When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s made his influential “Case for Reparations” in the pages of the Atlantic in 2014, his focus, perhaps surprisingly, was not on slavery. It was on housing discrimination—all of the measures that, from the 1870s on, prevented former slaves and their descendants from getting their “forty acres and a mule,” from owning land and building wealth. While rooted in Jim Crow and the lost promise of Reconstruction, this disadvantage fully flowered in the middle years of the twentieth century—an era in which federal programs opened new opportunities for white families, but allowed the southern Congressional veto and local discrimination in both North and South to shut out most black families. It was an era, as Ira Katznelson and others have shown, “when affirmative action was white.”
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