Ta-Nehisi Coates (2014, June). “The Case for Reparation.” The Atlantic.
The idea of reparations for crimes against African Americans has usually been seen as a radical and unlikely political cause. Most observers are skeptical of the principle involved: exactly who deserves reparations, and what form should they take? Should central Asian nations demand repayment from Mongolia for the actions of Genghis Khan? Should Americans go back to their countries of origin and leave the continent for American Indians? In that context, what does it mean for black people in the United States to seek recompense for the crimes committed against them in previous generations?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for the Atlantic, argues that the idea of reparations ought to have an important place in discussions of race in America. However, he is not demanding that a certain sum of taxpayer dollars be given to every African American. In practice, it is not possible to come up with a monetary sum that would pay for centuries of enslavement and abuse. Instead, Coates argues that the idea of reparations is what’s important: that we need to begin by asking the question, by seriously considering what the nation might owe its black population after everything that’s been done to them. That conversation may or may not lead to actual cash payments, but we need to begin by talking about it. The initial problem, Coates says, is that so many Americans seem unaware of their nation’s history and of the role that white supremacy and the oppression of black people has played in making the country what it is today.
The United States claimed its place on the global stage by virtue of its prosperity and its democratic ideals. From the beginning, Coates argues, these virtues were founded on slavery. One European observer of early American political culture noted that Americans could be boldly democratic in a time when other nations were afraid of “the mob,” because the majority of the American working class was enslaved.
More directly, “In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports.” Coates cites research from Yale historian David W. Blight that “in 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.”
This was why the South was willing to go to war to preserve slavery. It was literally the foundation of their prosperity.
More recently, Coates argues, the poverty of black people today can be directly traced to racist policies and actions within living memory.
Obviously, black people living under slavery and Jim Crow segregation were denied the American dream of self-determination and meritocratic prosperity, and this tradition of abuse casts a long shadow. Black people were denied education and political rights, their property was routinely stolen or vandalized, and they were not protected by the rule of law. Traditions like these don’t disappear overnight. On top of this, all the drivers of the great growth of the middle-class in America in the twentieth century–such as homeownership (with loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration), higher education, the New Deal, and the GI Bill–were denied to black Americans.
Coates tells the story of Clyde Ross, a black man who fled worsening conditions in Mississippi to find work in Chicago. Ross worked hard to save money and raise a family, and like many other Americans he dreamed of owning a home. However, the only way for a black person to buy a home in Chicago in the mid-twentieth century was to buy from predatory “contract” sellers who charged exorbitant rates with few legal protections for buyers.
The result was that Ross had to work twice as hard, taking on additional jobs to pay for the house. This in turn affected his family:
To keep up with his payments and keep his heat on, Clyde Ross took a second job at the post office and then a third job delivering pizza. His wife took a job working at Marshall Field. He had to take some of his children out of private school. He was not able to be at home to supervise his children or help them with their homework. Money and time that Ross wanted to give his children went instead to enrich white speculators.
Ross’s neighbor Mattie Lewis was in a similar situation: “You cut down on things for your child, that was the main thing,” said Lewis. “My oldest wanted to be an artist and my other wanted to be a dancer and my other wanted to take music.”
Coates says these homebuyers were aware they were getting ripped off but accepted as a fact of life that the only way for a black person to make it in America was to get robbed by white people. These assumptions can have deep consequences, Coates says:
Chicago, like the country at large, embraced policies that placed black America’s most energetic, ambitious, and thrifty countrymen beyond the pale of society and marked them as rightful targets for legal theft. The effects reverberate beyond the families who were robbed to the community that beholds the spectacle. Don’t just picture Clyde Ross working three jobs so he could hold on to his home. Think of his North Lawndale neighbors–their children, their nephews and nieces–and consider how watching this affects them. Imagine yourself as a young black child watching your elders play by all the rules only to have their possessions tossed out in the street and to have their most sacred possession–their home–taken from them.
The difficulty of talking about reparations today, says Coates, is that a whole host of factors are responsible for the situation that black people are now in. Every American institution has played a role, from the layout of cities to the habits of banks and employers. Our racist past is ingrained in the very fabric of our nation, and one result is the tremendous gap in wealth between white people and black people:
Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.
In this sense, a mere cash grant would miss the point. In order for America to truly own up to what we’ve done, we would have to radically change all our public institutions. This is what Coates means when he talks about reparations.
The problem, he says, is that many Americans don’t seem to believe that the present situation is the result of these past actions. Many people seem to assume that black people and white people start with a level playing field, that they have similar resources at their disposal and ought to achieve similar results. Reparations means coming to terms with our own past, and this might mean changing our present policies and it might even mean giving money to living victims and their families. But if we persist in glorifying our past while blindly ignoring our mistakes, then we are likely to keep making the same mistakes. Reparations means changing the course we’ve been on, and the first step is to become aware that we have, in fact, actually been on a very bad course.
Coates’s arguments are best said in his own words:
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.
We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past–at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge–that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it….What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.
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.
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. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Do you think Coates is justified in arguing that white supremacy has been essential to the American experience, even underpinning our democracy and prosperity?
- Do you think it’s possible to praise America without factoring into your assessment the nation’s racist history?
- Coates says that reparations would mean changing our public discourse and public institutions. Can you think of some specific changes that he might be referring to?
- Morally speaking, do you think a person can owe a debt based on the actions of previous generations? Do you think that impersonal institutions–like laws, political culture, business norms, and so forth–can embody a kind of collective guilt for everyone who participates in them?
- The idea of reparations for crimes against African Americans, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a matter of coming to terms with the facts of America’s history and the reasons for the present situation. He says, “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
- The poverty of black people today is a result of yesterday’s racism, often amounting to outright theft. As Coates puts it, “When we think of white supremacy, we picture Colored Only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.”
- Coates argues that justice requires us to redefine our public institutions to take into consideration the fact that our nation’s success and sense of self-worth has been built on the theft and abuse of African Americans. He does not go into specifics about what kinds of changes are needed, arguing that we need to change the terms of our conversation about race before we can know what to do.
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