Any writer capable of making a reader rethink his firmly-held position is gifted. Words are the projection of meaning, and it’s through words that ideas change, attitudes adjust, emotions are tempered, and we learn. The message doesn’t always have to be totally correct. Even the shortest expression can strike hard, causing a turnabout in thinking.
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those writers who, though I find disagreeable on many issues, always presents an interesting and unique perspective on social matters. This is especially true on the matter of race in America. As a black man who grew up in a rough area of inner-city Baltimore, Coates is finely attuned to how a unique part of American culture views the world. Put another way, he offers a distinctive insight absent from my own white “privilege.” That said, Coates’ offerings on how to better society are occasionally lacking when it comes to principle and consistency.
His latest tour de force, titled “The Case for Reparations,” is a masterful exploration of the consequences of chattel slavery in America and the ongoing abuse of blacks by the federal government. Overall, Coates makes an impressive case for justice by outlining how, thanks to race-based duplicity and outright perniciousness built into state law, black Americans were given the short end of the stick. If the American ideal is equality under the law, then the ideal has failed to hold up for every citizen. If the national consciousness does not come to terms with its history of deceit, abuse, disenfranchisement, and injustice, “America will never be whole” Coates avers.
The piece begins with the life story of Clyde Ross, a black man born in Mississippi in 1927. After fleeing the segregated South where his family was harassed and taxed off their land, Ross came to Chicago in search of a community that was not so exploitive. In short, he didn’t find it. Ross bought a home under a dubious contract that earned him no equity until the property was paid in full. Alternative financing was not available as the Federal Housing Administration, created during the New Deal, adopted implicitly racial standards to direct mortgage credit to predominantly white neighborhoods. Ross may have served his country in World War II, but the same government that sent him to battle did not give him the same level of reciprocity as other soldiers because of the color of his skin.
Feeling cheated, Ross joined the Contract Buyers League and engaged in a campaign of shaming speculators for issuing fraudulent contracts. As Coates writes, “Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer simply seeking the protection of the law. They were seeking reparations.” From this example, Coates extrapolates a greater oppression: blacks in America went from slaves to virtual bondage in the form of government-enforced segregation and systematic violence. The “terrorism” that followed the Reconstruction Era was brutal. For almost a century “political violence was visited upon blacks wantonly, with special treatment meted out toward black people of ambition.” Lynching, burnings, premeditated murders, voter intimidation, and mob violence was a way of life. The harm done is incalculable. It is precisely from this perspective that Coates’ argument for reparations is most powerful.
To make his case complete, Coates appeals to statistics showing how slavery was the bedrock of the nascent United States economy. The hard work and perseverance of the first settlers didn’t build America alone. A significant portion of income was the product of the slave trade, including the booming cotton industry. “By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports,” he writes. According to Yale historian David Blight, in the 19th century “slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.” For a country that became an economic powerhouse from the use of whips and chains, it would seem something is owed to the victims.
But even with these horrific records, Coates’ argument for payback is still lacking in a few significant ways. First is the idea of race in general. It has become common for leftists to decry the concept of race as a biological trait. Coates has argued previously that race is a “social construct” upheld by society’s own prejudices. He thinks skin color only has biological meaning because “we have awarded it one” rather than the meaning existing by itself.
If the social construct argument is true – which I don’t think it is given Nicholas Wade’s new work – then basing public policy off of a flawed understanding seems mistaken. Coates doesn’t think race is a real, objective thing. But if race doesn’t exist, it follows that there is no reason for reparations based on something that doesn’t comport with reality. Either race exists, and was the impetus for systematic abuse, or it doesn’t. Basing an argument on something that isn’t real only emboldens its existence in the eyes of others. If Coates were consistent, he would make the case for reparations based on individual treatment instead of skin color.
That leads to another important point missed in Coates’ polemic: individualism. The fact that a certain sect of society harmed another in the past may have bearing on societal relations today, but it doesn’t make anyone culpable who was born after the crimes. Holding people responsible for the actions of others is wrong and breeds resentment. It disregards innocence, and treats individuals as a homogenous lump that is guilty beyond reproach. If it’s wrong to disenfranchise an entire race of people because of a specific concentration of melanin, then it’s wrong to damn another group based off the sins of their fathers. In both cases, individuality is denied. The end of racism is supposed to be marked by the widespread acceptance of people based on their character, not skin tone. How can an ugly thing like racism be defeated if some are treated like malefactors for crimes they didn’t commit?
Lastly, Coates does a terrific job outlining precisely how the United States government pursued an agenda of systematic exploitation of blacks for over two centuries. Yet he looks to the same institution for deliverance. After keeping a boot on the neck of a vulnerable minority, Uncle Sam is being petitioned to right his wrongs. Does Coates not see the dreadful incongruity here? Appealing to government to rectify government-fostered violence and discrimination is the equivalent of asking a band of highwaymen for assistance after they robbed you and left you to die. Coates writes that the “federal government is premised on equal fealty from all its citizens, who in return are to receive equal treatment.” Why equal fealty is seen as an ideal, I don’t know.
Coates should be given credit for tackling the topic of reparations, which is one of extreme sensitivity. But his failure to account for the truth that only individuals are responsible for their choices leaves his argument flat. It’s unfair to punish broad swaths of people for actions they did not commit. Only individual cases of violence and fraud have legitimacy. Everything else is profiling and outright discrimination – two things Coates rightly abhors when they are applied to blacks.
At one time, it was possible to rectify the great evil of slavery in America. As Murray Rothbard wrote in The Ethics of Liberty, immediate abolition was the only just approach to ridding the country of forced subjection. But it should have gone further: real reparations would have entailed granting “the plantation lands…to the slaves themselves, whose labor, on our “homesteading” principle, was mixed with the soil to develop the plantations.” Instead, slave masters were allowed to keep the land that was tilled with the sweat of servitude. The former masters remained masters. The former slaves remained slaves.
It’s unlikely the sheer immorality of slavery will ever be accounted for the United States. The practice lasted for centuries, and has only been dissolved for a few generations’ time. We don’t know all the lingering effects, and we likely never will. But reparations aren’t just about making monetary payments to the ill affected; Coates defines it as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” It is the recognition that while America may have been found as a beacon of freedom in the world, it’s still the “work of fallible humans.” If anything should be taken away from Coates’ illuminating essay, let it be this notion.