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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Not Just Cosby

What if Bill Clinton were a rapist?

It’s a thought that no liberal would ever want to consider, and I doubt many conservatives have spent much time with it, either.

We all know that America’s 42nd president is a serial philanderer—after all, we spent a full year forcing him to say so under oath—but we have always been able to console ourselves with the fact that, hey, at least it was consensual.  His relationships with Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, however tawdry, were each the work of two willing participants, even if one of them was president of the United States.

True, Paula Jones famously accused Clinton of making unwanted sexual advances toward her while he was governor of Arkansas, but a judge subsequently ruled that she had failed to prove her case, thereby allowing us to safely move on with our lives and go back to admiring Clinton as the political wunderkind and all-around good-old-boy that he is.  No harm, no foul.

Would that it were true.

Unfortunately, in the long, ridiculous saga of Bill Clinton’s sexual adventures with women who are not his wife, there is one woman in particular whose story, if true, would force us to reassess our whole perspective of this man who, 14 years removed from the presidency, is still arguably the most beloved living American politician, both here and abroad.

The woman’s name is Juanita Broaddrick.  In 1998, she asserted on Dateline NBC that in 1978—when she worked at a nursing home and Clinton was Arkansas’s attorney general—Clinton got her alone in a hotel room, held her down on the bed against her will and raped her.

This 1998 interview was the first time Broaddrick publicly accused Clinton of sexual assault, although several friends of hers knew about the alleged incident at the time.  The case never went to trial, and when Broaddrick attempted to sue the president for key documents, the case was thrown out by a judge.

While there was some coverage of this story when it first broke, Broaddrick was largely drowned out by the far juicier bombshell surrounding Monica Lewinsky, which was commanding the nation’s attention at roughly the same time.  As well, it certainly didn’t help that Broaddrick’s account contained inconsistencies that likely would have doomed her had she ever managed to drag the president into court.

And yet, to this day, Broaddrick has never recanted her story, Clinton hasn’t said a word in his defense except through his lawyers, and there is no conclusive evidence that Broaddrick’s allegation is false.  To the contrary, all available public records indicate that both she and Clinton were in the same town at the time of the alleged rape, and that Clinton had no official business on that day.  If there are any documents that would make Broaddrick’s story impossible, the Clinton camp hasn’t bothered to release them.

In summary:  A woman has accused Bill Clinton of rape and we have no definitive reason to doubt her.

The question, then, is why doesn’t anyone care?  Or, for that matter, why doesn’t anyone even know?

In this of all years, you’d think someone might be interested in the fact that one of the most powerful and adored men in politics might—just might—be a sexual predator.

After all, we are still smarting from the seemingly endless procession of women who claim—credibly—to have been sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby, himself formerly the most revered of figures in the worlds of television and stand-up comedy.

As a culture, we have decided that it is no longer fashionable for a rich and powerful man to drug, assault or otherwise prey upon vulnerable women, and that when he is found to have done so, it is our duty to publicly shun him until the wheels of justice begin to churn or, failing that, until he’s dead.

And so I wonder:  Does this principle apply to all rich and powerful men, or just to Bill Cosby?

I understand that being accused of rape by 35 women is not the same as being accused by one.  There are only so many hours in the day for us to pillory America’s most serious sexual criminals, and priority must be given to those whose behavior is outright pathological.

On the other hand, if our underlying premises are that a) rape is bad, and b) rape by the powerful unto the weak is even worse, then by what possible rationale could we continue to pretend Juanita Broaddrick doesn’t exist and her accusation was never made?

Apart from their sheer size, what legitimacy do Cosby’s accusers possess that Clinton’s does not?  Why should we listen to the former but not the latter?  Do we only care about rape victims when they present as a group, rather than as individuals?  Or is it simply that we like Bill Clinton too much to entertain the notion that he might secretly be a monster?

On the whole, I suspect that most of us simply haven’t been aware of this story these past 17 years, just as most of us had no idea about the allegations against Cosby until a fellow comedian, Hannibal Buress, brought them to our attention.  While this fact is, itself, a major concern for anyone who wishes to protect victims of sexual assault, the far more troubling prospect is that a certain number of us were in the know about Clinton and have simply kept quiet.

You tell me:  What allows us to justify our silence in the face of compelling, if circumstantial, evidence?

Sure, we could simply assume that Broaddrick is lying.  That she is crazy, deluded or nursing some kind of grudge against Clinton for God knows what.

Historically, that’s what we’re accustomed to:  Blaming the victim, turning the accusation on its head, brushing off any rumors of impropriety against our political and cultural idols on the grounds that they couldn’t possibly be guilty, because what would that say about us?

We could ask why, if the rape really happened, Broaddrick waited two decades to say so publicly.  Except that, in today’s culture, the question answers itself.  If and when an unsuspecting, private person is sexually mistreated by a respected public figure—someone who, in this case, was the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official—would she not be right to assume that no one would believe her story, and that her life might be irreparably harmed by the ensuing media ruckus?

In any case, that’s what Broaddrick claimed at the time.  In light of how the Clintons have treated women who we know were telling the truth—calling them liars, stalkers and publicity hounds—it’s hard to argue with her logic.

Really, though, our problem is that we just don’t want it to be true.

We like our heroes as virtuous, two-dimensional demigods.  We don’t want to reckon with the fact that the people we admire are just as complicated as the rest of us, and even though we know, deep down, that they are—of course they are!—we cling to our illusions of perfection for as long as we possibly can.  And when it is suggested that these kings and queens of American culture are not just flawed, but criminally flawed, that’s when we stick our fingers in our ears and sing, “La, la, la, la, la!”

With Clinton, we have just enough reasonable doubt to keep our uneasiness at bay, plodding along as if everything is just fine.  Because, hey, maybe it is.

We had better hope so, for the sake of him, Broaddrick and the country at large.

But should we wake up one day and find that a certified liar and adulterer is also a sexual assailant—nearly two decades after the possibility was first floated—we would have no right to be surprised.

We have turned on backs on Cosby.  Are we prepared to do the same for Clinton?  Or do we need 34 more women to come forward before it dawns on us that something might be wrong?