The cover story of the latest edition of The Atlantic has the liberal media a buzz. The essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates is entitled “The Case for Reparations”. Before reading the essay I watched Mr. Coates discuss his piece on MSNBC and Bill Moyers PBS show. I disagree with one of his points in particular and his broader thesis in general though his approach is novel and worth discussing.
A specific point made by Coates with which I strongly disagree concerns the modern day black man’s role in his own victimization. Coates criticizes Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter for telling black men to pull up their pants and look respectable. Coates claims that no amount of respectability will win the black man respect. I hope I am just misunderstanding him because this idea is total nonsense. There are standards of conduct that transcend race. Blacks should not be exempt from these standards by hiding behind “culture”. There is nothing cultural about pants hanging off your ass. It’s ignorant.
Since Coates doesn’t predicate his argument on the lack of black complicity in their own plight, the above criticism might be a nitpick. Looking at the broader theme my problem is one of timing. It seems to me that reparations should be temporally proximate to the harm done while some perpetrators and victims are still alive. Otherwise we are punishing folks who haven’t done anything to anybody. A quick look at some notable reparations supports my timing concern.
First let’s take Native Americans off the table because the lands of the tribes are considered “nations” and our arrangements are treaties. These arrangements govern ongoing relations and don’t fall into a short term reparations category. Reparations from West Germany to Israel commenced in 1952, within the decade following WWII. Reparations from the U.S. to Japanese citizens wrongfully detained started as early as 1948, only three years after the war. (These reparations programs lasted a bit longer going all the way into the 80’s.)
Even the most recent egregious offenses described by Coates begin to abate in the 1960’s, making reparations a half century later punitive to many innocents. So while I oppose reparations for blacks, I still think Coates’ approach merits discussion.
1. Rather than focus on human suffering, Coates concentrates on financial robbery. Blacks propped up an entire Southern economy with zero compensation. Post-slavery, they had no legal rights to property which could be (and was) regularly taken from them. Into the mid 20th century, they were hoodwinked in con artist real estate deals. They were zoned out of any possibility of integrated neighborhoods. By default, parts of the New Deal, such as Social Security, left them out in the cold. In short, the American power structure, over and over again, conspired to disenfranchise them and render them impotent. Hence Coates builds his case for reparations on purely monetary grounds, taking much of the subjective emotional content out of the discussion.
2. Coates walks a fine line between putting the reparations burden on whites as opposed to Americans. This is even more evident in his interviews about the article. He even states that as a taxpayer he would bear some of the burden. But he seems to be more about discussion than actual Benjamins. Most importantly he wants an American discussion, not a white vs black discussion.
3. This is where I find his argument most compelling. Yes, we talk about race a lot. However, we usually talk about specific current grievances prompted by some particular incident. We don’t often talk about our national conscience on a grander scale that encompasses the totality of our wrong doing. Liberals frown at the Confederate flag but we don’t view it with adequate shame. The Confederacy was not a legitimate short-lived nation. It was a criminal rogue state. It was a pox upon our country. Yet, we tolerate a certain nostalgia about it. A perfect example was a visit I made to Atlanta many years ago. The hotel TV tourist channel advertised tours of nearby plantations with not a hint of the degradation that went on there. I think Coates would agree with me that a far more satisfying alternative to financial reparations would be to have all these plantations declared memorials to the men and women abused there, sort of a black holocaust museum. How about Congress issuing a proclamation officially condemning the Confederate States of America as a rogue state and sponsor of terrorism? Let’s not limit our truth telling to the South. The North was not much better. Our national apology should reach back to the framers who had a chance to get this new democracy off to a clean start and passed.
These are just a couple of ideas that might see the light of day if Congress debated reparations. Beyond any remuneration, Coates is hoping for a national coming to grips with our shameful past and an official public accounting to the world of our wrongdoing. This would start with our asking forgiveness for what we have done before taking any further pride in how far we have come.