This lengthy piece in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations," is getting a good bit of attention, and deservedly so. Coates (I wonder how his first name is pronounced) is an intelligent and thoughtful man, and I think he makes a pretty strong moral case for reparations from the U.S. government to the descendants of slaves. Moreover, he writes very well. It's a powerful statement, and you really should read it before drawing a conclusion on the question.
Any decent person will be appalled and angered by the oppression Coates details. And it is not just a rehearsal of stories about slavery, with which we are all familiar, but of things that have taken place much more recently, and not just in the South but in, for instance, Chicago--tactics deliberately undertaken to keep blacks in segregated neighborhoods and, much worse, to cheat them of what little wealth they managed to get hold of. The case for some sort of attempt to make restitution is, as I say, strong.
But in the end I remain unconvinced that the proposal is a good idea, or even workable. Or rather I should say I don't think it's a good idea because I don't think it's workable, and would probably do a good deal of harm.
I'm speaking there of the idea of material reparations. But that's not what Coates wants, really. Early in the piece he dismisses the practical concerns in favor of making the moral case. Later on he seems to see the material reparations as principally a means toward a deeper end, or perhaps even only a symbol of it:
And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.
What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.
If only. That would be a price worth paying if it could actually purchase the healing he describes. But I don't think spiritual renewal can be obtained by any means other than spiritual renewal.
And yet...it is a persuasive case. And unlike most white Americans I know that some of my ancestors were slave owners, and so I have a sense of real personal involvement in the history. I'll be thinking about this for a while. I could change my mind if I heard a really plausible and effective plan for implementing the idea.
(N.B., he might have left out the Confederate flag dig, which as a matter of rhetoric is not well-chosen. There's plenty of justification for it, but there are also plenty of people for whom the flag is a cultural symbol displayed without any particular racist intent, and reconciliation would require leaving them alone. I don't think the flag should fly from public buildings, but let's not try to stamp it out.)