Monday, May 26, 2014

Reparations: Ta-Nehesei Coates tells it like it is.

But plenty of folks will want to argue the point.

As the cover of the June issue of Atlantic Magazine advancing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument for reparations for African Americans puts it: “250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debris of our ancestors, America will never be whole.”

I’m with Coates. I believe that 450 years of oppression and expropriation of wealth requires compensation. Making the effort strikes me as both a moral obligation and a fantastic investment in our collective future.

Coates lays out the argument for reparations with at length. His piece is concise, but also a marvel of detailed reporting and history I won’t try to match. But I still want to set up some of the arguments against reparations that one is likely to hear, to try and wrestle those arguments to the ground.  I can’t help but think that there can be only a limited number of explanations for those that oppose reparations for African Americans. Included among them:

1.     Having grown up in a society that normalized that theft, opponents of reparations may believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, that they are inferior, and that they do not deserve relief.

2.     Opponents of reparations might claim that compensating for the generations-long theft of labor and wealth from African Americans will come at a direct cost to them, or that we as a society cannot afford reparations.

3.     Some opponents may believe that others have suffered systemic oppression and have not been compensated for their losses.

4.     Some people might argue that they (or their family) just got to the United States; they are not part of the problem.

5.     Some people may not oppose reparations, but they don’t believe it will ever happen.

6.     Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans or benefit in some other way from the continuing humiliation of the African American community. They will fight against reparations as hard and as long as they think necessary.

7.     Some politicians, who would lead the fight against reparations represent the interests of those who entertain one or more of the above beliefs.

8.     And then there’s Clarence Thomas (who arguably fits into more than one of the above categories), who even opposes affirmative action and claims to feel stigmatized by the policy, and who apparently believes that he has not been properly celebrated for his accomplishments.

African Americans’ problems are of their own making

If you are simply one of those who believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, or that they don’t deserve relief, or that they are in some way inferior, the problem may be that you simply don’t know enough black people. This would not be a surprise in a country as segregated as ours.

You are probably white, but you could still free yourself from that apparently limiting condition by expanding the same sort of empathetic response that you presently feel on behalf of battered women, say, or Syrians, or Rwandans or dolphins or puppies.

Or you could free yourself from the zeitgeist with the same act of political will and forethought that has already persuaded you that the 2008 stimulus package wasn’t big enough or that climate change needs to be addressed now. Regardless, if you even remotely agree that the wealth rightfully earned by generations of African Americans has been plundered, ask yourself who has benefitted from that theft.

Maybe, it doesn’t feel like you are one of the beneficiaries, but a lot of great fortunes were built on the backs of slaves and tenant farmers and convict laborers, and job competition between white workers and black workers that held down wages for all workers to the almost exclusive benefit of the owning class. Reparations are a way to begin repairing all those problems.

It will be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses.

Perhaps, it could be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses, but in general we should think of the cost as a legitimate liability, the settlement as a negotiated agreement that acknowledges responsibility, as a good-conscience effort to compensate the recipient without causing unbearable harm to the party wishing to make good, and as an investment in an egalitarian society that prioritizes equality, peace and harmony.

Besides, think about how much the lack of compensation for unrewarded effort, for theft, injury and harm, has already cost us. Reparations could hardly cost us more.

Others have suffered systemic losses and have not been compensated.

There aren’t a whole lot of people who would argue against paying reparations to African Americans just because some other group ought to get paid—though there are certainly a fair number of groups who have suffered losses. But it would be hard historically to identify a group that suffered more harm for longer. Working people come to mind. So do women. Central and South Americans. Africans. Asians. Lesbians, gay men and bi- and transsexuals.

There are certainly important considerations raised by this point of view, but, well…everything in its own time, I guess. Moreover, a society operating under an elevated understanding of justice that would come into being after reparations to African Americans would be a different world, which would be more prosperous and egalitarian. Under such transformed conditions some injustices would feel like they mattered less. And other legitimate claims would be more easily addressed.

Paying reparations would make recent immigrants to the United States responsible for the suffering of African Americans.

Well, we are collectively responsible. It’s our country. And you’re here now. What kind of society do you want to build? If we work together to restore equity, recent immigrants likely will prosper along with the rest of us.

Reparations will never happen.

Well, yes, in a country in which no-nothingism seems to define our politics, our African American president is the target of unreasoning hatred and right-wing billionaires spend whatever it takes to elect uncritical henchman, it’s easy to understand such pessimism.

But it took 250 years to end slavery in the United States. Addressing the damage that has continued to accumulate since that time, might take another 250 years. But it will happen faster if we don’t indulge in such pessimism and choose to take action instead. In the meantime, in the pursuit of such a great good, our collective health would probably improve. And we’d make new friends.

Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans and other people serve the political interests of constituents who get some benefit, real or imagined, from the continuing oppression of African Americans.

It’s certainly true that some people receive such valuable benefits from ripping off others, but we need to be able to distinguish which ones receive a material benefit from race-based exploitation and which ones receive less tangible benefit, like the relief associated with the knowledge that some people are worse off or more despised than you are. That second group should not be a priority, but they should be labored with if the resources or inclination are there.

Forget about the first group and their retainers and close beneficiaries. They are the enemy. They probably won’t completely disappear, even after the rest of us have moved on.

And then, finally, you might oppose reparations because you are Clarence Thomas.

Well, never mind, Justice Thomas, you may be the most lost of all lost causes. It’s nearly impossible to guess what it’s like to be you and what you’ve given up to get where you are now.

But let’s give Ta-Neheisi Coates the last word:

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.”


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