. And this continues today, right?A. We have, over the last half-century, this steady process of restricting public access to beach areas in the Northeast. A lot of it is driven by fears of the civil rights movement spilling over into what had previously been White enclaves. You started to see this push towards restricting public access to beaches oftentimes out of a sensibly race-neutral policy like resident-only policies or even by building physical barriers that restrict the public’s ability to access areas that had long been upper-class White coastal communities. Well, in the process of trying to armor themselves against the prospect of hordes of urban masses flocking to their shores, they were also destroying the very environment that they were seeking to protect.Q. Maybe this is unfair, but given what climate change is poised to do to these coastal communities I couldn’t help but read a certain sense of karma in these stories. A. It would be poetic justice if it only affected those persons carrying this [racism] out, but instead it affects all of us, because it’s our planet. It also affects us in other ways, like by shifting our priorities as a country, it’s shifting tax dollars toward the rebuilding of playgrounds for the rich, and just having a really corrosive effect on the body politic as a whole. It absolutely reveals the multifaceted damage that racism does to us as a society and to the planet.Q. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Atlantic article laying a case for reparations for African Americans is told through the lens of a working class Black family from really humble beginnings. But your book centers a lot on stories of African Americans who actually had some measures of wealth and land ownership, only to have it stolen from them. Do you think your book bolsters the case for reparations for African Americans?

A. Well, I think we need to shift the focus from cash payments to people of color, which is the stereotypical argument of what reparations constitutes, and more toward structural reforms that will address and eliminate the sort of instruments of racism that have been carried out for generations and continue to operate and are really in many ways intrinsic to our system of  capitalism — and that’s a conversation that most Americans don’t want to have.

With regards to these characters (in the book), these are folks whose wealth was never realized. The one thing about the African American experience under Jim Crow, when talking about wealth and the inability to accumulate wealth, the landowners who I discuss, these are folks who emerged out of a century of Jim Crow with one asset, which was land. They never got a chance to realize that wealth. Those lands instead became a source of wealth for others.

The perfect example is Hilton Head, S.C. That land was once owned by African Americans, but is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars and the [Black] people who [previously] owned it never got a cent. It’s the same thing we’re seeing today in these gentrifying neighborhoods where the land is highly valuable, but the people who lived on it didn’t get a chance to enjoy the riches that came from it. Coates uses the word “kleptocracy” to describe this and it’s very powerful and very accurate in the sense that the state is operating in ways to facilitate the dispossession of African American assets.

Q. So given all of this, do you see a way for the nation to reconcile its debt to African Americans while also reconciling a sustainable future under climate change’s threats?

A. It’s hard to imagine when you have states like North Carolina, which just passed a law that forbids coastal engineers and state agencies from to even acknowledging the existence of climate change. But yeah, it’s a tricky issue of how do we begin to right these past wrongs in ways that are actually meaningful for people who actually suffered that damage and their descendents — the people who are living in trailer homes while the land that their parents owned has now been turned into golf courses and multimillion dollar mansions. There’s no real easy answer that doesn’t involve a transfer of assets and wealth in a way that does compensate those people who had their land stolen from them by legal means.

Going forward, if there is a realization that that model of development in these areas is unsustainable, then one of the ways to address this is to look back to previous models of living here, when [African Americans] were much more in tune with living in volatile environments, and ones that are much more well adapted to living in an age of rising sea level.

So, for instance, I was out in the Sea Islands [off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida] in April, and you drive through these areas like John’s Island, Wadlamaw and Kiawah Island, these are areas that used to have large numbers of independent, self-sufficient Black farm families. Today, the African Americans are still living on these islands but in these Habitat for Humanity villages. They have no means for actually living off the land, they have no place in the island economy other than as low-wage service workers. Their very way of life was destroyed.

At the same time the islands themselves are being destroyed in ways that will really become apparent in the future. So what do we do for these people who are living in these trailer homes, where their ancestors were living as proud independent farming families? One way is to look at those older models of living — not that return to the Earth in any kind of nostalgic way — but begin to recognize how we can adopt a new model. So learning from the past and also compensating for past injustices, and finding a way that those two can be brought together.


By: Brentin Mock