Sunday, May 25, 2014

Thoughts for Sunday

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
          --2 Corinthians 5:16-19

Christ's act of reconciliation was done in history, tangibly, at a specific place and time. In receiving it, we find history vitally present and the myth that the past is separate from our experience is broken. The work of the Christian historian is reconciliation. The things that divide us here and now are older than ourselves. We cannot seek justice in the present apart from reckoning with our tangled pasts.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Atlantic's Reparations Cover Story Is A Revelation. Whose Fault Is That?

As the reaction to Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay begins to build, I can't help but feel that historians have failed dramatically. Few of us could ever hope to write with the lyrical quality and emotional punch of Coates, but the basic facts and ideas he's working with are old and well-established. Historians and sociologists uncovered these things--sometimes decades ago--and now they get repackaged in an Atlantic cover story and people find them revelatory.

Don't get me wrong. I am thrilled about this piece. I am deeply pleased that the Atlantic chose to publish it, and as a faithful reader of Ta-Nehisi Coates, I hope one day to write even a quarter as well as he does. But we can't rely on a few superhuman essayists like Coates to get the word out about the basic contours of American history. Shouldn't we be able to do that ourselves? It is unfair and unrealistic to expect brilliant writers like Coates to do all the heavy lifting of translating the best academic work into popularly accessible forms. The gap is just so large. Finding sustainable ways to bridge it is a perennial challenge. One sympathetic reviewer of Coates's article remarked that it is so long because the ideas are too important to be summarized--not realizing that the piece is itself, all 15,000 words of it, a summary. As I wrote yesterday, this is one of its great virtues. In the course of reading it, people are getting snippets of about two dozen key books without even realizing it.

Why can't we do this more often? From the blogosphere to the nightly news, there are routinely stories and discussions that cry out for the perspective that history provides, but its often nowhere to be found except in its most presentist and vulgar forms. (Presentist history is so focused on the present that it distorts the past, using it for contemporary purposes rather than first understanding it). The absence of good history from our public debates stems from a variety of factors. From the outside looking in, many Americans, including professional journalists and politicians, simply don't understand what historians do and don't really understand what knowledge of the past looks like or what it accomplishes. People tend either to be uninterested in history, or to use it for cheap validation of their opinions.

On the other side, historians are often their own worst enemies. As a historian in training, I know the pressure to tailor everything toward academia, leaving precious little energy or thought for more popular settings. Publishing in a major magazine won't help me get tenure. Publishing in an obscure academic journal with a few hundred readers will help me. This is understandable and fairly appropriate, but has perverse effects. Historians begin to talk to each other instead of to the public. It is compounded by the pompous attitudes we adopt, acting as though accessible and popular forms of history are automatically vulgar and beneath us. I believe that this is often a defense mechanism. When your academic book sells 500 copies while the latest drivel from Bill O-Reilly sells millions, you comfort yourself with the knowledge that your book is too serious and important to be enjoyed by most people. To a certain extent, this is basically true, but it is also an indictment of our work. Can't the important also be made compelling? Even if we don't change our academic books and articles, we ought to spend more time after academic publication trying to rework those texts into shorter and more accessible forms that could be published in a magazine or blogging platform.

But in the end I'm not sure what the solution is. Is it simply a matter of taking the time to strip down our work? Or do we need to work to establish more institutional connections between academic departments and popular media forms? I could envision a future where the kind of piece Ta-Nehisi Coates just published in the Atlantic is a capstone, a hook to draw people in, timed with the release of the author's academic book. There are complicating factors though. The more popular the form, the more politicized the subject. Most historians are justly wary of becoming politicized figures. For that reason, perhaps historians do need to rely on others to popularize their work. In the end, perhaps all I'm really saying is this: One of the reasons the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates feels so different from what you normally read is that he is drawing so heavily on academic historians. More people should do this!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates Explains Why We Must Talk About Reparations

Update: It's now online. Read it here

As an Atlantic subscriber, I've got my hands on Ta-Nehisi Coates's cover story a day early, so I will quote some key parts but I can't link to it yet. I will put the link up once its posted online.

Reading this article is a strange experience for me, because Coates uses North Lawndale, Chicago, as his narrative arc providing the emotional thread of the story. North Lawndale is where Alicia and I used to live. I want to impress upon readers that if you haven't lived in a neighborhood like that, it is very difficult to grasp what Coates is writing about. For most Americans, history tends to be an abstraction that is selectively picked up and applied when it is useful. In North Lawndale, history slaps you in the face and overwhelms you with its fierce present urgency. Coates clearly understands this, and its a signal virtue of his piece. To talk about reparations is to challenge the invisibility of the North Lawndales of the country and the lies America tells itself about them.

