Ta-Nehisi Coates starts a new reparations debate

 
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In his recent essay in the Atlantic magazine, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls on the US Congress to create a commission investigating the legacy of slavery and anti-black discrimination.

Such an action, he hopes, would spark a national debate on race, reparations, and the exploitation and subjugation of the black people throughout US history.

"The last time any prominent figure made an argument in favour of reparations, it was Dave Chappelle doing a sketch on his Comedy Central TV show," writes the Nation's Mychal Denzel Smith. "The idea has become more of a punch line than a serious policy debate."

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The piece persuasively (and seemingly effortlessly) turns the issue of race in America into a pressing discussion about work, wealth and theft”

End Quote Ben Mathis-Lilley Slate

While congressional legislation may be a pipe dream, the debate is no joke - at least among the chattering class who get paid to write and ruminate on such Grand Issues.

Coates, perhaps because of his reputation as a talented, thoughtful essayist and thanks to his platform in (and determined promotion by) the Atlantic, has once again given the topic a serious airing for the first time in more than a decade - and the praise for his essay from the left has been near universal.

Slate's Ben Mathis-Lilley says that Coates's emphasis on wealth creation afforded by slavery, along with his documentation of federally backed housing discrimination and the stories of discrimination vicitms who are still alive today, makes his piece "groundbreaking".

"The piece persuasively (and seemingly effortlessly) turns the issue of race in America into a pressing discussion about work, wealth and theft rather than an unresolvable grudge-match about bygone guilt," he writes.

The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner agrees that this focus on the discrimination that has taken place since the end of the Civil War makes Coates's case for reparations much stronger:

Coates was wise to focus the essay less on the evils of slavery and more on the systemic and institutional ways in which African Americans have been beaten down, discriminated against and terrorised over the past 150 years.

A few writers predict that many people joining the debate won't have actually read Coates's 15,000-word article. NPR's Gene Demby comes up with "three handy tips" for figuring out if someone is spouting off without actually having done their homework: 1) "They talk a lot about slavery", 2) "They talk about the logistics of reparations" and 3) "They talk about affirmative action or welfare".

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Tweeting 'OMG! Black Jesus!' is not a serious response to this piece”

End Quote Mollie Hemmingway The Federalist

In all three cases, Demby notes, such discussions miss the point of Coates's main arguments.

Mollie Hemmingway of the Federalist disagrees.

"The most normal reaction to a piece headlined 'The Case for Reparations' is to talk a great deal about the logistics of reparations," she says. "Coates and his fellow reparation fans aren't allowed to police where the discussion goes after the piece is written, for crying out loud!"

She lists some of the more over-the-top praise given the piece in wonderment and rolls her eyes.

"Tweeting 'OMG! Black Jesus!' is not a serious response to this piece," she writes.

"Coates is a fun writer and brings history alive, but the piece also had sweeping generalisations, laughable straw men, claims that were both major and unsubstantiated, and numerous holes," she says.

The Daily Beast's John McWhorter writes that all this talk about starting a "national conversation" on race ignores the fact that we've been obsessing with race for a long time.

"Despite frequent claims that America 'doesn't want to talk about race', we talk about it 24/7 amidst ringing declamations against racism on all forms," he says. "Over the past year's time, I need only mention Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling."

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The Case for Reparations is a bold beginning to the greater conversation we must have on the damages wrought by racism that still need repair in our nation”

End Quote Errin Haines Whack The Guardian

Gawker's Michelle Dean argues that this changes when the topic turns from a general discussion to specific ideas for how to make amends. The word "reparations", she writes, causes a "meltdown in (white) Americans that very much prevents them from looking at their share of what Coates calls 'our collective biography.'"

Perhaps it is this concern that keeps Coates from diving too deeply into ideas on how to implement a reparations programme. That hasn't stopped other writers from chiming in, however.

The New Republic's Danny Vinik says the size of a fair settlement would be in the trillions of dollars. "For perspective," he notes, "the federal government last year spent $3.5tn [£2tn] and GDP was $16.6tn [£10tn]."

He lists a number of existing proposals for how compensation to blacks could take form: lump-sum payments, a reparation fund that could award grants for "asset-building projects", vouchers to purchase stocks or other financial assets, "in-kind" benefits such as free college or healthcare or the creation of new institutions to assist blacks.

Vox's Matthew Yglesias suggests that rather than collecting tax money from US citizens, the Federal Reserve could print $1.38tn - his conservative compensation estimate - and transfer it to blacks over the course of 25 months.

The amount may seem like a lot, but it's the same monthly sum the Fed was creating up until May as part of its quantitative easing programme (and it's still pumping out $45bn a month). The current easing policy could be ended and replaced with the reparations programme, which would minimise inflation risks.

Legal Insurrection's William A Jacobson says any discussion of remedies "that are not based upon the people causing the harm paying the people directly harmed by specific conduct soon after the conduct is remedied" are a "dead end".

Why should a Vietnamese boat person pay reparations for the conduct of a white plantation owner a century earlier? Why should two successful black doctors living in a fashionable suburb get reparations from the white Appalachian children?

If you can't answer these kinds of questions, Jacobson writes, then you can't make a compelling argument for reparations.

It's exactly the kind of critique that will torpedo any legislative debate about a compensation programme.

So is all this reparations talk just that? A pleasant diversion for the chattering class that has tired of the Jill Abramson story and moved on from Thomas Piketty's wealth treatise?

Errin Haines Whack, writing for the Guardian's website, hopes not.

"The Case for Reparations is a bold beginning to the greater conversation we must have on the damages wrought by racism that still need repair in our nation," she writes. "That anyone in 2014 would be pleading, as Coates is, to simply talk honestly about the implications behind centuries of proven history of one group oppressing another, is astonishing."

