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.


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