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Monolithic Atlantic cover story focuses on West Side and makes case for reparations

Last night, quietly, The Atlantic posted award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ massively detailed story that, at its essence, asks everyone to fully consider how Chicago’s – and the country’s – systemic racism and discrimination tragically affect modern day lives.

And not so quietly, Twitter responded. By midnight, both Coates name and #thecaseforreparations were trending topics. Scott Stossel, the Atlantic’s editor, tweeted that you might not agree, but the story certainly highlights important facts. The piece offers a good roundup of Chicago’s racial-political history and goes a long way toward explaining how decades of racist social and government policy initiatives contributed to today’s economic and racial ills – hence, Coates says, the need for a real discussion about reparations.

RELATED: Is Chicago segregated, and does it matter?

This piece hits home, quite personally, for me. My grandparents got to Chicago at the same time that the story’s central character – Mr. Clyde Ross – arrived to North Lawndale. My church, in Lawndale, used to be an old Jewish temple. My entire extended family, at one time, mostly lived on one block in K-town. My father, an attorney, fought red-lining policies with all his might. My mother once lived in the Rosenwald Apartments. I live southwest now – always have – but I firsthand know about neighborhood segregation. After my parents bought a house in Beverly, we came home from church to find it spraypainted “N&*ggers go back to Africa.” This was in the 80s.

People wonder why Chicago is so segregated – still – but they don’t know the (extremely recent) history. Well, Coates piece explains why.

Coates started his tale on the West Side, in North Lawndale. And rather than provide a litany of who-got-shot and half-baked ideas on why, Coates went back. Way back. He touches on ancient texts and comes all the way up to the Great Migration that brought the majority of blacks to live in the city after escaping the horrors of the Jim Crow south. He profiles Clyde Ross, originally from Clarksdale, Mississippi, who was tricked into a bad mortgage upon his arrival to the city. He then details how that “trick” has reverberations 50 years later and how racist lending policies led to many problems – both then and now.

He says, in part:

Today Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, a fact that reflects assiduous planning. In the effort to uphold white supremacy at every level down to the neighborhood, Chicago—a city founded by the black fur trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable—has long been a pioneer. The efforts began in earnest in 1917, when the Chicago Real Estate Board, horrified by the influx of southern blacks, lobbied to zone the entire city by race. But after the Supreme Court ruled against explicit racial zoning that year, the city was forced to pursue its agenda by more-discreet means.

Like the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration initially insisted on restrictive covenants, which helped bar blacks and other ethnic undesirables from receiving federally backed home loans. By the 1940s, Chicago led the nation in the use of these restrictive covenants, and about half of all residential neighborhoods in the city were effectively off-limits to blacks.

It is common today to become misty-eyed about the old black ghetto, where doctors and lawyers lived next door to meatpackers and steelworkers, who themselves lived next door to prostitutes and the unemployed. This segregationist nostalgia ignores the actual conditions endured by the people living there—vermin and arson, for instance—and ignores the fact that the old ghetto was premised on denying black people privileges enjoyed by white Americans.

The story is dense, and he apparently worked on it for some two years along with local, celebrated photographer Carlos Javier Ortiz. It is nuanced, and references all manner of atrocities that most should know about, but might not. For example, he references the state-sanctioned bombing and destruction of “Black Wall Street,” a community in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was the richest black community in the nation until the white neighbors got upset and quite literally air bombed the people. All survivors were placed in concentration camps.

He goes on to discuss Jewish reparations and he says that key to that discussion is the fact that everyone recognizes the horrors of the Holocaust and no one questions it. For Coates, reparations is less about money and more about full recognition of the systemic issues and educating everybody about the breadth and depth of what happened just a few decades ago, including the stories of Rosewood in Florida and the Black Wall Street.

Redlining, affirmative action, cultural uplift – all are addressed in this piece. The magazine’s June cover story is online in its entirely – and not hidden behind some paywall. The editors clearly wanted people to read it. Now you know.

— Adrienne Samuels Gibbs