Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Sunday, June 1, 2014 11:26 am

Please do me a favor: Read “The Case for Reparations”


You don’t owe me a favor, but I’m asking for one anyway: Go read the essay “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic.

(Yeah, I’m late to it. I was on vacation. Sue me.)

I concede right up front that this isn’t a simple request. Consequently, as you’re about to see, this is the longest “y’all go read this” post in this blog’s 12-year history.

Likewise, “The Case for Reparations” is a long article — 15,000 words or so. And it deals, obviously, with race, a subject that makes most people uncomfortable and, in the U.S., should discomfit everybody.

But there are some other things you should know.

First, the title is a little misleading — perhaps deliberately so — in that most people probably think that “reparations” means cash payments to make up for black people’s having been slaves. In point of fact, Coates does not call for any such thing, let alone specify an amount, an eligibility standard for individuals, or a distribution mechanism. (This fact, should you see the article discussed elsewhere, will be an easy way to tell which commenters have read the article and which have not.)

Second, even if one brings to the article a broader understanding of “reparations,” one should know that Coates, who is black, has only the vaguest idea of what reparations of any kind might look like, that he sees the concept as too complex to be defined by any individual. Moreover, he opposed the idea in principle himself until only a couple of years ago. Even today, he thinks, for example, that affirmative action doesn’t really address the needs created by the circumstances he describes.

Third, the article is less an argument for some form of reparations — though it is that — than it is a piece of historical investigative journalism that explains the widespread, longstanding, and ongoing, theft of wealth from black Americans. Coates’s work, as he himself points out, is not entirely original and builds on the work of professional historians. Unless you’re in academia, you’ve probably never heard of many of those he credits. But Coates adds original reporting to the research of his sources to create a plain-English piece of journalism that would be a shoo-in for a National Magazine Award even if it weren’t advocating a thing.

And let me emphasize again his subject: the widespread, longstanding, and ongoing, theft of wealth from black Americans. This piece isn’t just about slavery, and another way to separate those commenters who have read the piece from those who have not will be that the extent to which a commenter dwells on slavery likely will be in inverse proportion to the likelihood that that commenter has read the article.

The article does several important things. Primarily, it outlines the economic case for some form of restitution for black Americans. But in explaining the basis for that restitution, it also points out how utterly inconsequential arguments about “pathological culture” (my words, not his) as a cause for the woes of black Americans are in this context, like arguing the merits of a rezoning case when the sun is about to explode. And it shows in striking granularity how some ordinary people lived long lives in an era of supposed equality and fairness while still being robbed blind — not just by slavery, not just by private corporations, but also by their own government even as that government claimed to be working for fairness and equality of opportunity.

To call this article a home run would be to grossly understate its significance. Some home runs barely clear the fence. A few reach the upper deck of stadium seats. This one won’t fall back to Earth for years.

So go read it. I’m not asking you to do anything about its subject, not least because I myself have no idea, at this point, what should be done. But just read it and think about it and ask yourself what should be done. The article suggests one starting point, one that wouldn’t result in the transfer of a single dime from anyone to anyone. But every thinking American ought to think about this.

It’s been said in many places by many people that slavery is America’s original sin. That’s true, but it’s only part of the truth, in that the original sin actually encompasses more than slavery. Americans who truly want this country to be what it told the world almost 240 years ago that it wanted to be must grapple with this original sin and how we go about expiating it. I cannot think of a better place to start than this article.

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7 Comments »

  1. The Case Against Reparations

    “The Folly of Reparations

    Considering the evidence Coates presents, a simple question arises: What should be done in response to the many wrongs of the distant and not so distant past? It is here that Coates falters. He is right that slave owners before the Civil War and the champions of Jim Crow afterwards exploited the black persons who lived under these regimes. Coates observes: “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all the productive capacity of the United States put together.” The tempting conclusion is that African Americans today should recoup the wealth that has, Coates argues, worked its way down to the current generation of Americans.

