Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How To Tell If You Care About History

David Frum has written perhaps the most robust critique I've yet seen of Ta-Nehisi Coates' call for reparations. His bottom line:
In this month’s Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an eloquent case for restitution to black Americans, not only for wrongs done before 1865, but as much or more for wrongs done in the century of segregation that followed. Yet this powerful essay explicitly disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution he has in mind: How would it work? ...
Coates dismisses all these questions and so many others. He suggests the country first enact Rep. John Conyers’ Reparations Bill and then open a discussion about how reparations would work. But committing yourself to a solution before you have any idea whether such a solution is workable—or, rather, in defiance of pretty strong reasons that your solution is utterly unworkable—is not a responsible reaction to America’s racial dilemmas.
Coates offers a devastating rebuttal here.  I'd like to pile on. Frum's argument sidesteps the main point of Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece -- that we must reckon with our history. Frum insists that we must jump straight ahead to figuring out precisely what the end result of that reckoning might be. He is usually a careful writer, but here he badly misrepresents what Coates wants and what Conyers' bill would do. He calls it the "Reparations Bill" and claims that only after its passage would a discussion begin about how reparations ought to work. In fact, the bill in question would itself be the discussion. That's all it is. It is not a reparations bill of any kind, nor would it commit the country to any course of action. Proceeding from his misconception, he says that committing to a solution before determining if it is workable is irresponsible. But Conyers' bill and Coates' advocacy involve no commitment to a predetermined solution. Unwittingly it appears, Frum has placed himself in opposition to the very examination of plausibility that he demands. He says we must ask, "How would it work?" but then a few paragraphs later ridicules the only proposed bill that seeks to study his own question.

The meat of Frum's piece is in his comparison of reparations to affirmative action. He contends that, like affirmative action, any potential reparations regime would be racially divisive, unfair and impractical in its implementation, ever-widening in scope, and uncertain in its effects.  In short, it would be all the worst consequences of affirmative action times 1000. Parts of Frum's argument are just flatly false. While arguing that reparations for African Americans would inevitably lead to calls for payments to other groups, Frum embarrassingly asks, "What about...Japanese Americans, interned during World War II?" The answer is, they got their reparations a quarter century ago. Oops.

The largest part of Frum's argument dwells on the fact that, as with affirmative action, "the legitimacy of the project will rapidly fade," especially among White Americans. On this he is surely right, if nothing substantial changes in the interval. But can't he see that this gets to the crux of Coates' point? Our failure to reckon with our history is actively precluding the search for meaningful solutions in the present. It is not just that a reparations program would lack legitimacy among White Americans. It is that any attempt to specifically confront ongoing racial inequities in American life is generally unpopular. I am sure that there are many issues of bedrock concern to Frum that do not rely upon mass "legitimacy" from the public. Yet when it comes to trying to eradicate White supremacy from our national life, Frum's essential argument is, "Yes, but people don't want to do that, so it would be impractical."

Frum's sloppy argument is intriguing because it is hard to find a more incisive right of center political commentator, and he is empathetic and lacking in prejudice. Yet racial justice, in particular, exposes the limits of our imaginations. It does so in two dimensions. First, most Americans cannot conceive of a United States in which White people are not on top. It is not so much a matter of supporting or not supporting it; it is at bottom an inability to even imagine what that would look like. We cannot achieve that which we cannot dream. This is intimately tied to the second failure of imagination, the historical. Like most Americans, Frum fails to see how an honest reckoning with our history, en masse, would inevitably transform our politics and social contract. We might not call the result reparations, but the systemic assault on Black Americans would finally be brought to a close. Frum talks about Coates' admirable opening up of history on the one hand and the inevitable unpopularity of reparations on the other as if they are distinct from each other. He doesn't appear to take seriously the idea that our present politics of White supremacy absolutely depends on stifling basic historical and sociological knowledge. Frum writes,
If “reparations” means remembrance and repentance for the wrongs of the past, then let’s have reparations. Americans tell a too-flattering version of their national story. They treat slavery as ancillary rather than essential. They forget that the work of slaves paid this country’s import bill from the 17th century until 1860. They do not acknowledge that the “freedom” championed by slaveholding Founding Fathers, including the author of the Declaration of Independence, included the freedom to own other human beings as property. They can no longer notice how slavery is stitched into every line of the Constitution and was supported by every single early national institution. The self-reckoning we see in Germany and other European countries does not come easily to Americans—and is still outright rejected by many.
If Frum really thought that history was important, he would understand that this kind of "reparations" would inevitably produce more tangible changes in public policy as well. He goes on to talk about a program of improvement for all Americans, completely eliding the radically different worlds Black and White Americans inhabit, as well as the intense political opposition even his meager program would encounter. Historical myths concerned with national greatness and innocence are unsteady foundations for just public policy. In other contexts, Frum and all of us understand this so much that it need not be stated. Does it matter to our world, after all, that the rampant affection for Hitler and blaming of Jews in post-World War II Germany was defeated in a deliberate effort among certain segments of German society to dredge up their past and recall it well? Of course it matters. Yet here in the United States it is often the most outwardly patriotic among us who are most insistent on the irrelevance of our history.

Frum's denigration of history is further revealed in his extensive and seemingly random discursion about the appalling amount of time Black youth spend in front of electronic screens. This is a problem that does not seem amenable to reparations:
No plausible government program can shut down their devices for them. That decision—like almost every decision that leads to self- and collective improvement—must come from within families and within individuals.
"Racism may have turned the TV set on," Frum writes, but "Anti-racism won’t turn the TV set off." This is cute, but Frum again fails to account for the "tangled simultaneity" of human experience in which the past shapes the present in confounding ways (Berber Bevernage). Due to the past and present discrimination that Coates spent so much of his essay addressing, Black and White children grow up in what might as well be different countries. Again, look at the graph! Frum controls for income and education but fails to control for neighborhood as Patrick Sharkey does in his recent book. I wonder how many conversations Frum has had with African American parents about their children's screen time. I will never forget the Black mom who told me her goal for the summer was to keep her two young boys off the streets and safely back in school the following year. Planting your kids in front of the TV is infinitely better than letting them play outside when you're worried they might get shot. Notice how history and racism is infused into every debate: untold numbers of Americans read that prior sentence as "shot in neighborhoods they're too violent or lazy or immoral to take care of." History and common decency reads that sentence as, "shot in neighborhoods our governments and society created." 

In one respect, Frum is right about the relationship between affirmative action and a reparations program. Opposition to affirmative action has often revealed more about the prejudices of its opponents than the flaws of the program. I am still looking for that mythical White man who is as viscerally upset about legacy admissions, employment discrimination against minorities, and stop-and-frisk as he is about affirmative action. In the same way, opposition to reparations is a legitimate and appropriate view to hold. But the frequent tendency to hold it in isolation, with no apparent concern for justice, and no viable alternative program to eradicate White supremacy, is a reflection of the callous ignorance Coates is fighting against.

So how can you tell if you care about history? Can you see the White supremacy right in front of your nose, and can you imagine a future without it? If not, you could do worse than picking up a history book you wouldn't normally read and giving it a try. Especially for the Christians among us, it is chastening to find that the atheist Ta-Nehisi Coates has a more humble and Christian view of the limits of the individual human being than we often do. We are all constrained by the sin within us, around us, and -- importantly to this discussion -- before us. We carry the past with us whether we want to or not. We might as well learn, and endeavor to carry it responsibly.

1 comment:

  1. I remain amazed at the amount of energy invested in denial of the effects of racism and resistance to admitting racism's persistence; channeled elsewhere, that energy would have resulted in colonies on the moon and cures for some cancers.