover story in the June issue of the Atlantic, called "The Case for Reparations."
"You say reparations and you're kind of asking for it, sort of swatting at the hornets' nest, and that was the main reason why we took so long to get it done," Coates says.
A toast at the offices of The Atlantic offered a brief respite from the extensive work on the article and the attention it's garnered.
Coates worked meticulously for a year and a half researching and writing "The Case for Reparations."
The result? A 16,000-word piece that analyzes housing laws and tells the personal struggles of African-Americans, several of whom had moved from the South to Chicago.
"I've always wanted to own my own house because I worked for white people when I was in the South, and they had beautiful homes and I always said one day..." says one person, whose voice is used in the trailer for the article.
"I knew the first thing I was going to do was I was going to find somebody who should get reparations who is alive right now. That's what I was going to do. I was going to find someone who you cannot say, 'He's long dead,' no; here's a guy right now, got ripped off, government is responsible, period, end of conversation."
"The Case for Reparations" focuses on housing.
At an event at the social news and entertainment website Buzzfeed, Coates argued that segregation in housing wasn't simply the work of individuals, but government policies that created black ghettos and white suburbs.
"This is social planning. This is not rugged individualism. This is not a bunch of people went out to the suburbs and say here we are going to have a suburb. This was planned at the highest levels of government and black people were cut out of it."
Coates says he initially opposed reparations.
He then read a New York Times article about the test to get into New York City's elite high schools.
"One of the African \-American parents says, 'Well I just feel like my daughter shouldn't have to study Sunday to Sunday for a test to get into a good school. I just don't feel like that should happen.' And at first I thought that was absolutely crazy. Like, what do you mean, you have got to work. You have got to work to get what you want," Coates says.
The more Coates thought about it, the more his thinking evolved.
"She has to study Sunday to Sunday because she lives in a neighborhood where the high school in her neighborhood that she is zoned for is undoubtedly terrible, and this is her way out. Why is that the case? Housing policy, housing policy. And it was an injustice of the present, you know, or a complaint against the present. But it was the old that was making it possible."
Coates grew up with a love for books.
His father was a former Black Panther who ran a small afro-centric publishing house out of the family home.
"I didn't just start studying the forces of racism and white supremacy in American history when I became a writer. I mean I've been reading about that since I could read," Coates says.
Coates' mother made him write essays when he got into trouble.
"She'd make me write essays. She used to make me go write essays when I was six or seven years old. So that's the other thing—I've been writing for a long time, too."
Coates says keeping safe in his west Baltimore neighborhood and excelling in school required different sets of behaviors.
"Having to differentiate, I think, was something. That's a struggle and I think it's a struggle for all young black boys in those sorts of situations. That what's appropriate out here is not what's appropriate in here. And it was my understanding, even then, that the very fact that I had to do that was somehow unjust," Coates says.
He described his childhood lyrically in the "Beautiful Struggle," a 2009 memoir he wrote as part historian, part poet.
He says in the memoir, "but we died for sneakers stitched by serfs, coats that gave props to teams we didn't own, hats embroidered with the names of confederate states."
"I knew when i did the "Beautiful Struggle" that the singular power of poetry was that it could take you places through how it was written—that people would come up with voices and ways of speaking that would conjure something else. And I really really wanted to conjure the West Baltimore of my youth in the late '80s and early '90s," Coates explains.
Coates dropped out of Howard University to become a journalist, working at several publications and newspapers before coming to The Atlantic.
He moved to New York just before 9/11, and as the city was dealing with its collective grief, Coates was in his own private hell.
A friend in the Washington area, the son of a radiologist, had just been killed by a police officer who mistook him for a drug dealer.
"It's sheerly because he was black. They thought that and they shot him—and I was so upset about that. And I come here and 9/11 happens and I kept thinking about my friend who there was no acknowledgement for. There was no sorry, no nothing. And everybody was so upset about these people being killed," Coates says. "So I felt like that at the time. I was very callous, very cold at the time. And I became more a part of the city."
Coates' thoughts changed. He then wrote about "the limits of anger."
"This is basically just human to human. It's a human life, no matter what. And that's what I meant by the limits of anger. You may be pissed off about what happened to your friend. You may be justifiably pissed off. The answer to that is not the end of other human life that that's OK," Coates.
Coates lives with his wife and son in Harlem. Does he ever feel the need to get away from the serious nature of his writing?
"I don't find I need too much of a break from it. I mean, I love what I do. It's a choice," Coates says.
"It's not like you have to dig for this. You just have to want to know," Coates says.
He reserves some of his greatest contempt for fellow journalists who write about politics and this country, and display what Coates calls a "willful ignorance" about the history of black people in america.
"So when people ask you 'what's going to happen, why are you so depressed?' Listen, if the people who are charged with analyzing don't understand it's over, it's a wrap."
The article has already sparked plenty of conversation.
Coates says he's making the case that reparations is a topic still very much worthy of attention as a part of America's history.
"You have to decide how to live morally. People ask me at the end, 'How do you feel? What do you expect to happen?' I don't expect anything to happen. I just want to be judged on the side of people who said something. When it is counted up, I don't want to be one of those people who closed my ears."