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Ta-Nehisi Coates starts a new reparations debate

By Anthony Zurcher
Editor, Echo Chambers

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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."

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".

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."

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.

Related Topics

  • United States
  • Slavery

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