Discrimination against black people by white people in the United States had been regarded as a matter of course and justifiable for more than 300 years. Therefore, the problem is far more than whether the laws are prohibited or not, but whether people’s mind and concepts are changed or not. The latter is something that everyone understands but is the most difficult to do. While looking at American history, the history of African Americans can be said to be soaked with blood and tears and suffered from humiliation, and because of that, many civil right movements had emerged to improve their social status. While performing their movement, many of the methods they used might not be understood by others and because of this, one powerful writing had produced to answer the concerns of others and that is Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In his letter, King responded to the concerns of white clergymen and to the public and provided many reasons why they perform such movement. Although black people have been legally freed from slavery, racial discrimination and oppression in the United States are far from being eliminated and the equality for everyone provided by law is still unfulfilled. Such a phenomenon is demonstrated in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, The Case for Reparations. In his article, Coates delivered the long-lasting consequence of racial discrimination through housing discrimination policies in the United States. The two writings had many similarities and differences in each other and it can be concluded in one sentence, that is, although both writings agreed that no acknowledgment of wrongs would be given by white people, and drawn attention to the damages wrought by racism and segregation that still need reparation in our nation, their views of the United States and their plan toward establishing civil rights is very distinct from each other.
The writing, Letter from Birmingham Jail, written by Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the criticism against him by a group of white clergymen about his tactics and activities in Birmingham, which they called it unwise and untimely, (King 1). At the beginning of the letter, King talked about the reasons why he is in Birmingham and one of his reasons was that he was invited there, as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Another reason King provided was that injustice is in Birmingham and he compared himself to the Apostle Paul, who was called to carry the gospel of freedom beyond his own hometown. He then described the four basic steps that he and his organization follows in a nonviolent campaign, which starts from the collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive and end with direct action. King explained that he and his organization meant to negotiate with others but was rejected every time, therefore, direct action is necessary to establish tension between them, which forced others to confront the issue. Later King stated, We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed, (2). He then provided many distressing examples of ways that African American are suffering from racist people and policies, which served as the reasons why they cannot wait any longer and for others to understand their legitimate and unavoidable impatience, (3). After that, King explained the difference between just and unjust law by a quote from St. Augustine, an unjust law is no law at all, (3). Near the end of the letter, King expressed his disappointment toward the white moderates, of stopping black people in their path toward freedom, and the clergymen statement of calling their activity in Birmingham as extreme. King ended his letter by expressing his hope that one day racism will be ended and that freedom will eventually be given to everyone.
The article, The Case for Reparations, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, argued that African Americans must be compensated by the damage done through slavery, Jim Crow laws, racist housing policies, etc. Coates started his writing by introducing an anecdote of Clyde Ross, who immigrated from South to North. Through Clyde Ross’ anecdote, Coates addressed the ways of how the United States government used laws that were different from blacks and started to take land, money, and houses from black people, such as through the practice of redlining. Redlining confined African Americans to live in an area that is overpriced and possibilities of investment wherever black people lived being destroyed, and where they were excluded from obtaining a home mortgage. Not to mention that many of them are legally cheated by white realtors and eventually forced to lose their house. Coates then addressed the terrorism that has plagued the African American community for decades through the brutality of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation, where they constantly confront violence because of discrimination towards them. In addition to terrorism, Coates later argued that another effect of racism in the United States is the tremendous gap in wealth between white people and black people, that every American institution had played a role in it and that the poverty of black people was caused by white theft, as Coates stated, When we think of white supremacy, we picture Colored Only signs, but we should picture pirate flags, (Coates 49). Coates concluded his essay by providing the successful example of Germany in the Post-WWII, in which Germany pay reparation because of moral pressure and several examples of banks in the United States paying reparations to the black communities.
