An Accounting Of American Racism

by Patrick Appel

A history of the fight against housing discrimination in Chicago:

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These unfair housing policies are a big part of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new Atlantic cover story, The Case for Reparations,” which is certain to make waves:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injusticesmore than a handout, a payout, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spritual 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. …

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.

TNC reflects on his article at his blog:

I rarely hope for my writing to have any effect. But I confess that I hope this piece makes people feel a certain kind of way. I hope it makes a certain specimen of intellectual cowardice and willful historical ignorance less acceptable. More, I hope it mocks people who believe that a society can spend three and a half centuries attempting to cripple a man, fifty years offering half-hearted aid, and then wonder why he walks with a limp.

Freddie deBoer supports Coates:

Reparations would give us the most direct and powerful evidence of the efficacy of direct transfers since the (massively successful) implementation of Social Security. If reparations were paid out over time rather than in a lump sum, it could be a fantastic opportunity to learn how a universal basic income or similar mechanism would work at large scale. Closing the economic gap would go a long way to solving persistent sociological questions. We would see whether the “race science” crowd is right, and black people suffer from genetic cognitive deficits, or if my side is right, and structural economic inequalities cause performance gaps in education and other fields. My guess is that economic parity would lead to great improvements in a host of other quality of life metrics, like education, life expectancy, crime and incarceration rates, etc. We would also learn a lot about prejudice: do emotional and social prejudices cause structural inequalities, or the other way around? Can you attack those inequalities through attention to language and social taboos, or do you need direct economic change? Redressing the enormous black-white wealth gap would be a great moral good in and of itself, and it would also facilitate broader projects of social justice in the future.

Chotiner chimes in:

The best argument against Coates’s proposals is simply that they will prove to be more trouble than they are worth, i.e. that their practical effect will be a negative one. Perhaps white people will feel that they are being attacked, as a mere 95 percent of Fox News segments imply. Or perhaps this will weaken support for the social safety net, because African Americans will sound ungrateful. (The focus of the remaining 5 percent of Fox segments.) But then Coates will have been proven doubly right. If we can’t even have the conversation he wants because people are so defensive or unwilling (or plain racist), it’s just more evidence for what his essay rightfully bemoans.

Danny Vinik calculates the potential cost of reparations:

Larry Neal, an economist at the University of Illinois, calculated the difference between the wages that slaves would have received from 1620 to 1840, minus estimated maintenance costs spent by slave owners, and reached a total of $1.4 trillion in 1983 dollars. At an annual rate of interest of 5 percent, that’s more than $6.5 trillion in 2014just in lost wages. In a separate estimate in 1983, James Marketti calculated it at $2.1 trillion, equal to $10 trillion today. In 1989, economists Bernadette Chachere and Gerald Udinsky estimated that labor market discrimination between 1929 and 1969 cost black Americans $1.6 trillion.

These estimates don’t include the physical harms of slavery, lost educational, and wealth-building opportunities, nor the cost of the discrimination that persists today. But it’s clear the magnitude of reparations would be in the trillions of dollars. For perspective, the federal government last year spent $3.5 trillion and GDP was $16.6 trillion.