Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The Case for Reparations”

From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people. But Billy Brooks Jr. had a father. Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder. Adhering to middle-class norms is what made Ethel Weatherspoon a lucrative target for rapacious speculators. Contract sellers did not target the very poor. They targeted black people who had worked hard enough to save a down payment and dreamed of the emblem of American citizenship—homeownership. It was not a tangle of pathology that put a target on Clyde Ross’s back. It was not a culture of poverty that singled out Mattie Lewis for “the thrill of the chase and the kill.” Some black people always will be twice as good. But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast.

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.

Both of these powerful passages are taken from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ stunningly ambitious new essay, “The Case for Reparations.” The guy is probably best described as our national conscience on race: here, he advocates forcefully for an acknowledgment of centuries of institutionalized, systemic racism in the form of cold, hard cash.

The essay builds slowly: in the first half, I wondered where he was going at times as he dutifully recounted horror stories from the distant past. But as his chronology eventually began to catch up to the present, the contours of his argument became visible and the point is crystallized: American national crimes against African Americans are not past sins for which we owe penance, but an ongoing travesty that continues — in various sinister forms — through today.

To be clear: the essay is a masterpiece. Ta-Nehisi Coates is nothing if not an elegant thinker (a phrase I’ve admittedly stolen from Victoria), and his piece is at once a painful read and a uniquely invigorating one: it confronts the reader with the centuries-long litany of black suffering and then, as if by miracle, presents the (at least partial) solution: reparations.

Which is where “stunningly ambitious” comes in. The only point in the essay at which Coates briefly contemplates an appropriate figure for reparations is here:

Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.

$34 billion in 1973 dollars is equivalent to $181.56 billion today. If this total were paid out yearly for one decade, the 10-year result would be a $1.82 trillion payout. This is equal to:

These numbers would, of course, be doubled if $181.56 billion were paid out annually over two decades, and not just one.

Suffice it to say, this is not an easy case to make. But if anyone can do it, it’s Coates. (To be clear, he didn’t actually make the case for any specific number, but the above example is the only figure he discussed at all in relation to the American experience. He also discusses West Germany’s reparations to the state of Israel following World War II, which amounted to the relatively minuscule total of $7 billion in current U.S. dollars.)

Although it’s difficult to explain, I find his argument compelling and challenging on the one hand, and almost too easy somehow on the other. I realize that makes basically no sense. But here goes anyway:

There is a certain beauty to the simplicity of his proposal: African American wealth would be doubled in just ten years (in reality, the effect would likely be far greater as some of the initial payments are invested in businesses, financial markets, and so on), significantly shrinking the disparity between white and black Americans. That part makes sense — to me, anyway — and is, while highly debatable, certainly an idea worth discussing. As Freddie deBoer put it (somewhat bluntly), it’s about “using the power of the federal government to redress historical injustice and contemporary inequality by giving black people money.”

On the other hand, there is something truly irreversible about such an enormous sum of money being transferred directly to such a large group of people. Leaving aside the obvious practical questions that would arise as to funding, how to disburse money to mixed-race people and households as well as recent immigrants, and so on, two immediate fears spring to mind:

  • What if it doesn’t work?
  • Couldn’t such a high-profile payment plan backfire if it is substituted for all other efforts at combating African American poverty and social discrimination? Couldn’t it be seen as a panacea?

I’ll address these in reverse order. The latter point is actually an example of a type of reasoning I find absolutely appalling whenever I encounter it in someone else’s writing, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t similarly self-flagellate for bringing it up myself.

And so, to answer my own fear, I must admit that it’s patently ludicrous to base one’s objection to a proposal on the predicted reaction of other people who will also oppose — or, at the very least, remain apathetic to — the proposal as well. If a decade-long payment plan to African Americans results in everyone else collectively turning their backs on the collective plight of their countrymen of color, well, whose fault is that really? What’s more, in even that worst-case scenario, African American wealth would double in ten years, an unalloyed good and certainly preferable to the status quo.

Good, then: we’ve dispatched with that. But the first bullet point concerns me even more. I am truly frightened by the prospect of what would happen if, after ten years — or even five, or three, or one — of scheduled payments to black Americans, little or no discernible socioeconomic impact manifests itself. This could be absolutely catastrophic for the future of African Americans in this country, in a way that dwarfs even their current situation.

Keep in mind that any such effort to substantively welcome black Americans into the national economic sphere inhabited by their white peers would meet vicious, sustained opposition right from the start. (Coates is well aware of this, as is Charles Ogletree, a fact which one can easily deduce from his own different proposal.) Just look at the struggle that the Affordable Care Act — watered-down, battered, and compromised down to a fragment of its idealized version — underwent to get passed, and there wasn’t even an explicit racial component to its redistributive effect.

A very large portion of the country, therefore, would be literally licking its chops and hoping against hope for the policy’s failure — or, in the case of officials in positions of power, actively using their authority to thwart it (as Republican governors are doing now, with regard to Obamacare). Even the slightest indication of anything other than an unequivocally resounding success would produce enormous pressure on politicians to abandon the plan. And if such an end were to come for the program, it would decisively alter the course of African American history for the worse. It’s hard to imagine being able to try anything like it again for at least another half-century or longer.

To answer my own criticism again, even this could be responded to thusly: “So what? Black Americans are already in a desperate position socioeconomically: what could possibly be wrong with giving something else a shot after years of failed policy?” Which is an entirely fair point.

But I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way of accomplishing the same thing. By “better,” I mean that in the strictly objective sense of resulting in a higher level of income and/or wealth for African Americans after ten years than they would achieve under this hypothetical ten-year program.

So perhaps that’s the whole question: I’m onboard to spend massive amounts of money to improve the socioeconomic standing of African Americans. (I haven’t even addressed my admittedly underdeveloped thoughts on whether such efforts should be explicitly linked to slavery by invoking the term “reparations,” but — like Freddie deBoer — I’m not nearly as interested in debating that side of the coin.) But is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ idea the best way to go about it?

Post Revisions:

About Jay Pinho

Jay is a data journalist and political junkie. He currently writes about domestic politics, foreign affairs, and journalism and continues to make painstakingly slow progress in amateur photography. He would very much like you to check out SCOTUSMap.com and SCOTUSSearch.com if you have the chance.

What do you think?