Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (Flawed) Argument for Reparations


For the past 20 years, Representative John Conyers has introduced legislation to study the possibility of a reparations program.

In a powerfully written piece published last week by The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out his case for reparations. I’m about to tell you why I don’t find his argument convincing and why I ultimately think reparations are a bad idea, but – even if you think you’re inclined to agree with me – I still recommend that you take a few minutes to read Coates’ piece. In a few thousand words, Coates covers a lot of important history.

In its original form, the argument for reparations was simple. Speaking in support of affirmative action, Lyndon Johnson captured the basic sentiment:

You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: ‘Now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.’ You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair.

At the end of the Civil War, that meant making amends for the harm of slavery – or at least taking some important steps in that direction. Reconstruction – the federally-led attempt to put ex-slaves on something approaching equal footing in the old Confederacy – was supposed to lay the foundation for that work. Instead, the country lost interest and the South’s old establishment reasserted itself. In the North, blacks fared little better.

The debt that was owed to black Americans after the Civil War was never paid, and in 1963 a charismatic Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a quarter-million people in a march on Washington, demanding payment on “a promissory note.” In the intervening years, America has made important strides, but it has still fallen far short of what President Johnson identified as the goal of the Civil Rights Movement:

We seek not just freedom but opportunity – not just legal equity but human ability – not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.

Even the casual observer can see that a lot of work has been left undone.

The modern-day call for reparations usually comes in two parts. First, proponents argue that reparations for slavery were never made, and that the passage of time doesn’t lessen the obligation. Second, they argue that today’s manifest inequality is a reminder of the need to set things right.

Opponents counter that slavery happened a long time ago, and that the relationship between the sins of slavery and the difficulties faced by today’s African-Americans are tenuous at best.

Enter Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his piece, Coates eviscerates the notion that America’s original sin ended with the abolition of slavery. Rather, slavery was followed in the South by decades of state-sponsored and state-tolerated terrorism towards black Americans, and by a system of formalized inequality commonly known as “Jim Crow.”

(In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon details how a system of peonage developed in the American South after the Civil War. For tens of thousands of black Americans, this system meant nothing short of re-enslavement.)

Coates also explains how black Americans were deliberately and specifically excluded from the 20th  century’s great engines of growth. The much-celebrated GI Bill, for example, largely excluded African-Americans. Coupled with the effects of redlining, this meant that blacks were shut out of the booming growth of post-WWII middle-class communities.

Even the Social Security Act was written in such a way so as to exclude the vast majority of African-Americans.

The list, of course, goes on. From inadequate policing, to embarrassingly substandard schools, to infrastructure neglect, many black Americans grow up and live in communities hobbled by generations of compounded disadvantage. The cumulative harm – so much of it the product of purposeful policy making – did not end in 1865 with the 13th Amendment, or in 1965 with the Civil Rights Act, or in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama.

Reparations, Coates argues, are not just payment for yesterday’s sins, the consequences of which are long past; they’re also an attempt to grapple with the very real harm done to people who are very much alive today.

It’s a compelling argument, but it sidesteps the thorny question of how personal and public guilt are negotiated. To put it simply, who inherits the obligation to pay and who inherits the right to receive payment? Who inherits the obligation to make amends, and who inherits the right to forgive?

The common-sense position that reparations should be paid by ‘the United States government’ to black Americans, under the logic that they represent the descendants of African slaves, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. A lot of white Americans are descended from Europeans who immigrated to the United States after the Civil War – at what point did they acquire the moral debts of the ante-bellum US? The obverse applies to black Americans whose descendants also came to these shores more recently. Do such people share the claim of the descendants of African slaves, or the debt that comes with benefiting from living in a society whose wealth, in great part, was built on the suffering of those slaves?

A lynching in 1930.

A lynching in 1930.

I also can’t help but wonder where Latinos and other ethnic groups fall into all this. (And that’s to say nothing of Native Americans in particular, who one might imagine hold an even older claim.) Americans are used to thinking about race as dichotomous, and the argument for reparations seems to take that for granted. But that binary view of America’s racial landscape was never entirely accurate, and with every passing day it becomes a less and less defensible distortion.

And, of course, America has a complicated racial history – one that is much more intertwined than we often envision. Take, as a prominent example, Barack Obama. His election in 2008 made him the country’s first black President, but it wasn’t lost on commentators that, being the son of a recent immigrant, Obama didn’t actually have roots in the institution of slavery. Some wondered whether Obama was ‘black enough’.

Then, in 2012, it emerged that the President is likely descended from an African slave who lived in Virginia in the mid-17th century. The twist is that Obama is related to this man through his white mother, not his black father.

And Obama’s genealogy is hardly the only one with an interesting wrinkle.

Coates recognizes that this sort of thing can be a challenge to the idea of reparations – but he contends that he’s only advocating that we explore the idea. He supports a bill introduced every session by Rep. John Conyers – the bill would establish a commission to both study the lingering effects of slavery and propose appropriate remedies. The argument is that if the idea of reparations is seriously studied, we’ll be able to find solutions to the sort of complications that are brought up.

To get us started, he raises the example of German reparations paid to Israel after WWII.

But the case is more illustrative than Coates might realize. Leaving aside the historical proximity of German reparations to the horrors they were meant to atone for, the German example brings up important questions about political and moral agency. When the German state presumed to answer for Nazi crimes and the state of Israel presumed to represent Jewish grievances, that arrangement seemed reasonable.

But who speaks for black Americans? Who speaks for white Americans? Which of those two groups does Congress represent? The moral argument behind reparations requires two groups to stand outside of each other – which is largely antithetical to what the American project is supposed to be about. Reparations are paid by ‘them’ to ‘us’, or from ‘us’ to ‘them’ – either way, the sense of shared community suffers.

In the end, Ta-Nehisi Coates presents a powerful argument that something needs to be a done, but a weak argument that that something is reparations. It isn’t even very clear what Coates means by ‘reparations’. Cash payment? Jobs training? Both are mentioned as possibilities, but Coates’ definition is much less helpful:

Reparations – by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences…

That’s an important goal, but it doesn’t come close to being implementable policy.

And reparations also carries with it serious risks: whatever reparations policy the country could adopt, I guarantee that it won’t solve the problem of racial inequality, but I also guarantee that it would swell the sails of those who’d rather think of race as yesterday’s problem.

On the whole, it would do more harm than good.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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