    Sadly, however, Coates fails to note that those resources were largely consumed by the miscreants who extracted them from the backs of slaves. At most a small sliver of wealth was passed down by inheritance for a generation or two. But none of it was shared gratuitously with the rest of the nation. Both slavery and Jim Crow hurt the rest of the population by preventing them from doing business with black workers who held productive jobs. As a general matter, virtually all the wealth that exists in the United States today has been created by the ingenuity of a dizzying array of inventors, entrepreneurs, immigrants, and countless others. No fund of wealth survives the demise of slavery and Jim Crow.

    Coates also suffers from acute tunnel vision. He ignores the contributions of people of all races who fought fiercely against the evils of slavery and Jim Crow. The civil rights movement of the middle of the last century could not have prevailed if white citizens had not supported it. Indeed, many people of all races gave civil rights their passionate all, much like the abolitionists of the century before. Nor does he pay much attention to the extensive affirmative action programs, both public and private, that have gained traction in the post–Civil Rights period.

    What Is the Remedy?

    Coates is most evasive when discussing a proposed system of reparations. He notes quite properly that “broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay?” These are indeed fair questions, and yet at no point does he attempt to answer them. He endorses John Conyers proposal to form a Congressional committee to seek out “appropriate remedies” for the lingering effects of slavery and segregation, but offers few clues about its mission.

    Nor are there easy analogies at hand. One possibility is to try to design some system based on the model of reparations for the internment program of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. But there, the payments were made to specific persons who were direct victims of wrong by the government. No program that seeks to remedy the wrongs of the past 350 years could hope to duplicate that level of precision.

    Nor is the analysis of black reparations informed, as Coates suggests, by comparison to the decision of the German government to pay reparations to Israel in 1952 for the unspeakable sins of the Holocaust. Those payments of course could do nothing for the millions of individuals who lost their lives, but they did help the newly-founded Israel to gain strength in the first decade of its life. But the differences between these two cases overwhelm the similarities. Death by lynching in the South deserves emphatic condemnation. But let’s keep the numbers in perspective. We know that “nearly 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, mostly from 1882 to 1920.” The Holocaust took nearly 1,700 times as many lives in a four-year period. For that wrong, the payment to a new state was a sensible if incomplete remedy. But to whom should the payments be made here?

    Rather than speaking of reparations, we should consider the many constructive steps that could, and should, be taken right now as part of our ongoing social commitments to black Americans. It is striking that Coates makes no mention of the charter school movement, which is working overtime to give less fortunate children of all races opportunities that would be otherwise denied to them. Nor does he ask how to remove the barriers to entry that progressive legislation has placed in the path of minority workers, including such statutes as the antidiscrimination laws and minimum wage laws that Coates presumably supports. These laws make it more difficult for African Americans to get jobs in today’s labor market. Deregulation, by contrast, knocks down barriers to entry instead of erecting them in the name of greater racial or economic justice. Coates should embrace the libertarian principles that explain the injustices of racism to forge a new set of forward-looking policies.

    Instead of considering these prescriptions, Coates doubles-down on policies with a track-record of failure: What we need, he says, is “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.” This misguided solution, which resonates with the Obama administration, ignores the economic decline of African Americans and other disadvantaged persons since the president took office. That situation can only be reversed if writers like Coates grasp the intimate connection between the wrongs that they skillfully expose and the remedies that they inartfully promote.

    Killings, beatings, rapes, and double-dealing are all wrongs within a libertarian framework. Enforcing the rule of law, voluntary help, and the removal of barriers to entry to the marketplace are libertarian remedies for such wrongs. Once our policymakers and public intellectuals realize this fact, we will come one step closer to undoing the sins of the American past. Confessions of collective guilt and national apologies just won’t cut it. “

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Sunday, June 1, 2014 12:16 pm @ 12:16 pm | Reply

  2. Fred, I don’t care what the Hoover Institution thinks (particularly inasmuch as the writer appears to have deliberately misread some of what Coates says and also appears to be engaging in the kind of libertarian fantasy that has gotten us into so much trouble in this and other areas in the first place, not least the Great Recession). I want to know what YOU think. Or is this piece perfectly consistent with your thinking? Thanks.

