"If you're Martin Luther King, and it's 1965, and you're making that long march through Alabama, certainly you can look around and say 'wow, at one point in Alabama, my ancestors a hundred years ago were enslaved... Isn't it something that we've progressed to a level where I'm not enslaved. That's progress."
"Also, if every day somebody comes home, and beats you with a tire iron, and then decides to stop beating you, that would be progress - but it doesn't change the fact that you are down on the ground bleeding."
In case, taken out of context, the meaning of this is lost, Coates is talking about how oppression can have lasting consequences. Slavery ended, but the people who were slaves were not suddenly fine. They're still at a severe disadvantage, relative to the rest of society. In so many ways. Expecting people to be able to just pick themselves up, brush themselves off, letting bygones be bygones.. no, that's just not realistic.
This doesn't even get into all the ways society continues (to this very day!) to oppress people, to make getting out of that hole incredibly difficult. A hole this country put them in, and then wants to be able to claim has been left in the past. Like when you finally stop beating someone with a tire iron, and then demand they stop whining about their broken limbs, and get their shit together like everyone else. When not only weren't they given medical attention, but those injuries were instead aggravated in all sorts of ways.
No, slavery has never been resolved, as long as the consequences of it still result in situations like those we're seeing from Baltimore to Ferguson. All across the country, black communities trapped in generational poverty, hounded by police brutality, all of that compounded by everything from redlining to mass incarceration and the ongoing war on drugs. The beatings haven't entirely stopped, let alone has much help been given for recovery.
Prior to his assassination, Martin Luther King focused on the correlations between poverty and systemic oppression. American history has widely chosen to disrespect his efforts on that front, by leaving it out of history books, and thus, the popular consciousness of who he was, and what he was actually trying to accomplish.
[Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Solution to Poverty]
This is because circumstances matter. We live in society that uses the delusion of meritocracy and personal responsibility to protect the haves from the have-nots. They claim we can't afford to help the poor, while passing all sorts of tax cuts and corporate handouts for the wealthy. It's pure selfish plutocracy, masquerading as ideological nonsense.
There are all sorts of reasons people end up in insurmountable circumstances. Racism is a big one. Bigger and more complex than most Americans have any concept of. However, it's far from the only circumstance holding people down. Poverty alone is a massive trap for all sorts of people, even when it isn't compounded by racism.
I grew up poor, in a poor black neighborhood. My father tried to raise a family of four, on 17k/year, while my mother went to college. When she graduated, she left him, and went on to support us on closer to 25k/year- in a town with a median income of 107k/year. We moved constantly, and we could barely afford food or rent, never mind much of anything else. It might have been ok, under otherwise ideal circumstances, but that's not how life tends to go.
You can take the basic limitations of circumstance into account, and try to focus on the anecdotes, the people who managed to succeed, in spite of the odds, and say everyone just needs to do that - but circumstances are far more complicated than any single metric. Some poor kids have better role models in their lives, or live somewhere with better assistance programs, or benefit from a more resilient neurochemistry, and often, it has a whole lot to do with plain old luck.
Anecdotes are practically meaningless. To be at all serious about the issue, you have to look at the aggregates. The statistical norms. The FACT that the vast majority of people who grow up poor stay poor their entire lives, while most people who grow up well off stay well off. This is not because poor people are inferior in some way. It's because poverty begets poverty, and we live in a society that does less and less to counteract that.
Our social safety net helps some of us survive, but it doesn't do much of anything to lift us beyond that. At best, we're given just enough to scrape by, so that's about all most of us are able to do. Just survive from one day to the next, rather than ever having the means to build on that.
It's still poverty. It still begets only more poverty.