Readers sound off on the controversial subject:
Though I haven’t thought it through in any detail, in principle, I’m open to the idea of reparations for slavery and would be perfectly willing to see my hard-earned tax dollars used for it. But I always remember that US history harbors not one, but two monstrous racial crimes. Of course African-American slavery is one, but the genocide (or ethnic cleansing, if you prefer) and dispossession of the American Indian is the other, and it is just as terrible. How would we pay reparations to them? For every square inch of this land. How much would that tab be?
Another adds more complexity:
What’s interesting about this idea is that reparations would be paid by “America,” not “White America.” So, not only would the Vietnamese Boat Person have to chip in, but so would middle-class blacks, in the form of federal taxes.
J.D. Vance asks about whites who weren’t slaveowners:
[Coates] makes no mention of the 75 percent of the southern white population that didn’t own slaves, their wages so depressed by slave labor that they lived in arguably the most unequal society in world history—with slave owners earning a median of $23,000 per year while other whites fetched about $1,500. Nor does he cite the North’s two-to-one advantage in per capita income, evidence of its superiority in every economic pursuit that didn’t require enslaved workers. There’s no mention of the literature showing that slave labor sustained the Southern economy but also retarded it. How can we decide whether reparations are due, or which portion of American society should pay them, without untangling this economic story?
Another reader doesn’t see how reparations could be carried out:
I don’t have an issue with the idea of our government providing reparations to a specific group of people for institutionalized discrimination, but in this case I think there are insurmountable practical problems. Intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates love to focus on the question of whether or not reparations are deserved while avoiding the hard questions like how much is enough and who should receive them.
Assuming some set amount could be agreed upon, who should receive the reparations?
Descendants of slaves? Most people would have a difficult time proving their lineage. Even if you could prove you were descended from slaves, how much should they receive? Should someone who is half black and half white get as much as someone is who isn’t “mixed”? How about someone who may have very light skin color and European facial features? How about people who are descended from more recent immigrants?
The amount would also be an issue. I could see someone like Coates being satisfied with a symbolic official letter of apology and acknowledgement from the government along with $1.00, but I think most people would say “you owe us more than that, this isn’t good enough, you’re trying to weasel out of paying us.” For Coates reparations may mean “spiritual renewal,” but I’d bet if you asked most of your every day people on the street what “reparations” means, most of them would say a significant payout and nothing less.
Another reader wonders what reparations would mean for his family:
As the white adoptive father of two mixed race kids, I’m trying to figure out who would owe who what under TNC’s call for reparations. We have no information about their birthfathers, so I can’t be sure of their background, or indeed if one of my sons is even part-black or some other admixture. Will we have to submit them for genetic screen to determine just how black they are? Do we get an added bonus if he has Native American background as well (as many folks who see my oldest think)? Will we lose the bonus if my younger ends up half Pacific Islander rather than African (as we also think)?
Institutionalized racism has taken a horrible toll on far too many Americans, but I honestly don’t see how this is supposed to work.
Lastly, Damon Linker focuses on Coates’ larger mission:
[I]t would be a very good thing for Americans to do the hard and truthful work of reconciling “our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
But that, I’m afraid, is exceedingly unlikely to happen, precisely because (as Coates also notes) it would require that America become nothing less than “a new country” with a radically different form of patriotism — one much more like the national culture that has developed in Germany in the decades since its total defeat in World War II. That is a culture self-consciously devoted to collective self-examination and atonement for the sins of the country’s past.
Coates is surely right that the development of a more complicated, ambivalent form of national self-love “would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” But I, for one, see little evidence in the American past or present to indicate a widespread willingness to leave behind childhood myths, to grow into maturity, and to accept that the United States is somewhat less unambiguously good than we would prefer to believe.