    Comment by Lex — Sunday, June 1, 2014 12:40 pm @ 12:40 pm | Reply

  3. You demand to know what I think but you don’t care what anyone else thinks and routinely dismiss with superior curtness those with differentt ideas unless they comport exactly with your own and your source’s world views, failing without exception to address their points

    Epstein makes sound arguments against the simple idea of reparations

    “Not one dime” . Well that certainly has not been the policy of those feeling guilty for the last 85 years. One of my readers had this to say, which does not necessarily represent what I think.

    “Well, shoot me in the head but I thought they were already getting reparations. Affirmative action, A month of their own, ObamaPhones, EBT cards, housing allowances, college scholarships, charter schools, ad nauseam. Geez, how dumb can I be? ”

    I am firmly with Coates on this:

    “Coates writes with an urgency that carries his reader. He is at his best when he describes the various outrages of the American past in ways that are immediately accessible to all readers, regardless of race, sex, age, class, or national origin. Ironically, much of his narrative assumes a libertarian premise, even though Coates’s politics are anything but. The central libertarian principle is that every individual has rights against the rest of the world, to whom he or she owes correlative duties. Most vividly, the fundamental obligations are these: refrain from the use or threat of force; refrain from the use of false words to achieve private advantage; and keep your promises to others, just as you expect them to keep their promises to you.

    The first and most powerful corollary to these bedrock assumptions is that no individual should ever be made into the slave of another. That position was well understood in ancient Rome, which developed extensive rules governing the institution of slavery. These rules were all creatures of the positive law, i.e. rules handed down by the sovereign. But at the same time, the Romans well understood that this body of positive law was in hopeless conflict with the natural law by which all men and women were free persons with the full capacity to make the decisions to govern their own lives. Thus Justinian’s Institutes states categorically: “Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, by which one man is made the property of another, contrary to natural right.” No one should ever sugarcoat slavery in America by arguing that it was justified by the moral code of its time. The truth is that slavery always rested on an assertion of naked sovereign power against those persons who, upon capture, were not capable of resisting its demands.”

    Later

    .

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Sunday, June 1, 2014 2:23 pm @ 2:23 pm | Reply

  4. Fred, I’m trying to have a conversation WITH people I know, not ABOUT the comments of people I’ll never know. For the purposes of this discussion, I value your views far more than those of some guy in a think tank somewhere.

    That said, I’m not just knee-jerkingly rejecting the Hoover piece. In point of fact, it includes a number of passages that suggest that the writer didn’t read, didn’t understand, or is being deliberately obtuse about Coates’s piece. A very few examples:

    1) “What should be done in response to the many wrongs of the distant and not so distant past? It is here that Coates falters.” No, Coates doesn’t “falter.” Rather, he says that answering that question is beyond the purview and abilities of any individual and that this is a question with which elected officials and others in society should wrestle, arriving via consensus at answer(s).

    2) “No fund of wealth survives the demise of slavery and Jim Crow.” First of all, as Coates points out, it wasn’t just slavery and Jim Crow, it was a complex web of legal and economic mechanisms, parts of which endure today. (And damned if I didn’t point out in the post that the extent to which a commenter emphasizes slavery will be in inverse proportion to the likelihood that that commenter actually has read the piece.) Second, although it is true that no liquid or semiliquid fund survives, the fact of the matter is that much of the wealth that exists today was created in significant part with wealth illegally extracted from black Americans, not just in the slavery or Jim Crow eras but within the lifetimes of many people now reading this. Moreover, the writer to the contrary, it is, indeed, possible, to trace today’s existing wealth to wealth illegally extracted from people back in the day. (This isn’t just true of American wealth; at the risk of being called a Godwinite, I would point out that it is simple fact that pharmaceutical maker Bayer thrives today in no small part because it worked with and for the Nazi regime.)

    3) “He ignores the contributions of people of all races who fought fiercely against the evils of slavery and Jim Crow.” That simply isn’t true, as a plain reading of the article makes clear.

    4) “Nor does he pay much attention to the extensive affirmative action programs, both public and private, that have gained traction in the post–Civil Rights period.” First, what hypocrisy: Hoover has opposed affirmative-action programs on the grounds that they’re not “fair” and don’t work. Second, that statement also is flatly untrue. As I pointed out in my post, Coates argues that AA programs, although well-meaning, are at best only marginally effective and might be creating as many problems as they solve — a position consistent with past Hoover stances on the subject.

