The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisis Coates Discussion Questions

Instructor: Shanna Fox

Shanna has been an educator for 20 years and earned her Master of Education degree in 2017. She enjoys using her experience to provide engaging resources for other teachers.

The unabashed look at racism in America in the essay 'The Case for Reparations' can engage students in meaningful and complex conversations with their peers. Use these discussion questions to spur your high school aged students to think and respond.

The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The essay The Case for Reparations written by Ta-Nehisi Coates was originally published in June 2014 in The Atlantic. Upon its publishing, and ever since, it has spurred much discussion and debate about racism, law, slavery, and reparations for wrongs committed both past and present. Use these discussion questions to engage your high school-age students in important conversations about the topics addressed in this essay. Questions can be discussed one-on-one with individual students or a list can be provided to partners or teams. Alternatively, you can host a whole group conversation.

  • Note: Since this topic can arouse strong emotion, use caution when releasing students to discuss on their own. Be sure to discuss group norms and methods for handling disagreement or offense.

Legalized Racism

  • Coates asserts that racism is legally and systematically applied in many different areas of American society. For example, housing laws have rubber stamped discriminatory practices that resulted in segregated, low-income areas. Discuss the impact of housing laws on African Americans, both economically and socially. Find other examples within the essay that show racist practices mandated or bypassed by unjust laws.
  • Legislators have attempted for decades to establish a committee to discuss reparations. On June 19, 2019, Coates testified in front of a committee in support of H.R. 40, which would do just that. Do you think this committee will be approved by Congress? Why or why not? Why hasn't it been done before? Do you think there should be a legal mandate to provide reparations?

Slavery and Democracy

  • Coates discusses that American democracy was built on enslaved people. Do you agree? Does this truth poison American democracy's history? Why or why not? Can the positive accomplishments of American history be separated from the slavery that helped build them? Why or why not?
  • Coates highlights several narrative accounts of people in the Black community, both past and present. Do these stories exemplify a type of slavery in modern society? Discuss each one. How was this person (or group of people) affected by slavery? How are their lives different now because of it? How could their lives be improved with reparations? How have they contributed to our democracy? Is the American Dream a reality for any of them? Use specific examples.

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