As a middle class White man, I would not have seen the extent of my arrogance and ignorance (remarkable, isn't it, that those two vices would go together?) apart from my personal experiences in Garfield Park and North Lawndale. In short, I got lucky. The vast majority of White Americans have not had the opportunity to have similar experiences, and many of them are caught in a web of ignorance that is not really of their own making. Those of goodwill, those who want to learn and understand, can start by reading this story when it comes out tomorrow. One of the great virtues of it is that it will expose people to some of the best sociological and historical work on these subjects. People who would never pick up an academic book will get, in very small and digestible doses, an accessible and riveting synthesis in Ta-Nehisi Coates's article. This is crucial, because much that is common knowledge about our history among professionals remains revelatory to average Americans.

Now, on to the content of the article. I was extremely interested to see what exactly Coates meant by reparations. It turns out he doesn't have a specific idea in mind at all. This is not a fault. He has in mind something much bigger than any specific policy. He proposes that we simply begin by studying reparations in an official capacity for the first time, using Congressman John Conyers' long-proposed bill, now HR 40, the "Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act." The bill would not set reparations in motion or create any binding process. It would simply set up a commission that would study the issue and make, as I understand it, non-binding recommendations. Coates writes:
That HR 40 has never--under either Democrats or Republicans--made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you'd expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America's crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world's oldest democracy?...
Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate--the kind that HR 40 proposes--we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion--and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper--America's heritage, history, and standing in the world...
Exactly. Why are reparations so threatening that we are unable even to study the issue? Something Coates does not mention but is quite relevant is that the Federal Government has already given reparations to classes of citizens it discriminated against in the past, most notably Japanese-Americans affected by internment during World War Two. It is telling that we have made payments for these far less severe crimes, while dismissing out of hand the prospect of similar payments for greater crimes. At issue is not the justice of the respective claims, but the costs--psychic as well as financial--of meeting them.

Coates also addresses what is sure to be one of the principle objections: bringing up reparations is inherently divisive. It will only raise racial tensions. I implore readers to try to understand how provincial this objection is. The violence our country is visiting upon North Lawndale on this nice Spring day of May 21, 2014, makes me dramatically unconcerned for the niceties of polite opinion. Millions of Americans who have failed to lift a finger against racial injustice are deeply troubled by any raising of "racial tension" in the form of public conversations that make us uncomfortable. We value tranquility and mistake it for peace. This shallow sentiment is met with an old rallying cry: no justice, no peace. Tranquility is often the gloss atop worlds of subjugation and oppression. It is not the flowering of true justice. Those who value peace do not accept the cheap shortcuts and false labeling of a country that calls the submission of the oppressed to their fate "peace" and calls their cry for justice "divisive." Coates writes:
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 pf 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.

John Conyer's HR 40 is a the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can't be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as--if not more than--the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the futures. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America's maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
A reckoning, honesty, an accounting. These things would go further than a check, because a reparations settlement superficially arrived at would merely be appropriated  as a salve for White guilt and a means of clearing ourselves of any future obligations. It would be the election of Barack Obama times 100. Precisely because it seems so out of reach and nearly utopian, mobilizing around the goal of reparations is an excellent way to shift the conversation and refuse to accede to America's deadly myths. We are not going to win over those who are willfully and deeply invested in racial injustice. But we can win over those who simply don't know much yet, who haven't benefited from personal experiences that might have opened their eyes. I think we can do this not by watering down our message or shrinking from the justice of our demands, but by patiently engaging in discussion with the assumption that people of goodwill are always within earshot. Let's not insult them. Let's not pontificate about all the scholarship on racial injustice to people who are just looking for an argument. But let's be ready with stories, books, statistics and our own testimony for those who are open to learning. Ignore the media figures and the circus surrounding them. That is not where the important discussion will take place. The call for reparations is radical enough to heighten the distinction between those who are open to justice and those who are more comfortable with myth. It will compel people of goodwill to ask questions of themselves they may not have asked before, while exposing those who, like me, all too often look out on the world in arrogance and ignorance rather than love and understanding.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Reparations. An Old Idea, But Still A Good One

Ta-Nehisi Coates is about to open up a giant can of worms, and it looks like the full weight of the Atlantic's power to shape elite discussion is behind him.

I am extremely excited about this story. The moral case for reparations has always been obvious and overwhelming. The practical implementation of a reparations program would undoubtedly be difficult, but that is a secondary concern at this time. The great virtue of resurrecting this discussion is that it forces Whites to confront the lies that we live by. If we are to have reparations, we must have them for the evil that is being done here and now, in our lifetimes. All the old canards about how long ago the civil war was and how we had nothing to do with slavery are not just false; they are irrelevant. We're not talking about the deep past. We're talking about the lives of our fellow Americans here and now who are systematically disadvantaged because of their skin color.