    I could go on, but life’s too short. The Hoover writer simply didn’t read the Coates piece with an open, engaged mind and didn’t respond to what Coates actually wrote. That’s what I’d like you and other commenters to do.

    Comment by Lex — Monday, June 2, 2014 12:55 pm @ 12:55 pm | Reply

  5. Kevin Williamson did read Coates piece and concludes

    “If the enduring disparities in economic outcomes were the only concern, or even the main concern, at issue here, then our policy menu would be relatively straightforward. Blacks are disproportionately poor, and policies that encourage economic growth and robust employment, which is the only meaningful long-term anti-poverty program, should benefit blacks with roughly the same disproportion. Indeed, that has been the case for some periods in the past: Black households saw stronger income growth than did white households during the Reagan boom, and from 1990 to 2000, Census figures report aggregate growth in the black median household almost twice that of white households, 23 percent in constant dollars for blacks vs. 12 percent for whites. Had those trends continued, the racial difference in median income would have been wiped out in about 40 years. But if there were a policy or a set of policies that could be enacted guaranteeing the economic growth of that unusual decade, then they already would have been made permanent. The path from policy to outcome is a crooked one.

    It is true, as Mr. Coates argues, citing Lyndon Johnson, that “Negro poverty is not white poverty,” at least as measured by many critical metrics — concentration, mobility, various life outcomes controlled for income, etc. But though he spends a great deal of time documenting economic issues, those are not, in the end, Mr. Coates’s interest here: “Reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same,” he declares. That there is some question-begging going on there — whether “white supremacy” really describes a significant motive force in American public life — goes without saying, but it shouldn’t.”

    I agree

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Monday, June 2, 2014 8:32 pm @ 8:32 pm | Reply

  6. For good measure The Case Against Reparatiom II

    ” Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a long cover story for the Atlantic arguing that there has been all too much room for racism in this country for most of its history. The piece—which opens in 1920s Mississippi, not the antebellum South—makes a powerful case that racism has been durable and its effects have lingered past the abolition of its most obvious manifestations, slavery and Jim Crow.

    What Coates does not do, however, is make the case for reparations, as the title of his piece promises. He supplies some of the ample, irrefutable evidence that black Americans as a group faced systematic injustices; he also tells the stories of many individual blacks who were robbed.

    But when it comes to what reparations would look like or how they would work, Coates has little to say beyond “we should support” John Conyers’ bill to study reparations. And while he insists the failure of this proposal to advance “suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential,” he doesn’t give us any reason to think he is talking about a workable policy that would tangibly improve people’s lives.

    Coates waves away as irrelevant the most obvious questions: “Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay?” Many of us suspect these questions are ultimately unanswerable and would take an inquiry into reparations spearheaded by someone with Conyers’ politics as seriously as Coates would take a tea party investigation into Benghazi.

    (Coates might reply that we got such an investigation into Benghazi, but if studying reparations is to have anything like the effect he hopes for, the results would have to be respected across the political spectrum to a far greater degree than the select committee Republicans’ Benghazi handiwork is likely to be.)

    The closest Coates even comes to making a positive argument for reparations is in the context of West German reparations to Israel—paid in the lifetimes of Holocaust survivors and the leaders who victimized them, like U.S. reparations to the Japanese-American victims of internment.

    “If you can’t answer the question of why a Vietnamese boat person has to pay reparations for the conduct of white plantation owners more than a century earlier, then you can’t make the argument,” writes William A. Jacobson of Cornell Law School. “If you can’t answer the question of why two successful black doctors living in a fashionable suburb should get reparations paid for by the white children of Appalachia, then you can’t make the argument.”

    To say nothing of people of mixed race, of which President Barack Obama is the most prominent example. Coates implies throughout his piece that objections involving recent immigrant groups or affluent blacks are irrelevant, but never contends seriously with how these details would impact his reparations project.

    Perhaps that’s why Coates frequently downplays reparations as a monetary concept—he on some level knows what he is asking for is impossible. “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts,” he writes. “What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”

    How can white guilt be banished by proclaiming white supremacy is “a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it?”

