Ta-Nehisi Coates Makes “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic — But Our Blogger Respectfully Disagrees
by Bennett Muraskin
SLAVERY ENDED IN 1865. Jim Crow about a century later. Civil rights legislation banned de jure discrimination and anti-poverty and affirmative action programs have provided a degree of remediation. Many government agencies were established to eradicate racial discrimination in employment, education, housing, etc.
As a result, since the 1960s, African Americans have made great strides. Poverty has decreased; there is a sizable black middle class; there are hundreds of black elected officials, including mayors of large cities; and overt expressions of racism are taboo. There is even an African-American President. On the other side of the ledger, Blacks still suffer disproportionately from poverty and unemployment and other social ills, including average incomes and wealth that are only a fraction of whites’. Inequities in the criminal justice system have resulted in mass incarceration of black males, and there have been attempts to restrict black voting rights in the South and Midwest. Many political analysts have detected an undercurrent of racism in the Tea Party movement, which is now a powerful force in the Republican Party.
Coates makes his case by profiling Clyde Ross, a Black man born in Mississippi in 1923, who escaped the intense racism of Jim Crow by moving to Chicago, only to be fleeced by unscrupulous lenders who took advantage of the fact that black families were excluded from the regular mortgage market and New Deal housing programs that promoted white home ownership. Ross joined in a lawsuit with other black victims of predatory lending seeking damages, but lost at trial.
Indeed, as Coates argues, Blacks were partially excluded from other New Deal programs as well, such as Social Security and Unemployment Insurance, because the Southern Democrats would not support them unless they excluded farm workers and domestics, who, of course, were mainly black.
But he stacks the deck. The WPA did not discriminate against blacks, and the federal jobs it provided were an enormous benefit to black families during the Great Depression.
COATES ALSO REVEALS HOW THE POST-WAR G.I BILL, which gave veterans access to low interest home loans, largely excluded black vets — but he ignores that it still afforded them a free college education. In fact, one would not know from reading the article that black educational levels have risen dramatically in the past fifty years.
Focusing on Chicago, Coates describes it “one of the most segregated cities in the country,” which he blames on de jure segregation and de facto segregation “driven by the virulent racism of Chicago’s white citizens.” I cannot imagine that federal housing policy was determined by the racism of Chicago’s white population, but he does give examples of violent white resistance to the integration of their neighborhoods. Yet white homeowners eventually fled to the suburbs, encouraged by real estate speculators, leading to the creation of black ghettos. Coates’ conclusion is that “White flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors.”
I lived in such a neighborhood in Jersey City, and I know that that the minority of white families who chose to remain were driven out by street crime. My white Good Humor man was shot dead in a robbery, and the white Avon lady who lived next door was murdered by the son of one of her black customers. My sister was beaten up by black students in elementary school for being white.
Coates’ rhetoric is hard to take and can be misleading. He quotes a source who claims that shady lenders took advantage of blacks for “the thrill of the chase and the kill,” and then repeats this phrase for emphasis, as if greed is not enough to explain this conduct. He also uses a phrase, “many thousands gone,” that comes from a black spiritual about the agony of slavery to describe black victims of housing discrimination. Really?
Coates castigates “whites” too freely, failing to distinguish between racists and anti-racists. Are all whites to blame for black oppression? Apparently so, for he writes that the “crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level in nearly every configuration.”
IN 1952, THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY agreed to pay reparations to Israel and later to individual Jewish victims of the Holocaust. If the Germans did it, Coates implies, so should Americans. But these reparations were paid to living survivors of the most hideous crimes, up to and including the murder of six million Jews, two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. The black population of the U.S. has risen from 4 million at the onset of the Civil War to over 42 million today, including during the worst years of slavery and Jim Crow. There is simply no comparison to Nazi genocide. Furthermore, payment was made to an independent state, and to people who were mostly all citizens of different nations.
To give Coates his due, his lengthy article is well worth reading and includes many valuable insights. He does not call for reparations, but for a study on the issue, based on the language of H.R. 40, bill that Representative John Conyers of Michigan, has introduced annually for the past 25 years. “What I’m talking about,” he writes, “is more than recompense for past injustice — 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 a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
In my opinion, however, the call for reparations (or for a study of reparation) is a gigantic distraction from the real issues facing progressives. First, it is a utopian fantasy. There is not the remotest possibility that Congress or a President would enact any form of reparations.
