In his landmark 2014 essay titled, "The Case For Reparations," authorpushed the issue of payments to descendants of slaves into a larger, national discussion that continues today. In January, 50 U.S. representatives co-sponsored a bill to study reparations, and, earlier this month, to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people who were sold by the university's founders to pay off debts.
Coates told "CBS This Morning" he never thought the conversation about reparations would still be happening some five years later.
"I did not. I think I did quite a few interviews around the time and I viewed this, and to some extent still, view it as a generational struggle," he said. "I'm shocked to see this continue on now."
But for Coates, the idea of reparations isn't simply financially compensating black people because of slavery. The answer is much longer.
"It's possible that you should do that, but we haven't gotten clear what exactly the process of reparations is," he said.
In his 2014 piece, Coates highlights the various reasons why the relationship between African-Americans and the rest of America has been one of "extraction."
"Taking resources out of the community to profit other people. The period of enslavement, obviously for 250 years, the period of Jim Crow when you had basically a system of serfdom in the South," Coates said. "The period when black people could not vote, meaning that resources or taxes taken out of their community. It had no ability to determine what was done with that. The period of the New Deal and FHA loans when we basically built our modern middle class that black people were actually cut out of even as they contributed to the system."
Through his research for the article, Coates said he became convinced reparations was the only policy that could handle rectifying what ultimately became the "20 to 1 wealth gap that divides black and white America."
There have been calls in Congress for decades to start a dialogue about reparations. Former Rep. John Conyers has repeatedly introduced a reparations bill since 1989, with little success. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has sponsored the latest version of the bill.
"This is still why I think the proper next step is H.R. 40 which is the bill that Sheila Jackson Lee has pushed for years by John Conyers to convene a study on exactly what happens," he said. "Studying the period of white supremacy and enslavement in this county and the possible means by which reparations can happen. I think that's extremely, extremely important because, A. I think we need to hear from African-American communities about how they feel, any sort of reparations that should be met. I think this country has not gone through a process of educating itself."
Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have all broached the topic during their 2020 campaigns perhaps signaling a shift in perception of an idea that was once considered fringe. Even President Obama was skeptical of its viability.
"Who knows. I mean, who knows what's politically possible until it happens. I was one of these people who did not think a black president was politically possible. There were large swath of Americans who didn't think Donald Trump was possible. Who knows, who knows," Coates said.