The Reckoning

Last week, after more than a year of procrastinating, I finally brought myself to read “The Case for Reparations,” the epic feature story by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic.

I was aware of the piece almost from the moment it went to press—this provocative argument about what black Americans are owed by white Americans here in the second decade of the 21st century—but somehow I kept putting it off.

I’d like to think that this was merely an act of laziness.  I am a slow, easily-distracted reader, and Coates’ story runs 16,000 words—ten times longer than anything I’ve ever written here.  Even for someone with all the time in the world, that’s an awful lot to digest—especially for such a weighty, depressing subject.

In any case, I certainly didn’t think I was afraid of—or would be surprised by—what Coates (or anyone) might say on the matter of reparations.  As a reasonably-educated, mildly intelligent white liberal, I am in no immediate danger of overlooking the fact that what white Americans did to black Americans from the early 17th century until 1865 constituted one of the greatest injustices in all of human history—a crime that has yet to be fully rectified, either in word or in deed.

But of course I was wrong.  I was wrong, first, about the extent to which slavery’s tentacles extended beyond the institution’s formal cessation via the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  But most of all, I was wrong in my assumption—shared by virtually every white person in America—that the call for formal reparations is primarily, if not exclusively, about slavery itself.

Not in the least.  Among all of our country’s race-based crimes, the trade, ownership, exploitation and torture of some 10 million-plus human beings was certainly the worst of it, but it wasn’t all of it, and it wasn’t the end of it.

As Coates has exhaustively documented, black people, as a group, have been subject to offenses by their government—in our lifetimes—that can concretely and incontrovertibly be defined as theft—that is, the malicious and deliberate taking of money and property, done through a system that simply did not view African-Americans as equal citizens and, as such, offered them no meaningful legal protection or means of redress.  If any would-be victim tried to fight back, the state’s weapon of choice was terrorism.

In no area of life were these practices more rampant than in housing.  Following the travails of a handful of individuals—some of them still alive today—Coates shows how the practice of “redlining” created a society after World War II in which black people were segregated from white people by design.  Even in major northern cities—Chicago being the most notorious—black people were systemically denied the low-rate mortgages and lines of credit that white Americans would come to regard as a birthright and a ticket to the American dream in the second half of the 20th century.  That’s to say nothing of the outright lying and thievery that real estate sharks would exercise against their black customers who, by circumstance, had no other option.  The consequences of this system remain with us to this day, most strikingly in the country’s wealth gap.  (A 2011 study estimated that the average white family has nearly 16 times as much total wealth as the average black family.)

Housing discrimination is probably the least-known, least-understood component of America’s history of institutional racism, and that is what makes Coates’ illumination of it so valuable.  Up to now, I’m sure I had some vague notion that, with housing—as with everything else—black people have been given a raw deal by their government.  With Coates’ narrative, I now have a much clearer idea of exactly what that raw deal entailed, how deliberate and unjust it was, and—here we approach the main point—how it left white America with a debt that it has every obligation to pay.

Having digested “The Case for Reparations,” paired with everything I thought I already knew on this subject, I now find it impossible not to take the idea seriously.  In point of fact, America has not squared itself with its past.  Slavery and Jim Crow were not just something that happened a long time ago that we can forget all about.  White Americans and black Americans today are not operating on a level playing field, and each of us is not blameless for the perpetuation of an inequitable society.

Certainly, many Americans feel just the opposite about some, if not all, of these points.  They think institutional racism is a relic of a bygone era, that blacks and whites have long been treated as equal under the law and that no further action is needed to rectify the sins of the past.

My hunch is that none of these people has read Coates’ article—or any other piece that has made similar arguments—and that if they did, they would be far less cavalier in their claim that everything is just fine.

It is seductive to think that white people absolved themselves of any guilt about racism with the 13th Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s and the election of Barack Obama.  In reality, it is absurd.