It's a testament to Coates's abilities and influence that he has almost singlehandedly rekindled the conversation. And perhaps success can be defined as an incremental improvement in how Americans talk about race.

As for a real policy change? Now that would be truly astonishing.

 

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  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 99.

    Decades of Reparations paid in full: welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing, free medical care, affirmative action, wic checks, free education, law enforcement costs of disproportionately high crime rate in black community, etc, etc, etc...

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 98.

    Prior to the Civil War my ancestors owned two plantations in the Southern US and slaves to work them. After the war their plantations were confiscated and the land was given to their former slaves. My ancestors were punished for their immoral behaviour and their former indentured servants were ‘compensated’ with freehold land in the US. I feel no guilt for the plight of African-Americans today.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 97.

    This will never happen. US whites, Hispanics, and Asians will never go for it. Even affirmative action is on its way out.

    I support extra resources for schools in poor areas and affirmative action based on a child's economic background, not on race. This is unlikely to fly either.

    And given slavery's history in North America, shouldn't the English pay, too? I mean, fair is fair, right?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 96.

    The African Americans I know, when asked about this subject, have told me the following.
    Repatriations is just another name for "out of court settlement".
    Take the money, then just go away and stop complaining. You've been paid off. Nobody has to listen to you anymore.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 95.

    Racism in America has not been this acute since the 60's - a black man in the White House says it all! Boehner, Cantor & McConnell continue apoplectic! The notion of reparations is just a smoke screen for the underlying racism that is America today - for shame!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 94.

    73. beammeup Why is this issue always brought to us by the US? .... would be a better question.
    Most of the world's population don't even know about Zurcher or Coates....or give a toot about the topic."

    This issue was not brought to you by the US. The Beeb SOUGHT it out. Zurcher works for the Beeb. It's obvious the Brits DO give a toot about this topic, else it would not be reported on the BBC

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 93.

    First, folks should read Slavery By Another Name and understand the vile practice of racial slavery lived on well into the 20th century. That said, for reasons such as having tax money from working-class recent arrivals to the US go to Michael Jordan and Oprah, reparations would be a very tricky minefield to prance across.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 92.

    Kingsley,

    Also locally, we have a Shoah memorial where 6 million numbers are interspersed with quotes from the era demanding an end to the injustice perpetrated upon Jews. I think the quotes are most brilliant and true when understood as principles to apply to all of mankind in all eras -- in this sense, pursuit of justice more than any "ism" or affectation of PC needs to be our objective.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 91.

    88. Ashley Simmons

    "The state of Oregon recognised this problem and changed its system about 20 years ago; the taxes for schools are thrown into a big pot and then redistributed to all schools in the state based on headcount. So, poor community=poor school is no longer an argument. Can't speak for other states."

    Hooray for Oregon. That should be done in all states. Improving education will help.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 90.

    Re.#26 Kingsley O! :

    Except for having typed "hallow" instead of "hollow", my comments make sense to me.

    Reparations per-se, are over my pay grade, but a consciousness and dialogue of the here and now wouldn't hurt.

    A local class action suit forced mortgage co.s wholly owned by banks to abide by the law applied to banks after they robbed 50+ elder blacks of their homes (now Patrick's Gov.).

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 89.

    I am sick to the back teeth of hearing the 'black card' being played! The slave trade ENDED years ago and there is not one living soul left from those days; SO get over it and shut up about it. We Brits just might as well sue Rome for being made slave during the Roman Empire!!!! Ridicules' !!!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 88.

    83. "Public schools are funded by local property tax. Poor districts have little money and poor schools."

    The state of Oregon recognised this problem and changed its system about 20 years ago; the taxes for schools are thrown into a big pot and then redistributed to all schools in the state based on headcount. So, poor community=poor school is no longer an argument. Can't speak for other states.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 87.

    The question also comes, what about those slaves owned by blacks? I can trace my family back to a european who was sold to a black slave owner in VA and a Cheroenhaka under the same owner. That somewhat clouds whom is owed reparations from whom, nor is it that unusual when you start going back and looking at records from 1650-mid 1800s. In SC a fourth of freed blacks owned 10+ slaves(Grooms, 97)

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 86.

    Here's a real stumper--should the Native Americans whose ancestors owned black slaves also be required to kick in to the reparations pot, too?

    Of course they should, but how ya gonna get their fair share from them?

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 85.

    Coates is living in a fool's paradise. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to help blacks in every conceivable manner--nothing will ever help unless blacks change their own culture.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 84.

    this negro is crazy. His reparations is he can encourage blacks to quit praying to master's god. If master's god is the end all be all, then blacks have been more than compensated for being put in chains and treated as less than animals for 400 years. Only after putting off the mental chains of slave religion do the calls for justice from black America begin to make the least amount of sense.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 83.

    80. Dr_Dolphin

    "We give everyone in the nation 12 years of free schooling, and if they can't learn to speak, read and write our language it's not our fault."

    That's a good point, but our schools are not equal. Public schools are funded by local property tax. Poor districts have little money and poor schools.

    Still, even in the worst schools, you can learn to read and write English if you try.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 82.

    Reparations could only be paid by the people who did the oppressing to the people who were oppressed. Both are dead. End of discussion.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 81.

    Reparations? Hah!-existentially Coates wouldn't even be alive if it wasn't for slavery.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 80.

    We already have reparations. It's called welfare, housing subsidies, medicaid and food stamps. Plus we have 'affirmative action' hiring plans that employ unqualified people just because of their skin color.
    We give everyone in the nation 12 years of free schooling, and if they can't learn to speak, read and write our language it's not our fault.
    How about a free ticket back to the homeland?

 

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