    “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe,” Coates continues. “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” How so? Coates doesn’t say.

    “Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage,” Coates contends, “a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

    That’s why I opened with the quotes from Reagan. He may have disagreed with Coates in believing that “the long struggle of minority citizens…for equal rights” was largely over, save for “the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice,” a struggle he said was “once a source of disunity and civil war is now a point of pride for all Americans.”

    But even Reagan, who wished every day was the Fourth of July and believed in America as the great democratizer as much as any recent national leader, a man who would be reelected to the presidency in a 49-state landslide despite receiving single-digit black support, acknowledged that the country’s history was tainted by the sin of racism.

    If it is a sin that can never be expiated, what good can reparations possibly do?

    “The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago,” Coates acknowledges. He gives the American system little credit for this progress, and where it has stalled he assigns the liberals running many predominantly black areas—many of them black themselves, most of them sympathetic to Coates’ narrative about race relations—little of the blame. The main exception is when they, like Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, identify something other than racism as a source of problems in the black community.

    Progressives are criticized for their political alliance with segregationist Democrats during the New Deal era and for being too timid or color-blind today, but on housing policy to Medicaid expansion Coates just takes the rightness of their policy prescriptions for granted.

    “In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won,” Coates writes. “But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much.” Let’s unpack that. The Obamas are bright people who went to good schools. Obama was right about the Iraq war when Hillary Clinton and John McCain were wrong; he wrote popular books.

    These are worthy accomplishments. But Obama was also a state senator four years before he was elected president. He may have had to overcome more than George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton, whose surnames made their presidential campaigns possible. But was his career in government or the private sector really twice as good as that of George H.W. Bush, who came from a privileged background, or Bill Clinton, who did not? Twice as good as Lyndon Johnson’s or Richard Nixon’s?

    Obama’s heritage made Dreams of My Father, written before he won his first election, a national bestseller. (It was, after all, a book about his heritage–”A Story of Race and Inheritance.”) His heritage played a role in the resounding success of his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he spoke of racial and political reconciliation.

    It would have been difficult for a similarly situated white liberal to assemble the diverse coalition necessary to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. None had been able to generate the black voter turnout that helped Obama beat back Mitt Romney in 2012.

    Each of these factors was more decisive in the outcome of the past two presidential elections than kooks obsessed with Obama’s birth certificate or angry white voters who backed Hillary in the West Virginia primary (ex-Klansman Robert Byrd not among them).

    In his quest to prosecute a “crime that implicates the entire American people,” Coates must thus diminish individual and even some collective accomplishments. We all play our assigned roles as villain or victims based on our color or who are parents were. The dreams of our fathers are replaced by the sins of our fathers.

    In his 1976 essay “Patterns of Black Excellence,” Thomas Sowell wrote, “The history of the advancement of black Americans is almost a laboratory study of human achievement, for it extends back to slavery and was accomplished in the face of the strongest opposition confronting any racial or ethnic group.”

    Racism didn’t die with Ben Tillman, Bull Connor or George Wallace; it lives on in forms more relevant than David Duke. Coates is indisputably right that countries are made up of fallible people with flawed histories. The unfairness that inevitably results can be mitigated, but it can never be eliminated as long as we are human.

    In the end, the disconnect between the palpable history Coates describes and the entirely abstract solutions he proposes makes one thing clear: Some injustices cannot be remedied by debits and credits, they cannot be wiped clean by any single act or financial transaction. They can only be transcended, defeated and hopefully overcome”

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Wednesday, June 11, 2014 4:27 pm @ 4:27 pm | Reply

    • Shorter Antle: Because neither Coates nor I knows what reparations should look like, we shouldn’t have a national discussion about it. Also, we should take Reagan seriously on racism and ignore the fact that he kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, MS, where civil rights workers had been murdered just 16 years before, in a transparent dog-whistle to racist whites.

      Uh, no, Coates’s argument, flawed though it might be, at least had the virtue of being sincere. Antle is deeply disingenuous and, while acknowledging a problem, makes clear that he and his white privilege can’t be bothered to grapple with it. Screw him.

      Comment by Lex — Thursday, June 12, 2014 1:58 am @ 1:58 am | Reply


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