Ta-Nehisi Coates has made the case for reparations in this month’s cover article for the Atlantic, and whether or not you find his case persuasive I have little doubt that those who take the time to read it will find it a remarkable work.
Mind you, I suspect those on the Intertubes that will take the time to actually read it will be depressingly small. The essay logs in at 16,000 words, closer in size to a novella than a standard magazine article, let alone a blog post. What’s more, even though Coates’s prose crackles it’s blunt and unflinching focus on things we wish to remain unseen make it a difficult read. Still, I would argue it should be required reading for anyone that reads or writes for a politics and culture blog like Ordinary Times.
There’s really nothing of substance for me to add to what Coates writes, but after seeing some of OT’s contributors emailing about Coates’s piece it hit me that most people are going to talk about the Atlantic article without having any idea what it says. If it deserves discussion at all on these pages, then it deserves a quality vetting of what Coates lays out rather than a stab at what someone assumes a black man would have to say about reparations. To that end, here are two things you probably need to know before you decide that you already know what Coates is going to say and so don’t need to be bothered with reading his piece:
One: Coates dos not argue that “whites owe blacks because slavery.”
Rather, he makes a more holistic argument that shows, quite persuasively, that the US has flourished economically because of slavery as well as later having an indentured workforce. Moreover, he shows that the same forces that allowed slavery have worked ever since to separate, steal from, and keep down blacks in America.
He shows how the New Deal was crafted rather consciously to ensure that blacks remained impoverished; he shows as well how Johnson’s Great Society was tweaked to do the same. Even today, in our era of “post-racism,” he shows that it continues to be the practice of banks and mortgage companies to actively work toward keeping blacks in their place — literally — by having separate and predatory credit and loan policies and marketing campaigns for blacks — or, as those banks and mortgage companies so post-racially refer to them, the “mud people” and “ghetto people.”
In other words, Coates argues that the damages blacks face today aren’t just from what our forefathers did — they’re from what we continue to do today through willful ignorance of the economic, psychological and moral foundation of our country. What’s more, he shows that these damages are palpable. Upper-middle class blacks are still shuttled by government policy and the white private citizenry to either live in ghettos or those neighborhoods where lower-class whites live. More than that, “black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.”
Discussing reparations, believes Coates, isn’t just needed to wipe an old slate clean — it’s needed to stop us from what we’re continuing to do, today, to some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Two: Coates does not necessarily even call for money to be paid out to anyone, though it’s obvious he thinks that might be the moral thing to do. Rather, what Coates asks is that we consider being willing to officially ask the question of whether or not reparations might be considered:
“For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”
“It’s because it’s black folks making the claim,” Nkechi Taifa, who helped found N’COBRA, says. “People who talk about reparations are considered left lunatics. But all we are talking about is studying [reparations]. As John Conyers has said, we study everything. We study the water, the air. We can’t even study the issue? This bill does not authorize one red cent to anyone.”
That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential…
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… Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans…
What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.
John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.
There is so much more, and as I say I encourage everyone to read it. It probably won’t change many minds about the concept of reparations (though to be honest it changed mine), but even if it doesn’t it raises questions that every American should be forced to face.
Oh, and one quick editorial note: I’ll be monitoring the comments here more than is my normal preference. If it’s obvious no one bothered to read the Atlantic piece and the only discussion people can muster is whether liberals, conservatives or libertarians are the real racists, I’ll be shutting the comments down early.