Both writers had came to the understanding that no acknowledgment of wrongs would be given by white people to the black people. In Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he observed, I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, (King 16) King understood that white people, as a whole, would never admit their mistakes that were done to the black people and that he was simply disappointed in white people that they have no comprehension of their unjust situation. Similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates in his writing, The Case for Reparations, came to an agreement with King’s statement. By this, he stated, An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future, (Coates 57) Throughout the article, Coates argued that America is ignoring the sins of the past because America did not compensate for what they have done to the African Americans in the past. Coates believed that the reason of America not admitting their ugly part of history is because they are fearful of reparations. He also believed that ignoring the sins of the past would have caused them to ignore the sins in the future, and the examples are the housing discrimination policies and the experience of Clyde Ross. This happened because America believed their past was not significant, which leads to not admitting their wrongs in the past and thereby causing segregation and racism in the future insignificant.
While talking about their sins in the past, the two writings had also drawn attention to the damages wrought by racism and segregation that still need reparation in our nation. In King’s letter, he illustrated many examples of the damages that were caused by segregation and racism. For example, he stated, But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity, (King 7) These are just one of the many brutal events that black people had gone through that were caused by racism and segregation. In Coates’ article, he used the anecdote of Clyde Ross and housing discrimination policies to illustrate the unjustness of black people. Since Clyde Ross was born, he lives in a life full of unjustness. When he was young, their lands are taken away by the government, and when he gets older and the time of getting his own house, he had the difficulties in receiving a fair mortgage. Not to mention that many of them live under redlining and confront terrorism constantly. These are just one of the many damages caused by racism and segregation which still need reparation in the United States.
Regardless of their similarities in their writing, they actually have very distinct views of the United States and their plan toward establishing civil right from each other. For Martin Luther King, he believed in America, this means that he had hopes from American and he is willing to make the nation better. By this, he stated, We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom, (King 19). From this sentence, it demonstrated a great sense of nationalism and a feeling of patriotic. King is working toward equality and freedom for everyone in the United States, which created a sense of unity of Americans. Contrary to King’s patriotism of America, Coates created a sense of dislike toward America through his words. He stated, By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy, (Coates 27). Coates believed that the foundation for America is based on slavery, the oppression toward black people and the plunder of their asset and rights. All these elements make up America today and that it would be difficult to imagine America without it. This emphasizes that even though African American had made a great contribution at building America today, what they have in return were merely discrimination and oppression.
Besides their different views of the United States, their plan toward establishing civil right was also dissimilar from each other. For King, it was evident that he establish civil right through nonviolent campaigns which ultimately ended Jim Crow and provided civil rights to African Americans successfully. King has clear and specific plans and agendas in which he follows to achieve equality and freedom. Differently, Coates propose no actual program for his case but only advocating for reparations. One example that he proposed in his article that served as reparations is the idea that was proposed by Yale Law professor Boris Bittker in The Case for Black Reparations, which is a reparation program that multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income, (Coates 46), and payed to African American each year for a decade or two. This program might sounds rational but in reality, this plan would never be fulfilled by white people and that even Coates himself believed that such program is not feasible, we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans, (47). The biggest difference between King and Coates is that King had an actual contribution to the civil right movement while Coates propose no practical program dedicated to the movement.
As mentioned earlier in the essay, although African Americans are legally freed and entitled equality by laws, racial discrimination and oppression in the United States still take place in nowadays society. This can be seen in many filed. such as in politics, economy, education, employment, residence, and other aspects. Every unfair decision that is made that affects African Americans is accompanied by a sense of racial discrimination that is well concealed in that decision. Racial inequality in the United States is still quite common in our daily life regardless of the effort of Martin Luther King and Ta-Nehisi Coates advocating for reparation. Although this is not necessarily the case, it cannot be denied that although there is no place for racism at the legal level, in daily life, in the subconscious of some people, racial discrimination will sometimes unconsciously show itself. When racial discrimination appears in people’s mind and society, it would ultimately lead to income inequality and political inequality.
All things considered, the idea of white supremacy seems to still exhibit in Americans’ mind, regardless of their time period. From the thoughts of the two authors, it evidently demonstrated that white people tends to refrain black people from many of their privileges and reject to consider the truth of the world, and that includes the enormous injustice and racial discrimination for which they are accountable for. Until today, African Americans are still on their different paths toward reaching the true justice, not only granted by the law but also wanted to accomplish by the American society.