Friday, June 27, 2014

Eric Liu: Coates is right, we need a study on reparations

Hear, hear!  For those who didn't bother to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' provocative, thought-provoking essay on reparations in The Atlantic,  Eric Liu underscores Coates' main point [emphasis mine]:

Coates is not quite making a case for reparations. He's making a case for a discussion of reparations. He doesn't pretend to spell out all the operational policy choices that would have to be made to put reparations into effect. The closest he comes to a legislative recommendation is to tout a perennially neglected bill that Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, introduces every session of Congress, which calls simply for a public study of the possibility of reparations.

This isn't a shortcoming of Coates' argument; it is its purpose. What we need to do is to study the issue in earnest. To have a hearing, in the deepest sense. To listen to the difference between Americanness and whiteness, and to notice the manifold ways that whiteness was (and is) an identity fabricated from the myth of blackness.

To be sure, every ethnic group that's not called white has experienced suffering in American life. But the experience of African-Americans is exceptional in its systematic, multigenerational, reverberating effects.  And it's exceptional in its centrality to the founding and building of our nation.  No experience reveals more than the African-American experience both the hypocrisy and the possibility of our national creed.

I characterized the way most critics have jumped on Coates' essay a case of "leaping from justice to practicalities," as in, some would like to anticipate and dismiss the possible terms of a settlement on reparations, and so doing, dismiss the case for reparations itself.  

Recently on The Colbert Report, Ta-Nehisi Coates half-jokingly told Colbert he would forget about reparations for slavery if the U.S. would seriously study and consider a reckoning for Jim Crow and everything that happened after, including FHA "redlining policies," etc.  Indeed, it's a further injustice to African-Americans to say that the injustices stopped with the emancipation of black slaves. That was just the beginning of a long journey for black equality that continues to this day.

UPDATE:  My conservative friends and family just couldn't let it go, they immediately asked me, "Well, how much would you be willing to pay?"  That was my Uncle T.  So here's what I wrote him:
Oh, please. You want me to name a dollar figure, as if that's the key issue here? OK, fine.  Seventy-two percent of Americans are of European ancestry, let's say 30% of them are adults, that's more than 68 million white adults.  If each of them was asked to give $200, that would be a fund of almost $14 billion.  Put partially in trust, and partially into targeted scholarships, housing loans, job training programs, etc., that money could do a hell of a lot of good.  And that's just me throwing out a dollar figure, since that seems to matter to you more than anything.
Believe it or not, (you'll choose not to), there are very rich families and companies still living well on the money made from slavery. No less than Bloomberg said it, if you recall:
So I for one would be in favor of companies that made money off slavery that still exist today paying more than I would as an individual.  
I'm aware that a fund of about $14 billion would break down to a bit over $350 for every African-American alive today. That "small" sum is not an argument against reparations, to my mind; rather -- and this is just my opinion -- I think that money would be better spent pooled and targeted to specific programs over which blacks would have significant or total say-so in how it was spent.

And my Republican buddy Rusty asked me, "Do you agree that the only people who should be required to pay them are the descendants of slave owners?"  

To which I replied: "No, I think we all should pay it, everybody except blacks, but that's just my opinion. You're still jumping from the verdict (=reparations are morally warranted) to the settlement terms (= $$??), and then using that hypothetical settlement to determine the justice of of the verdict, which is not the way American justice should or does work in any kind of class-action suit."

To which I should have added that many Northerners and non-slave owners benefited from slavery, including the Lehman Bros. and JP Morgans, et al, of the financial community, as described by Bloomberg. And to a great extent slaves and Jim Crow-era blacks built this country, and so all citizens of the U.S owe them a debt of gratitude.

Rusty thought the idea of asking Mexicans and Asian-Americans to pay reparations was "truly insulting," but I don't necessarily agree, since all Americans today benefit from the country that slaves and Jim-Crow era second-class citizens built for us.  

By Eric Liu
June 27, 2014 | CNN

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