Book review: We were eight years in power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book was recommended by my brother who also said it made hard, painful reading. I would concur. I had to pause many times and take stock. I had to incorporate the words and the information into what I understood as systemic, constructed institutions and socio-cultural frameworks of oppression and unfairness based solely on the colour of ones skin.

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This book is valuable to those who want to know about how historical agency shapes society and creates opportunities for some and denies life chances to others. A good example is the chapter on family – ‘The consequences of 250 years of enslavement, of war upon black families and black people, were profound … In a time when communications were primitive and blacks lacked freedom of movement, the parting of black families was a kind of murder. Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy – in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family.’

And the denial of family to people of colour was a widespread method used by colonial powers across the globe. Splitting up families in India, China, Africa and people who are First Nations (in Canada, Australia, South America) was commonplace and part of stated colonial policy. This left huge gaps in sources of support and has had a lasting impact on the ability of many communities to build resilience. The destruction of our family units stands as one of the pivotal tools used by colonialists and those who wanted to exploit others for their economic benefit.

Another useful insight in the book is about how neighbourhoods become segregated along racial lines and how this is a deliberate act that has historical roots and long term consequences.  ‘In Cold War America, homeownership was seen as a means of instilling patriotism, and as a civilising and anti-radical force. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist,” claimed William Levitt, who pioneered the modern suburb with the development of various Levittowns, his famous planned communities. “He has too much to do.” Yet black people and people of colour were denied the right to own homes in some cities through zoning laws which were made in the 60s and 70s. They were never offered purchase rights on the same terms as White people. Ta-Nehisi Coates develops the readers understanding of these deliberate structural constructions, backed up by law, that sought to deliberately deny basic human rights to sections of the population based purely on the colour of their skin. For many people, left with little choice, they found that the only way they were going to buy a home was to do it the way they wanted – which meant paying exorbitant rates that their white friends were not faced with. And the same goes for employment – the only way you were going to rise or progress was to do it the way they wanted – for many black graduates who face a bleak job market, their struggle to get an education actually impedes their progress in the workplace or their actual ability to get a job.

Anyone who is committed to social justice and working towards a fair society, regardless of where they are, and what country they reside in, should take some time out to read this book. It is written to be accessible and it does not turn away from hard evidence to illustrate its points. It is clear that the author took time to do the research, to seek out information that is otherwise ignored and you can feel the urgency in their words to help others understand that it is not their fault, many work hard, many struggle, but systems were just not built for them, the systems were built to exploit them. And this is a very important message, to ensure that people of colour can continue to be resilient.

 

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