This landmark essay is long, I know. But so is American history. Maybe not in years, relatively, but in certainly in events -- and in inventive injustices against blacks.
To quote Coates's essay selectively to discourage reading it would be a further injustice. Still I can't resist quoting this, taken out of context, but still wonderful rhetoric:
Indeed, in America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife. We believe white dominance to be a fact of the inert past, a delinquent debt that can be made to disappear if only we don’t look.
And this statistic: think about the wealth created, with compound interest, and what it would be worth today!: "By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports."
“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. “Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy.”
Before we leap from justice to practicalities, let's consider Coates' compelling -- I daresay spiritual -- definition of reparations:
Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—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 the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. 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.
And without quoting, I can guess why Coates spends so much of his essay on the history of Chicago, because our President was a community organizer there. For all you whites who think cities like Chicago and Detroit "just happen," you need to read this.
Additionally, Coates offers us the amazing example of the turnaround effect German reparations had on the economy -- and morale -- of the state of Israel.
Finally, if you'd dismiss Coates's essay because it was written by a black guy, then I'd urge you to read these two articles at Bloomberg and Slate, respectively.
UPDATE: So my Republican buddy wrote back almost immediately, and predictably, with this:
I actually believe reparations would be just. But I also know it wouldn't fix our race problems, nor would it fix the wealth gap long term. The black family has been broken down by leftism. They abort 40% of their babies, and the left has done everything to teach them they can't help themselves. They are stuck in schools run by Democrats where they will be lucky to learn to read.
If you give an uneducated person a lot of money, they will blow it. The white man will convince the people who get the money that they need to spend it on making their ride look phat. The money will end up back where it started because the only thing they were taught in school was that the glaciers are going to melt and that Obama rides Unicorns and shoots rainbows from his wrists.To which I replied:
This is what Coates meant, when I said not "to leap from justice to practicalities." Cash payments might not be the only form of reparations. Read the article. For example, off the top of my head, taking Coates's example of how FHA loans discriminated against blacks while doubling the rate of white home ownership, part of reparations could be for black home ownership -- and not just guaranteed loans, but something more tailored and smart.
Reparations could be for special job training centers, special black enterprise zones, special black small business loans... use your creativity....
UPDATE (03.06.2014): Ta-Nehisi Coates replies to critic Kevin D. Williaomson at National Review of his essay "The Case for Reparations" with "The Case for American History." Here's my favorite excerpt:
The governments of the United States of America—local, state and federal—are deeply implicated in enslavement, Jim Crow, redlining, New Deal racism, terrorism, ghettoization, housing segregation. The fact that one's ancestors were not slave-traders or that one arrived here in 1980 is irrelevant. I did not live in New York when the city railroaded the Central Park Five. But my tax dollars will pay for the settlement. That is because a state is more than the natural lives, or occupancy, of its citizens. People who object to reparations for African-Americans because they, individually, did nothing should also object to reparations to Japanese-Americans, but they should not stop there. They should object to the Fourth of July, since they, individually, did nothing to aid the American Revolution. They should object to the payment of pensions for the Spanish-American War, a war fought before they were alive. Indeed they should object to government and society itself, because its existence depends on outliving its individual citizens.
A sovereignty that dies with every generation is a failed state. The United States, whatever its problems, is not in that league. The United States' success as a state extends out from several factors, some of them good and others not so much. The mature citizen understands this. The immature citizen claims credit for all national accolades, while disavowing responsibility for all demerits. This specimen of patriotism is at the core of many (not all) arguments against reparations.And this, Coates's conclusion:
"The people to whom reparations were owed," Williamson concludes. "Are long dead." Only because we need them to be. Mr. Clyde Ross is very much alive—as are many of the victims of redlining. And it is not hard to identify them. We know where redlining took place and where it didn't. We have the maps. We know who lived there and who didn't.
This was American policy. We have never accounted for it, and it is unlikely that we ever will. That is not because of any African-American's life-span but because of a powerful desire to run out the clock. Reparations claims were made within the natural lifetimes of emancipated African-Americans. They were unsuccessful. They were not unsuccessful because they lacked merit. They were unsuccessful because their country lacked the courage to dispense with creationism.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
May 21, 2014 | The Atlantic