In the summer of 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates made headlines by announcing that he had changed sides and was now in favor of reparations to African-Americans (accompanied by an explanation of why, in contrast to four years earlier, he had changed his mind). Two weeks ago, Coates made headlines again by criticizing Bernie Sanders for opposing “reparations for slavery” (accompanied, a week later, by a defense of his critique of Sanders).
Needless to say, this is a sensitive debate, one that over time might contribute to the development of a progressive movement in the United States but also one that, at the present moment, threatens to undermine the fragile foundations of that movement. So, I want to step lightly and, instead of taking a firm position, merely raise a few issues for further discussion.
The first point I want to make is that, notwithstanding the title of his original article in The Atlantic, Coates did not make a cases for reparations. He did make a case that the history of American democracy and capitalism is a profoundly racialized history, which stretches back to slavery, continues through the Jim Crow era, and persists to the present. It’s a history this nation persists in overlooking or forgetting—and its effects are profoundly present both in memory and in daily life today. No matter how many times we imagine a post-racial society, we are reminded of the racial disparities and injustices that have accompanied the emergence and development of all of our major economic, political, and social institutions. Coates’s essay provides eloquent testimony to at least some of that history—including, of course, the stark racial segregation of my own city.
But we also have to recognize the fact Coates did not make a case for reparations per se. Nowhere in his essay does he explain how a payment, no matter how large or small, from the United States government to the descendants of African and African-American slaves will actually undo the enduring legacy of racism in the United States.
True, there’s an enormous racial wealth gap in the United States—between, for example, median white households and African-American (by a factor of 12) and Hispanic (by a factor of 10) households. Much of that wealth is in the form of housing. But that’s not where the bulk of the wealth in the United States has been accumulated. Rather, we’ll find it in the hands of a small group of wealthy individuals and large corporations—and reparations to the descendants of slaves will do little to close the gap between those at the top and the bulk of individual (whether African-American, Hispanic, or white) households.
Now, to give Coates his due, perhaps he is more interested in the investigation of the consequences of that racist legacy, a public airing and discussion that would be provoked by a full-scale debate about reparations (which would come from passing Congressman John Conyers Jr.’s HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act), and that’s fine. Let us, as a nation, finally come to grips with both the history of American racism and of the racial disparities and injustices that are so much a part of our recent history—from discriminatory subprime mortgages through unequal rates of unemployment and incarceration to racially biased police violence.
Or, alternatively, Coates might reframe the debate about reparations and begin to write about who actually gained from racist policies and practices over the course of U.S. history. If he did, he’d end up with a very small group of slaveowners, landowners, and capitalists (along with a larger, but still relatively small, group of overseers, merchants, and managers) who benefited from the labor performed by a much larger group of slaves, sharecroppers, and wage-workers. He might also add the institutions—including many colleges and universities—that grew from the proceeds of slavery and the slave trade, sharecropping, and capitalist enterprises. Those are the groups and institutions he might want to look at for reparations.
But, if he did, Coates would also discover that the wealth accumulated by a tiny minority of those at the top stemmed from activities that have also employed white (and Hispanic and other) tenants and workers. They’ve all been plundered—whether at work and in attempting to secure adequate housing, by private employers and bankers and through government policy—and, in that sense, are all due reparations.
No, it certainly hasn’t been the same—the same treatment, the same outcomes—for different racial and ethnic groups. Not by a long shot.
The problem is, reparations might not solve that problem of social theft for any of those groups, as it took place over the course of U.S. history and as it still exists today. In fact, we have to recognize, those gaps are getting larger—for whites, blacks, Hispanics, and everyone else.
As I see it, nothing short of a radical change in the way our economy is organized will overcome those gaps. That’s what conservatives and liberals have no interest in but is exactly what Coates and Sanders should be talking about—with one another and with everyone else in the country as this political campaign moves forward.