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In fact, he set his George Polk Award-winning Atlantic piece "The Case for Reparations" in the city "because I like Chicago," Coates explained at his lecture and panel discussion at Loyola's Mundelein Auditorium on Tuesday. "But you really could have done that with any major city in the country."
That being said, the North Lawndale neighborhood that takes center stage in his 16,000-word tour de force is about 15 miles away from Loyola University's Lake Shore Campus, close enough for some of the story's main characters to attend the event. They all had connections to the Contract Buyers League, a group of black Chicago home owners who fought back against predatory housing practices in the 1960s. Jack Macnamara, a former Jesuit seminarian, helped found the league. Attendee Clyde Ross joined the league to protest the redlining policies that had denied him a legitimate mortgage and forced him to buy his house "on contract." Billy Lamar Brooks Sr., now the youth lab director of the Better Boys Foundation, was a member of the Black Panther Party who aided the Contract Buyers League.
Chicago has also been home to reparations movements. In 2002, a group of African-Americans filed a federal lawsuit demanding restitution from companies including JPMorgan Chase, Aetna, Bank of America, CSX Corporation, and New York Life Insurance. In April 2014, two months before Coates published his piece, the Institute of the Black World hosted a forum called Revitalizing the Reparations Movement at Chicago State University to examine the status of reparation initiatives between CARICOM—an organization of 15 Caribbean countries and dependencies—and its former colonizers Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
But again, Coates sees the systemic racial inequality of redlining and other housing policies as a national ill, not just a Chicago one. He notes that in the 1920s, 20 to 30 percent of the population were home owners. By the 1940s, that number rose to 50 to 60 percent. This era of wealth building, however, excluded blacks.
"It was about housing in the article that you wrote, but it's about every aspect of our lives as African-Americans," says Anita Thomas, an associate professor in Loyola's School of Education.
Thomas, along with Brooks and Loyola law professor Juan Perea, constituted the event's three-person panel.
"Since 1619 [which marks the arrival of African slaves to Jamestown], it has been normal to take things from black people," Coates says. "The pillaging and plundering of blacks in this country, it's the reason why you can exclude a whole group from home-buying and wealth-building opportunities and get away with it and think nothing of it and not be caught. It's the reason why, when somebody gets choked to death, like Eric Garner was in New York City, the cops can effectively be put back on again to serve. It's the reason why, in Ferguson, Missouri, you have an entire system of governance that pillages on the people."
He touched on the American propensity to pretend our past is disconnected from the present.
"The idea that you are reborn anew, without your history, without being dogged by your past, without who you were haunting you and you having to deal with that, is uniquely American," Coates says. "In America, we have difficulty with acknowledging the fact that where we are in a particular moment is irrevocably tied to our past. We have great difficulty in doing that when it challenges us."
Brooks looks to education as a weapon for confronting the institutionalized racism of America's past and present.
"It behooves us to develop a consciousness, to develop a strategy to seek out the truth," Brooks says.
And as for Coates, he'll write. He'll write about the streets and the political arena, the local and the national, the historical and the current.
"The most insulting thing [about racism] is how people lie about it," Coates says. "My writing has given me the great benefit of not participating in the lie."