Imagine, if you will, that some bully stole your lunch money every day from kindergarten through 12th grade—beating the living daylights out of you whenever you resisted—and that you went hungry as a result.  Then, the day after graduating high school, the bully approaches you, says he feels bad about being such a jerk and asks, “Now we’re even, right?”  Then, when you lodge a complaint to the superintendent about those 12 years of abuse and exploitation, the superintendent says, “Yeah, we told him to do that, ‘cause we needed the cash.  But no hard feelings.”  Finally, you appeal to the full school board for a refund of all the money that was stolen from you, and they respond, “Let’s not get carried away.  Shouldn’t you just be happy the beatings have stopped?”

Multiply that by several million, and you begin to understand just how hollow it sounds to say that the United States owes nothing further to its black citizens and that slavery and racial inequality ended on the same day in 1865.

It’s a cruel paradox:  The crimes that whites have committed against blacks are so all-encompassing, so long-lasting—so evil—that they could not possibly be rectified in full, and this has somehow led us to conclude that we needn’t rectify them at all.

(To be clear:  There is a massive difference between atoning for a sin and merely resolving not to commit it anymore.)

It may seem a stretch to assert that each of us is personally culpable for this national moral failure.  That is, until we reflect—for instance—on the gazillion times we’ve called ourselves “proud to be American.”  Or on the myriad ways we lionize people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who each owned hundreds of slaves and didn’t lift a finger to give them a better life.  Or the fact that we nominate presidential candidates who make a point of “not apologizing for America,” insisting that there is nothing to apologize for.

Oh, really?

We all know Edmund Burke’s observation, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  In that spirit, it stands to reason that every time any of us fails to notice the crimes that have been committed by our government, in our name, we are indeed guilty of doing nothing to stop evil from ruling the day.

To say you are “proud” to live in a country with our dismal record on civil rights means you are either a) spectacularly ignorant, or b) extraordinarily selective about which aspects of America you choose to recognize.

To say the United States doesn’t owe anyone an apology—well, that just makes you an idiot.

I say this as someone who regularly harps on about how incredibly awesome the United States is, as far as world superpowers go.  We are the country that popularized such revolutionary ideas as self-government, free expression, trial by jury and the all-you-can-eat buffet.  At its best, the United States represents the highest ideals of human achievement, and I am as thrilled as ever that I wasn’t born anywhere else.

At the same time, however, I am not a naïve, jingoistic nincompoop.  I know unconscionable hypocrisy when I see it, and I can hold two opposing ideas in my head at the same time—as, apparently, can the nation as a whole.

Our country’s greatness does not make up for our country’s crimes—not any more than Bill Cosby’s comedy makes up for his apparently bottomless capacity to drug and rape young women.

The white population of America cannot systemically rob and murder the black population of America for 350 years and then expect absolution by saying, “Sorry about that—won’t happen again.”

Something more needs to be done.  Sooner or later, it will.

It’s anybody’s guess what form this “something” will ultimately take.  In his article, Coates alerts us to a House bill introduced by Representative John Conyers, which would create a commission to study the issue and sort all of this out.  That would surely be better than nothing.

Over the years, numerous calculations have been done to estimate the total monetary amount that black people have been deprived—directly and indirectly—as a result of slavery and other forms of white supremacy.  Adjusted for inflation, some of these estimates are roughly equal to our country’s annual GDP.  To be honest, I’m not sure whether such a figure is too much or too little, but it’s certainly high enough to give us a moment’s pause.

Many say that any real discussion about reparations would be pointlessly divisive, perhaps only exasperating racial tensions at a time when that particular hornet’s nest needn’t be poked any more than it already has.  That may well be true, although we certainly have no evidence for it, seeing as the discussion has never truly been attempted.

Considering how racial tensions tend to occur whether we invite them or not—or, to be specific, whenever certain white people behave terribly—I wonder if such fears are overblown, and whether the result might be just the opposite.

Were the Congress to undertake an objective, honest accounting of the costs of white supremacy on black (and white) America, it would—for one thing—have the effect of informing our fair citizenry of just how bad the damage has been.  It would provide a context for our current racial unrest in a manner that no single event ever could.  It would force white people to confront their prejudices and assumptions about what black people are owed by their government and—dare I say—engender a modicum of empathy that might lead us to treat each other just a little bit better.


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