Friday, July 4, 2014

On "The Case For Reparations": Part II

Earlier, I wrote that Ta-Nehisi Coates's article "The Case For Reparations" in The Atlantic bothered me, but I didn't exactly say why. Stalling for time, I summarized the argument as faithfully as I could. Of course, evaluating reasoning by first setting aside judgment is a good habit to get into when aiming for quality debate. It frees the mind, clarifies debate, and strengthens one's intellectual integrity. But eventually, it must be superseded by the critique itself.

The Response

This isn't a critique of the idea of reparations itself as I do not repudiate such a policy. I have reservations about reparations, but I am not strongly opposed to them. Rather, this is a critique of Coates's argument itself, of its contents and its structure, and of the lessons one might learn from it.

I've already summarized its strengths in On "The Case For Reparations": Part I. An even briefer summary would have these essential elements.

  • A superb albeit incomplete history of "White Supremacy" in America
  • Moving, personal portraits of its victims, rendered in rich detail
  • An essential structure that has some real durability

Unfortunately, its weaknesses sap its strengths and undermine its foundation so fatally that in its full detail I think the argument cannot be recommended. The argument is imprecise and inconsistent, over-long and under-sourced, and manipulative and unfair. In fact it seems a bit lazy. It's the work of a well-meaning dilettante who hasn't done the work necessary to clear the formidable bar his ambition set for himself.

That ambition is evident in the subject and in the article's sheer length. Allow me to stipulate that the subject of reparations is a provocative one; I doubt the author or many other people would disagree. As for the article's length, I'll grant that this is the style in The Atlantic, but also suggest that perhaps Coates chose that journal because of the breathing room it gives. In its length, however, I think you'll also find evidence of Coates's laziness.

Reasoning is difficult and we humans rarely do it well. We're lucky we can do it at all. When it is done well, it has the power to change minds and reveal truths. Much of its power derives from simplicity, which is obtained by removing every defect. Good reasoning like good writing comes from thrift, and thrift only comes after hard labor.

What isn't hard is to launch 16,000 untrained words as Coates has done. It's easy and it's also seductive because it serves to overwhelm the reader. Judging an argument requires understanding it. Understanding it requires modeling it. Modeling it requires absorbing its details, discovering their relationships, organizing the parts into a whole, and then viewing the assemblage from all angles to draw conclusions and make inferences. An article this long is a chore to read and re-read and the model it produces is a dreadnought that barely fits in your head and hardly turns on a dime once there. Would it be any wonder then if the mind just threw in the towel and assumed that "16,000 Words Can't Be Wrong"? In that way the article's bulk and vividness invite a fallacious proof by verbosity, and one wonders if that is entirely accidental.

That verbosity adds a veneer of scholarship that hides some rather green wood underneath. This isn't a scientific thesis, in which empirical data are objectively selected in support of carefully-posed arguments. It's a polemic, built on cherry picking and wishful thinking. Consider this passage.

“Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”

These are only anecdotes. Anecdotes are delightful playthings but have little logical content and shed little light on the total picture. Suppose some of the land was also used for hospitals, parks, and schools. After all, we're free to imagine that since we've only been told how "some" of the land has been used. Would these more noble uses justify the theft? Probably not. Yet, how the land was used must have some relevance, otherwise why would Coates mention it? In that case, why did he choose to highlight these uses? Can it be anything other than an emotional appeal? Am I certain the data are biased? Of course not. I only know that a biased presentation can't be ruled out because Coates hasn't given us all the relevant information.

Unfortunately, Coates rarely gives us all the relevant information or even any of the relevant information. If you peer through the blizzard of detail (again, much of it fascinating and worthwhile in other ways) you see that a great deal of his argument is built on unsupported assertions.

The essence of American racism is disrespect.

Is it? It's possible, of course. But, I can think of plausible alternative candidates for the "essence" (whatever that means) of American racism. "Fear" is a good example. Is it important that the essence be fear and not disrespect? Not necessarily, no. However, that doesn't seem to be the author's position. He seems to regard uncovering the essence of racism to be a worthwhile project, and assures us he has done so. He just doesn't reveal how.

But while the people advocating reparations have changed over time, the response from the country has remained virtually the same. “They have been taught to labor,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1891. “They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.”

It strikes me as highly unlikely that objections to reparations made to African Americans today are the same as objections to reparations for actual slaves over a century ago. It's possible, but I would like to see some evidence before accepting it. Once again, Coates has none to offer.

Another provocative but unsupported claim--that black exploitation is somehow foundational, intrinsic, or essential to America--appears in several variations in Coates's article and in fact is one of the pillars of his argument.

  • America begins in black plunder and white democracy
  • “Whoever says Industrial Revolution,” wrote the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, “says cotton.”
  • Yet America was built on the preferential treatment of white people
  • The early American economy was built on slave labor.
  • “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,” the Yale historian David W. Blight has noted.