The call for reparations will be received in many quarters as a radical exercise, in others it will be mocked as little more than a pipe dream. But we need radicals. We need people pushing for what is politically impossible. Even if reparations are out of reach, perhaps we can move the poles of the conversation toward justice. The inevitable divisiveness of the ensuing discussion will also expose those of us who value tranquility more than peace.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Graph You Must See Before You Can Understand America

Is the United States a place of opportunity for all? Is social mobility high or low? Is class now a more important dividing line than color? Do Whites continue to experience privilege based on their skin color? Has the legacy of state-sponsored racial discrimination been overcome? What causes poverty in the United States? Are there different kinds of poverty? What are the solutions? What is my responsibility? What is the government's responsibility? What do the places we live have to do with these questions? Before you can hope to answer any of these questions, before having much of any opinion about anything in American society, this is the graph you must meditate on:
It shows the characteristics of the communities Black and White children grow up in. Communities in which 30% or more of the residents are poor are almost never experienced by White children, but they are routine experiences for Black children. The takeaway: Black kids are 30x more likely to grow up in communities of concentrated poverty. The graph is from Patrick Sharkey's recent book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality. The graph is even more powerful in the context of his broader argument. More commentary to come as I work through the book.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Robert E. Lee Wasn't a Good Guy, But That Misses the Point

NPR's On Point had an interesting discussion this morning with Michael Korda, author of a new biography of Robert E. Lee. The show made a point of also inviting Gary Gallagher onto the program, which set up an interesting tension between two very different figures, the former a popular author of fiction and several accessible biographies, and the latter a respected academic expert on the civil war.

One of the inevitable topics the discussion ventured into is Robert E. Lee's relationship to slavery. Korda strongly argued that seeing Lee through the lens of slavery is to miss most of what he was about. In doing so, we insert our modern preoccupations into a foreign world and demand that this historical figure possess the same sensibilities we do. Then Korda trotted out the old, "he was a man of his time" defense.

Three quick points:

It seems to me that Korda is absolutely right to be wary of overlaying the past with our own agenda in such a way that we miss what was actually occurring.  We have to be able to empathize with historical figures if we are to have any hope of understanding what their world was like. Notice, empathy is a quite different thing from sympathy. Empathy is, I would argue, the foundation of useful historical knowledge.

That being said, I think Korda is doing something more here. Too often, empathy can dissolve into squishy nothingness that leaves us sputtering, "Well, he was a man of his time after all..." This attitude is ultimately incoherent, because it relies on an arbitrary definition of what was considered "normal" at any given time. If the overwhelming majority of people of your class and birth were of a certain view, then you are granted absolution. But what if the issue splits people 60-40 rather than 90-10? Where is the line between hero and villain? Was William Lloyd Garrison not a man of his time? Was his life experience so dramatically different from that of numerous other antebellum whites? How do we account not just for his political radicalism, but for his absence of racial prejudice? There is a fine line to walk here. When we speak of people being "of their time," it ought not be a statement of absolution for them, but indictment for us. Put another way, the endpoint of properly practiced historical empathy is not redemption for the people we study, but a more sober assessment of ourselves and humanity. I don't look at Lee with empathy so I can conclude that, in the end, he was a decent sort of chap. (What kind of phrase is that? It must be said with a British accent, right?) Rather, I look at him with empathy so that I am able to acknowledge that I probably would have done at least as badly if I were dealt his hand of cards. Instead of rehabilitating Lee, I use him to confess my sinfulness. You can, and should, look at it much more broadly too. Lee's failures, our own failures, are often the result of human action in a scarred, distorted world that compels us to act unjustly. And we most likely can't see our deepest acts of injustice for what they are. Few of us are generals as Lee was, but we're all subject to the proverbial fog of war. It blinds us to the fact that we are often on the side of selfishness, greed, and oppression.

Finally, I think Korda's defense of Lee was entirely too dismissive of the power of the Lost Cause narrative. He didn't seem to realize that if he wants to defend Lee he ought to do so in careful terms that unequivocally reject the racist hagiography that has surrounded Lee for over one hundred years. This narrative is so strong that many people don't even realize that Lee was a slaveholder. And they certainly don't know that his army practiced slave-raiding in their ventures into the North, or that his policy was to enslave black troops captured on the battlefield. It will be interesting to see more response to this book as it develops. One of the few academic reviews of one of Korda's previous books, a biography of Grant, called it "incorrect and ill-informed," but granted that Korda was at least a "master of distracting or pretentious analogies and foreign references." So there's that.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

When Sinful People Look For Truth

One of the strangest things about having an opinion is the knowledge that there is a whole world out there beyond you that, if you knew it and experienced it, would render your opinion comically or even tragically simplistic. Yet we press on all the same, and I think we're right to do so. But it would be nice if I took these basic limits deep into my bones more often. There is a sense in which my views are wrong -- necessarily, unavoidably, and perpetually wrong. But they're the only views I have and I've got to work with them. And, I think, if I really kept this reality in front of me, I would tend to be a little less wrong, because when it comes to the things that really matter, the spirit of what we believe is often as important as the content.