The title of Ta-Nehisi Coates' much-discussed cover story at The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations," might be something of a misnomer.
Coates' opus is really calling for a collective reckoning with America's history, and he uses a call for reparations as the vehicle. He aims to disabuse readers of the notion that the most destructive policies toward black wealth creation were from some long-ago time. So he recounts a dark — and fairly recent — history of black wealth being plundered.
The Case For A Reckoning
From the kleptocratic local governments of the Jim Crow South to the redlining and housing discrimination of the post-World War II period, Coates points to a pattern that continues into living memory. He traces this pattern to the current day — his conclusion links the recent housing crisis that devastated black wealth to this same fundamental impulse — and argues that it will persist until we grapple with it.
He animates much of that history with the story of Clyde Ross, a 91-year-old World War II vet who lives in Chicago. Ross' father was a sharecropper in Mississippi, and the little material wealth his family could cobble together — their horses, their land — was forcefully seized from them by white officials in their town. After the war, an adult Ross moved to Chicago and was confronted by a new type of predation. The Federal Housing Administration assigned grades to neighborhoods based on their desirability, giving lower grades to neighborhoods with black people in them. And since the agency refused to extend home loans to black people or those who lived near them, Ross and people like him were out of legit means to buy homes.
Instead, they had to rely on shady speculators. Ross bought his home in North Lawndale, a Chicago neighborhood initially meant to be a model for urban integration, from one such speculator "on contract": He paid for his house, in monthly installments, until its total cost was settled. But it wasn't a true mortgage and Ross did not get equity as he paid. In the event that he missed a payment, Ross would have to forfeit his down payment, all the money he paid into the house, and leave the property. At one point, Coates recounts, a majority of Chicago's black homeowners found themselves ensnared in the same predatory arrangement. Many of them lost their homes.
Meanwhile, the government was actively subsidizing the creation of the white middle class. FHA loans, the G.I. Bill, the massive federal highway system — each of these made the idea of suburbia and homeownership possible. But those new suburbs often explicitly barred blacks from renting or buying. And since the presence of black neighbors would dent a community's ratings in the real estate market, whites actively, sometimes violently, resisted the integration of their neighborhoods.
And so it was that during one of the biggest economic expansions in American history, African-Americans were relegated to neighborhoods where they could not buy homes or build wealth, and where economic investment was punished. America was going boom, while black folks were being forced to go bust.
Today, black folks up and down the income scale are much more likely to live in segregated areas with concentrated poverty. The average white family has 20 times the household wealth of the average African-American family. It's not hyperbole to suggest that almost any racial disparity you might name — standardized test scores and unemployment rates and health outcomes and incarceration figures — is just two or three steps removed from housing discrimination.
Coates argues in favor of HR 40, a bill that Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has introduced at the beginning of each session of Congress. The bill calls for a "congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for 'appropriate remedies.' " That bill has never made it to the House floor.
What's surprising and effective about the piece is how new this history feels in Coates' hands. (Full disclosure: I'm friends with Coates and saw a final version of it shortly before it was published.) He vividly connects the plunder of Ross' family wealth in Mississippi to the different but equally thorough plunder he experienced in the North. It's odd, then, to see indictments of a putative African-American unwillingness to work next to a long history that shows the products of black people's labor being taken from them. Coates reminds us that even welfare, a program often caricatured as a kind of wealth redistribution vehicle to poor blacks, was tailored so that it exempted blacks for its first several decades.
The Case For A Reset
But it wouldn't be terribly hard to imagine another magazine piece written by someone else called "The Case for a Reset." It would say: We need to look forward, not backward. If we must reckon with anything, it's that the reckoning we've been doing has not been effective. We should redouble our efforts and question our orthodoxies. We should stop so obsessively focusing on race and the role it plays in our history.
You can see the yearning for that reset everywhere. Consider the recent survey of thousands of young people by MTV, in which an overwhelming majority felt that focusing on race prevented society from becoming colorblind. About the same number of respondents said they were opposed to affirmative action, as they believe it's never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.
Indeed, the whole idea of righting historical inequalities has even been dropped by most proponents of affirmative action, in large part because of the Supreme Court's skepticism of the argument. The primary case for affirmative action now is about the value of diversity, underscored most notably by former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger: "[The court] expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today," she famously wrote. Despite centuries of codified discrimination, O'Connor could see a shiny, post-racial future in the offing, a mere generation away.
