Coates returned to Middlebury after spending last summer in the French School.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. ­– Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates attracted a packed house of students and community members to Mead Chapel on March 4th for a powerful 45-minute lecture on the origin of racism in America.

The George Polk Award-winning writer for the Atlantic, whose June 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations” has been widely discussed in the media and on college campuses, left no doubt in the minds of his Middlebury audience about the depth of prejudice that still exists in the United States today, and the responsibility all Americans share to do something about it.

Coates discussed the concept of race and his own awakening as a student at Howard University, where he questioned his identity and, in particular, the falsehood that black people were inferior to white people. “I learned at Howard that there is no definition of race that stands up across geography and across history… There is no consistent definition for what is a black race or a white race.”

With his lecture coming on the same day that the Justice Department released its report on police practices in Ferguson, Mo., Coates said the findings showed the Ferguson Police Department was “a gang operating under the cover of law…a collection agency with guns with the legal authority to shoot people who do not comply.”

Looking out at the sea of faces in Mead Chapel, he continued. “You are implicated in that. It’s not just them. [Being] white implicates you in that. You become a part of that. It’s also a large measure of a problem in our country. It’s that we presently lack the courage to have the kind of self-confrontation with our very own identity when a report like this comes out.

“I am very aware of my audience here. I know this is not Howard University,” he said, eliciting nervous laughter from the gathering. “I love all people. I love all humanity. But my challenge to you is to have a self-confrontation over your own identity. Over what you call yourself. Over what you name yourself… I check off the box that says African American on a census form, but I look forward to the day when I won’t have to. When we have a post-racist society in this country.”

The idea that the Justice Department report implicates not just the Ferguson Police Department but all of white America is tied directly to Coates’ thesis in his epic article “The Case for Reparations,” which was also the title of his talk at Middlebury.

“Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations,” he wrote in the Atlantic. “We cannot escape our history.”

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Mead Chapel was filled to near capacity to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Coates pointed to 20th-century solutions to America’s pressing issues of education, housing, and economic inequality, i.e., social security, the G.I. bill, the FDIC, etc., and said the programs were aimed at elevating the stature of white people, and not of black people, and that the effects from it are still evident today. “For every dollar of wealth an African American family has, a white family has $20,” he said quoting a recent study done by the Pew Research Center.

This disparity is a “bruising chasm,” Coates declared. “Somebody did this. That chasm is not natural. Somebody actually drew that line, for some particular reason, and the result is what we have today.”

Coates traced the origin of black oppression in America to the need for vast numbers of workers in the cotton fields. By the time of the Civil War there were four million enslaved people in the American South, and they constituted “a great material interest.” The wealthiest men in the first half of 19th-century America were not in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, said Coates, they were the plantation owners lining the banks of the southern Mississippi River.

“It was a system geared toward the ownership of people,” and 100 years after the Civil War “that kind of terrorism still went on under the eyes of the American government.”

Coates believes that racism does not stem from race. Rather, it’s the opposite. “Race flows from racism. First you have racism. First you have the need to exploit other people. First you have the need to extract, to take from somebody, to make them do certain things, and after that you create a justification for it. And the justification is, ‘Well, you are a different race. And you being of a different race means certain things.’”

Coates offered examples of how racism is applied independent of race, and urged his audience to look deeply within themselves at how lines are drawn between people in the U.S.

See a gallery of photos from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lecture here.

“Black is an ethnic group in the way that white is not. And this is a huge, huge, huge problem. White really is [just] a racial concept, and that’s it. There is no definition of being white in this country that can be separated from putting your foot on someone else’s neck.

“Now listen. I want to be really, really clear about this. It does not mean that because you have blonde hair that you are genetically disposed to putting your foot on someone else’s neck. It means that the line was drawn that way to be that way. That was the whole point. The reason the line was drawn that way was to allow another group to accumulate a kind of power.”

What kind of power? The kind that could be expressed in material wealth or the kind that could be expressed in terms of privilege, Coates said. Either way, America bears responsibility for what its citizens and its government have allowed to happen to black people, which is the foundation of Coates’ case for reparations.

– With reporting by Robert Keren and photography by Todd Balfour