Sunday, June 22, 2014

On "The Case For Reparations": Part I

Ta-Nehisi Coates's article "The Case for Reparations" has been bothering me since it was published in The Atlantic's May issue. A friend of mine whose opinion I value called it "powerful," however, so I think I should be cautious in my approach. I confess I didn't do that at first and snarked that at 16,000 words the article is "powerfully long." That's The Atlantic's style, though, and so in this post I offer that only as an observation and not as a criticism. In fact, you'll find no criticisms here. The piece is worthy of scrutiny, but before I head down that road I ought to present the case that's being made. Of course, the piece stands by itself, the author speaks for himself, and the reader needs no help from me in interpreting it as he or she sees fit. But, how can I ask anyone to evaluate my own judgment if I don't first spell out the case as I saw it? So, depending on how long your interest and stamina hold out, read the piece, read my interpretation, and let me know what I got wrong, when I'm being unfair, and where I'm being obtuse. Anything goes. Don't worry. You won't hurt my feelings.

The Case

Though I'm speaking with my voice, the argument I'm presenting belongs to Ta-Nehisi Coates. Therefore, to emphasize that fact I'm setting off the remaining paragraphs as a block-quote, even though I'm not literally quoting anyone. I suppose what I'm doing is quoting his ideas, if not his literal words.

Coates seems to be arguing that America should seriously consider making reparations--or at least beginning the process of doing so--to atone for its legacy of white supremacy. Objections to reparations on practical grounds can be overcome, he says, and there is actual pending legislation that spells out how to do this. What's more, doubts about such a project can be assuaged by examining actual historical evidence and precedent for reparations, both in America and in the world.

One of the premises of his argument is that so-called "white supremacy" was both foundational to the nation and remains intrinsic to the nation. In this setting "white supremacy" is taken to mean the systematic subjugation and exploitation of black Americans by white Americans in a variety of ways, including but certainly not limited to actual slavery. It's "foundational" in that much--maybe even most--of America's (or at least "White America's") early economic prowess owes to the practice of slavery. It's "intrinsic" in that likewise deliberate, systematic, even institutional exploitation of blacks by whites continued well into the 20th century and even unto today.

Naturally, this exploitation in its various forms involves injury to and downright theft from black Americans over many generations, and that this is literally a crime. Hence the second premise is that as with any crime we must seek justice. Presumably the crime must be stopped and its perpetrators must be prosecuted, but the particular element of justice Coates advocates here is for restitution. In colorful language, America is an ongoing crime scene and we Americans are obliged to make restitution to the victims of this crime

America has a duty to make restitution to black Americans for principled reasons, but the third premise is that the cause is augmented by pragmatic considerations. Much of the length of the article is absorbed by moving portraits of black exploitation presented in superb detail. Coates associates this overlooked history of America with a deep, corrupting sin that tarnishes all facets of American life. Reparations would necessitate a frank appraisal of this history, and the process of meting out justice would be cathartic and healing. In other words, not just black Americans but all Americans would benefit, and in the end we would have a stronger, better country.

Predictably, there will be objections to reparations. However, all of those objections can be and have been at times overcome, and this is the fourth premise in Coates's argument. One category of objection hinges on the practical issues that reparations would raise. It's encouraging then that mainstream legislators have been able to craft actual proposed legislation that lays out a path--or at least the beginning of a path--to implementing a reparations policy. Moreover, history both distant and recent, on both small scales and on large scales, in both The United States and in the world clearly demonstrates that reparations have often been sought and occasionally been granted. Apparently, it is possible.

The conclusion then is that there is a reasoned, rational, practical case to be made for a policy of reparations toward black Americans. White supremacy and black exploitation are essential to any honest examination of American history. It's a criminal history of the systematic exploitation of black Americans, who deserve justice and restitution. However, we all should welcome the blunt review of this history that reparations would necessitate as an opportunity for the growth, the healing, and the strengthening of our nation. Finally, far from being the impractical fantasy of people on the political fringe, reparations can actually be implemented as a practical policy, fully compatible with mainstream political ideas. History demonstrates that this is true. The path will not be easy, but few things worth doing in life really are easy. And, in this case both the destination and the journey are manifestly worth doing.