Some who want a reset, like the Daily Beast's John McWhorter, don't quibble with Coates' history, but take issue with his call for a reckoning.
"Imagine: 'Okay. The acknowledgment has been expressed. I accept it, and now, finally we can move on.'
"I just can't see it. More likely would be 'They better not think they can just say sorry and be done with it.' One imagines the tweets: '400 years and it's all over with a Conversation? #ItsNotOver.'
"Many would argue that this would be just the right thing, that America would remain "on the hook" for efforts aimed at black uplift. And I'm all for the uplift, but wonder what the atonement would add. In a hundred years, who will look back and say that black America would have been better off in the early twenty-first century if there had been a national Reparational Realization about race?'
The proponents of the reset, like McWhorter, come in many different flavors. Roger Clegg of the Center for Economic Opportunity, a conservative think tank that focuses on issues like affirmative action and immigration, has argued against HR 40, Conyers' bill to examine the effects of slavery. Clegg suggested that the problems disproportionately affecting African-Americans today are rooted not in discrimination, but in personal behavior:
"No one will dispute that slavery and Jim Crow were horrible and inhumane; no one will dispute that discrimination still exists, though only a delusional person would deny that America has made radical, dramatic, inspiring progress in the last 40 years — that its society has truly been transformed in an astonishingly short period of time. But it is impossible to say how much of the present is the result of one particular kind of event in the past. Only someone very arrogant or very foolish would make such a pronouncement.
"The principal hurdle facing the African-American community today is the fact that 7 out of 10 African-Americans are born out of wedlock. Just about any social problem you can name — crime, drugs, dropping out of school, doing poorly in school, and so forth — has a strong correlation with growing up in a home without a father. And it is very hard to argue that this problem is traceable to slavery or Jim Crow, since illegitimacy rates started to skyrocket in the African-American community just at the time that Jim Crow was starting to crumble."
There's a spectrum of feeling within this realm of thought, but the general idea is that the excavation of our history has been (and will be) of little benefit to our progress. On issues of race, everyone in America deserves a fresh start.
The Unsatisfying Reality
It's probably safe to say that America has opted for neither Coates' reckoning or the much-yearned-for reset. To the extent that we've tried to wrestle with our legacy of discrimination and questions of redress, it's been piecemeal, politically unsustainable or only partially effective. Yet the idea that we should endeavor to break free of our history has been continuously thwarted by the ways history keeps inconveniently imposing itself onto our present.
In an especially intriguing section of Coates' essay, he explores a moment in which reparations for a historical crime were paid out — and it still left everyone unsatisfied.
As postwar Germany tried to rectify the damage it had wrought during the Holocaust, only a tiny fraction of West Germans said that they felt any guilt surrounding the atrocities. Less than a third felt that the Jews should be compensated by Germans.
But Jews weren't sanguine about the idea of reparations either. There was violence in the streets and bomb threats and anti-reparations factions storming the Knesset in protest.
"Survivors of the Holocaust feared laundering the reputation of Germany with money, and mortgaging the memory of their dead. Beyond that, there was a taste for revenge. 'My soul would be at rest if I knew there would be 6 million German dead to match the 6 million Jews,' said Meir Dworzecki, who'd survived the concentration camps of Estonia.
"[Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion] countered this sentiment, not by repudiating vengeance but with cold calculation: 'If I could take German property without sitting down with them for even a minute but go in with jeeps and machine guns to the warehouses and take it, I would do that—if, for instance, we had the ability to send a hundred divisions and tell them, "Take it." But we can't do that.' "
The eventual resolution — West Germany paid the equivalent of $7 billion — bolstered the Israeli economy and resulted in the creation of thousands of jobs. "For the first time in the history of a people that has been persecuted, oppressed, plundered and despoiled for hundreds of years in the countries of Europe, a persecutor and despoiler has been obliged to return part of his spoils and has even undertaken to make collective reparation as partial compensation for material losses," Ben-Gurion wrote of the agreement.
That it was only "partial compensation" is important to remember in this conversation about reparations in America. It could only be that way. The forces that continually thwarted Clyde Ross came (and come) to bear on millions of other folks' lives in distinct, perverse ways. Given the scope of the history being considered and the scale of the ugliness it entails, one thing is certain however this conversation unfolds — whether with a reckoning, with a reset or with a lack of resolution — just as in Israel, many of us are destined to be unsatisfied.
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