Second, it is anachronistic. During Reconstruction, some radical Republicans called for giving former slaves land (forty acres and a mule). That boat sailed. There has not been a serious attempt to raise this issue again. (I am not counting the bizarre Communist demand in the 1930s to create an independent black nation in the South, revived in one form or another by the Nation of Islam and various black nationalist sects.)
Third, it is unprecedented. The only group of Americans to receive reparations have been the Japanese who were locked up during World War II, a special case. Not even Native Americans have received reparations. As noted above, Jewish Holocaust survivors have received reparations from post-war Germany for Nazi Germany’s attempt to exterminate them. There is nothing comparable in the black American experience.
Fourth, it is divisive. Only blacks suffered slavery and Jim Crow, but many other Americans suffered other forms of oppression — Hispanics, Chinese, and women, for example. Most white people in the U.S. today are descended from immigrants who came to the U.S. well after 1865 and many not until the early 20th century. They arrived here in poverty and did not have any easy time of it, as we know from the annals of American social and labor history. It is guaranteed that 90 percent of them would be hostile to reparations for black Americans. So would darker-skinned Americans with their own histories of discrimination, who certainly do not consider themselves responsible for the oppression of black people. The demand for reparations would cripple efforts to build progressive alliances to fight for social justice across racial and ethnic lines.
IF THERE WAS GREATER CONTINUITY between today’s Africa and the Africa of the 16th to 19th centuries, one could argue that Africa owes reparations to black Americans for its complicity in selling their ancestors into slavery. In fact, African kingdoms objected when England outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1807. Although it is not widely known, Arabs and Africans conducted their own separate slave trade from East Africa to the Middle East and South Asia, which lasted longer than the Atlantic slave trade. There were also one million white Europeans seized by North African states and enslaved there in the 17th and 18th centuries. (See Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2001) and Giles Milton, White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam’s One Million White Slaves, 2004.) Are their descendants entitled to reparations too?
There are also thorny issues of eligibility and cost that I have not even addressed. These, too, are not to be dismissed lightly.
As noted above, In January 1989, Representative John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) introduced H.R. 40 a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations proposals for African Americans. He recognized that “one of the biggest challenges in discussing the issue of reparations… is deciding how to have a national discussion without allowing the issue to polarize our party or our nation.”
His bill has three components:
- It acknowledges the inhumanity of slavery in the US.
- It establishes a commission to study slavery, subsequent discrimination against freed slaves and its impact on African Americans today.
- The commission would then make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on African Americans.
Rep. Conyers has introduced H.R. 40 every year and it has never been brought to the floor of the House of Representatives. That’s 25 years and counting.
NO ONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND denies the inhumanity of slavery. American historians, political scientists, and sociologists have exhaustively documented and analyzed slavery, Jim Crow, and their legacy. The libraries are full of such books. University courses are taught on the subject. There have been Hollywood movies and TV documentaries as well, including a recent PBS series written and narrated by Henry Louis Gates about the black experience in America. Further study by a government commission is superfluous.
Race-specific remedies like affirmative action and minority set-asides have already been tried and are in retreat. It does not take much political savvy to realized that proposal calling for something as drastic as reparations will be dead on arrival. However remedies that involve legislation to raise the minimum wage, strengthen collective bargaining, establish national health insurance, redistribute wealth toward programs that create decent jobs, improve public education, reform drug laws, etc. can attract broad support across racial lines and their achievement will benefit blacks more than any other segment of the population.
Black Americans have struggled for decades to be accepted as equals with other Americans. Raising the issue of reparations sends the opposite message — that African Americans are a people apart, a distinct oppressed minority with different interests from those of the rest of us. I do not think the overwhelming majority of blacks see themselves this way — and if they do, there will get no sympathy from other racial/ethnic minorities, let alone white people.
Multiculturalism has made us a better country, but it is a far cry from calling for reparations to members of one race paid by American taxpayers. That will stoke racism rather than remedy its effects.
So why reparations now?
Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.
For another perspective on reparations for slavery by Jewish Currents editor Lawrence Bush, click here.