CoatesTwo conversations have taken place in the past 24 hours that reveal two different approaches to class and race in the United States.

The first was Bethanie H. Tucker’s talk at the Wisconsin Technical College System Conference. Granted, I am relying on Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Storified timeline, which captures her tweets about the talk, but the sentiment of Tucker’s talk appeared to be patronizing and condescending toward college students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. My sense, and I hope I’m wrong, is that Tucker sees herself and educators in general as a “white saviour,” to use one commenter’s term. In this case, however, it isn’t about race, but class. It’s an attitude that I’ve witnessed among many educators, both pre-collegiate and in higher education: “Those (literally) poor students are so fortunate to have us help them.” It’s sickening, and it speaks to those educators’ inability or unwillingness to invest in students as individuals because they embody poverty.

Then, Ta-Nehisi Coates came out with his piece on the case for reparations. My reaction after reading it once is completely different from my response to the sentiment of Tucker’s talk. It’s hard to encapsulate Coates’ argument with just one quote, but this one stuck with me:

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

I’ve had the internal intellectual debate about reparations on several occasions, usually coming down against the idea. I don’t know if reparations is an answer, or the answer, for American racism, but I think Coates is right–having the national conversation would be a monumental step in helping us take an honest look at our nation’s heritage. Realistically, I don’t think it will happen because Americans have shown a propensity to ignore their true history in favor of a watered-down, sanctimonious heritage.

Collectively, both Tucker and Coates, in different ways, reveal something about our nation: we don’t like to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that there are historical and structural problems that continue to exist that make it difficult to acknowledge anyone outside of our circle as equal or valuable. Instead, we prefer to stereotype and patronize because it helps us avoid taking actions that will make us uncomfortable.