Making Amends for America's Racial History

Writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Shelby Steele debate the right role for government in helping African-Americans achieve true equality.
6:10 | 02/22/15

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Transcript for Making Amends for America's Racial History
So many of the disparities that exist between the african-american community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim crow. Barack Obama called that legacy America's origin that will sin back in 2008. And just this week, ta'nehisi Coates won an award for his atlantic cover story on a case for reparations. Dramatic government action to close the gap between whites and blacks. In his new book, shame, Shelby Steele says that kind of thinking perpetuates a deep problem, by focusing too much on how government can atone for our past sins, he argues, liberals have quote damaged the black family more profoundly than segregation ever did. Both men are here now to take on that debate. Ta'nehisi, let me begin with you. History matters. It's clear to us that George Washington matters. We all get together and celebrate on July 4th. Independence. We're all very proud of our leg circumstances our history. We all talk about America's great legacies of force in the world. I think any sort of full consideration of patriotism can't just talk about history when it favors us. We have to talk about it when it disfavors us, too. And Shelby Steele, you have argued in the past that the problem for reparations would be trading honor for dollars, selling our birthright for a pot of porridge. What did you mean by that? Yes, you know, I think there's a problem of dependency that -- where we have sort of allowed that to happen in our community. To be more dependent. Interdependent. And that's hurt a great deal. How do you answer the argument that Mr. Steele makes in his book, ta'nehisi, that this government action has divided us more than ever before, done more harm than good? For african-americans. I look forward to Reading the book. I haven't gotten a copy yet. I think I'm a little familiar with the argument. He's correct. Government action has divided us. I don't think it's the government action that Mr. Steele is talking about. The taxes that were put on african-american labor during enslavement. I think it's the red-lining period when we effectively erected a white middle class in this country and declined to do the same thing with black people and left them out. For unscrupulous lenders. I think the criminal justice policy in the country which sees african-american men as some part of the American population. Yet 8% of the enslaved population. We have government policies that divide us. I don't thing it's the ones that Mr. Steele is talking about though. What's the answer to that? The answer to that is -- one is, can be tempted into air fwans -- arrogance there. But I think the answer, I think, for the most part, is again, this idea that -- that -- this fact, really, that we have become more department as a result of the efforts on the part of white America to do well by us, to do the good, to be he helpful, and to make up for the shame of the past. And that -- that sort of -- thinking, I think, is what's caused us to -- If affirmative action is not the answer, how do you close the huge gap in wealth between whites and blacks? You don't. You don't close it. You don't do anything. You leave it alone. You -- you practice a -- as best as possible, a discipline of freedom. Where you -- your struggle is not for some sort of advantage but your struggle is for freedom itself. And that's how -- that's what I think you do. Leave it alone? I'm sorry. That's completely untenable to me, the gap that you're talking about. For every five cents in wealth that african-americans have, white families have a dollar in wealth. There's a 20 to 1 gap. That gap didn't get there by magic. That gap is a result of housing policy that we had in this country. A long, long policy of taking wealth out of african-american communities and putting it elsewhere. It has real consequences. I grew up in west Baltimore. Every day, I went to school, a third of my brain was occupied with the safety of my body. That's a result of that community being rendered in a certain way. For a long time in our history. Just leaving it alone casts young black boys and girls going to school like I went to as a child and says, hey, go out there and cope. That's untenable to me. I went to those kinds of schools, too. Worse. Worse. I was in the days of segregation. And, um, and again, the -- you know, there's this sort of compounding effect where we -- I call it character-ological racism. We see racism as you do, I think, as immobile. Immovable. And the result of that, again, is more dependency. I think it's totally movable. I see it totally movable. And the point is is that -- it ain't gonna move. It is what it is. It's not going to change. It's not going to go away. We need to get about the business of making our own lives as best we can. And -- About a deep a disagreement as I have seen. I'm afraid that's all we have time for right now.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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