by Patrick Appel
Gay marriage went from inconceivable to laughable to an existential threat to obviously just in a few short decades. I expect that reparations for slavery (and Jim Crow and redlining) will do the same—and I epxect that we will one day look back at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 piece in The Atlantic the same way we look back at Andrew Sullivan’s 1989 piece in the New Republic (“Here Comes The Groom: A (Conservative) Case For Gay Marriage”). This is an essay that could jumpstart a movement. It’s certainly a piece that everyone is going be talking about.
John McWhorter is more critical:
Despite frequent claims that America “doesn’t want to talk about race,” we talk about it 24/7 amidst ringing declamations against racism on all forms. Over the past year’s time, I need only mention Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Over the past few years, three of the best-selling and most-discussed nonfiction books have been Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Rebecca Skloot’s book about the harvesting of a black woman’s cancer cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), and Michelle Alexander’s invaluable The New Jim Crow. And let’s not forget recent major release films such as The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and The Butler.
Can we really say that these are signs of a nation in denial about race, racism, and its history?
Yet for writers like Coates, somehow none of this is enough. A shoe has yet to drop. We remain an “America that looks away,” “ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” But what, exactly, is the suggestion here? Surely not that no racism exist anywhere in the country—but what, then? In exactly what fashion could 317 million people “reckon” or come to certain eternally elusive “terms” with racism? Especially in a way that would satisfy people who see even America’s current atonements as insufficient?
William Jacobson points out that “Coates never gives the answer as to who gets what and how”:
And that’s ultimately the problem with reparations arguments that are not based upon the people causing the harm paying the people directly harmed by specific conduct soon after the conduct is remedied.
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. 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. If you can’t answer the question of why the adult black recent immigrant from Paris should be pay or be paid reparations based on the color of his skin for crimes committed in a land he did not grow up in, then you can’t make the argument.
And what about the increasing number of children of mixed race?
Bouie sees the purpose of the article differently:
Wisely, Coates doesn’t try to build a proposal for reparations. At most, he endorses a bill—HR 40—that would authorize a government study of reparations. Instead, his goal is to demonstrate the recent origins of racial inequality, the role of the federal government, the role of private actors, and the extent to which the nation—as a whole—is implicated. Even if your Irish immigrant grandparents never owned slaves, or even lived around black people, they still reaped the fruits of state-sanctioned—and state-directed—theft, through cheap loans, cheap education, and an unequal playing field. If anything, what Coates wants is truth and reconciliation for white supremacy—a national reckoning with our history.
Ezra weighs in:
“The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter,” Coates writes. It’s also the intellectually unserious response of people who believe that because they never owned slaves or drank from a whites-only water fountain and so they weren’t the beneficiaries of American racism. They may not be the villains of American racism, but they are the beneficiaries of it. The average white southerner in 1832 was far poorer than the average white southerner today, and part of that vast increase in wealth and income and knowledge and social networks is the result of compound interest working its magic on what the slaveowners and the segregationists stole.
It’s as simple and clear as a child’s math problem. The people who benefitted most from American racism weren’t the white men who stole the penny. It’s the people who held onto the penny while it doubled and doubled and doubled and doubled.
Emily Badger considers the impact of the discriminatory housing practices TNC focuses on:
Schemes like this illustrate why homeownership has been a much more precarious prize for blacks. They also explain why the racial wealth gap remains so wide today. Wealth in America, as it’s passed from one generation to the next, is intimately tied up in housing. And blacks have systematically been denied the chance the build that wealth. Just earlier this week, the Center for Global Policy Solutions released a report looking at the racial wealth gap in America today. It found that the average black household in America owns 6 cents for every dollar in wealth held by a typical white family. It found in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area that whites have a homeownership rate that’s still 20 percentage points higher than blacks.
Lastly, PM Carpenter declares, “I’m all for Coates’ cause, but as a part-Native American and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I want what’s mine and my brothers’ and my mother’s, too”:
I also want American women to be compensated for their years of unpaid grueling toil as they raised the next generation. And I want compensation for the millions of Jews, Irishmen, Italians and all other minorities who suffered from systematic discrimination in both civil society and the workplace. In fact I want reparations paid to every American who sprang from the loins of oppressed proletarians, for the slavery of class hierarchy is, historically, very real.
I’m not trying to make light of Coates’ pain, or to conflate black slavery with “Irish need not apply.” But the world doesn’t work in the way Mr. Coates believes it should. And almost everybody has a history of major hurt, against which endless cases for reparations could be made.