But, are these things true? Was historian Eric J. Hobsbawm right to link the Industrial Revolution to slavery by dint of "cotton"? How relevant to, say, the growth of the economy, is Yale historian Donald W. Blight's "note" about slaves as a property asset? What of the steam engine, the conveyor belt, and all the other sociological and technological innovations in this era? Are they eclipsed by black exploitation? Maybe. Did America begin "in black plunder" and was it "built on slave labor?" Maybe. But, claims of this gravity require evidence.

Likewise do the assertions by Coates regarding the motives of various groups of people. Many times throughout the article he confidently tells us how people feel and what they think.

And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.

I find it hard to swallow the claim that the oppressors who "target" African Americans with exploitation believe its their right to do so. It's possible of course, but it sounds unlikely. My concerns would be alleviated if only Coates would back up his claim.

That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential.

How does Coates know what "our" concerns are "rooted" in (whatever that means)?

  • From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people.
  • Today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything.
  • 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.
  • When we think of white supremacy, we picture Colored Only signs

These are exaggerations inside straw-men arguments wrapped in fanciful mind-reading. These are not examples of careful reasoning.

But, careful reasoning can't happen without evidence. It also can't happen with vague terms that are never defined but are often equivocated. What exactly does "begins in" and "was built on" mean to the author? Does it matter that black Americans in the South in 1860 were actual slaves while black Americans in 1960--without making light of the injustices they suffered--were free citizens? The answer is that it absolutely matters.

It matters because Coates is attempting to persuade the reader through the power of reasoning, and because reasoning must proceed with great care and attention to detail. It's a rocky path with uneven footing and fallacies lurking behind every boulder. The mind gropes along step by step leaning on symbols, but symbols often have multiple meanings and cannot be trusted until they are secured to the ground with careful definition. But, that's no fun. It's tedious work that slows progress. It's more fun to dash ahead as Coates does without bothering to set anchors for the reader.

Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy—in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family.

What does it mean for something to be the "root" of American wealth and democracy?

But still we are haunted.

Are we haunted? Who's "we." What does it mean to be "haunted?" How does this haunting manifest itself?

In fact the whole article itself is an equivocation. It's a "bait-and-switch". With portentous tone, its link-bait title provocatively promises to make "The Case For Reparations," yet the article fails to deliver the goods. It fails not just because of its logical defects--of which there are many--but also because lacks follow-through. When we finally get to the policy Coates is advocating, it's a bit of a let-down, for he's not really recommending reparations, but rather a plan to think about maybe possibly doing "something" that may end up resembling reparations in some way--or not.

A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.

From what little Coates has told us about John Conyers's bill we cannot infer that it does much more than call "for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects" and make "recommendations for 'appropriate remedies'." Those sound like worthwhile endeavors to me, but they also don't exactly sound like reparations. What Coates seems to be doing here is this. The rest of the article very clearly is making a case for actual reparations. But the reader might reject a case both because of its lack of merit and because of its consequences. In other words, one might find the argument persuasive yet still feel uneasy about actually instituting a policy of reparations. Coates seems to be hedging his bet, trying to mollify the reader. Frankly, it sounds a bit like the strategy of "climate change deniers" who assure us they only want more time "to study the issue," and it's no less disingenuous.

I don't want to belabor the issue. I think the interested reader can find in Coates's article many more examples of the kinds of problems I've tried to identify.

I don't intend for this to be a "take-down" of Coates's article and as I said I also am not opposing the idea of reparations per se. My objections are to the way that Coates reasons when making his case.'s just not very good. Oh, it's probably no worse than what is found in most political argumentation these days, but then that's a pretty low bar, now isn't it? So why dwell on this one article?

For me, the main motivation is to emphasize the importance and difficulty of good reasoning, and to encourage people on all points along the political spectrum to try harder. A linear political spectrum is a useful--albeit incomplete--axis for sorting people. My unscientific sampling along that spectrum leads me to believe that its Liberal end has a high self-regard for its own wisdom. "Reality has a well-known liberal bias," a great philosopher once said. Most scientists probably are under the Liberal tent, as are most atheists and agnostics, I would assume. My experience (which could be wrong) is that we tell ourselves we have more diversity, more tolerance of people who are different, and are less hidebound by antiquated traditions. If these things were true of ourselves, they would give us some ground for supposing that we reason better than Conservatives do. And, maybe we do reason better than Conservatives. Or, maybe we don't. It's an interesting question, but not the one being asked here. The question here is, "Do Liberals reason as well as we think we do?" Or more precisely, given the vast scope of that question, "Does being a Liberal grant immunity to the logical blunders we scorn Conservatives for making?" Assuming that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a Liberal (a fair assumption, I hope), I argue that his article "The Case For Reparations" demonstrates that hypothesis to be false.