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The case for ‘The Case for Reparations’

Cases and Controversies

Published: June 20, 2014

For people whose online lives center on the higher policy geek planes, the chief topic of conversation was not the beginning of the NBA finals or the premier of The Fault in Our Stars or even Sgt. Bowe Berghdahl. It was instead Ta-Nehesi Coates’s 15,000 word cover essay for The Atlantic provocatively title “The Case for Reparations.”

Traditionally debates over reparations have focused on recompense for the harms wrought by slavery. As a result, too many people will read the title and move on, thinking either that we’ve had that debate or that the past is past or that reparations would be too expensive and impractical to implement.

Coates casts a wider net, but concludes with a more modest proposal. To cut to the chase, he endorses a bill that Rep. John Conyers has proposed for each of his 25 years in the House of Representatives which proposes a Congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects and to recommend “appropriate remedies.”

In other words, he is not advocating for a particular system of reparations right now, but for a thorough, public, national examination of what both slavery and subsequent discrimination did to black people.

As he briefly discusses what a post-reparations America would look like, Coates spends as much time speculating on the change in culture that would come from a broader understanding of the historical roots of the current state of racial inequality as he does talking about monetary compensation. In effect, he is arguing for an American version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission.

The essay offers some ideas of the story such a commission might tell. Coates takes on the full history of how African Americans have been treated throughout the country, from slavery and Jim Crow in the South to redlining and segregation in the North.

He argues that many of the ills that beset the black community – housing segregation, poor schooling, crime-ridden neighborhoods and so forth – can be traced to a centuries-long system of robbing African Americans of wealth. As he demonstrates, slaves were responsible for a significant proportion of American wealth creation in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slavery was not a mere misstep in the early history of the republic, but an essential element of building the new nation.

What Coates calls the plunder of African Americans did not stop with abolition. In the Jim Crow South, blacks could be robbed of property at the whim of local whites with either the aid or quiet acquiescence of the state. But for much of the essay he focusses on discriminatory housing policy in the North.

Mid-century blacks were not eligible for GI housing loans and the Federal Housing Authority would not underwrite loans for homes in minority neighborhoods. As a result, a secondary market arose; the contract buying system under which a speculator would buy up properties and sell directly to prospective owners under contracts under which the buyers were fully responsible for the upkeep of the property, were not able to build equity in the property and could be dispossessed upon missing a single payment. Scores of contract sellers grew rich selling the same house again and again, evicting “buyers” for missing payments and keeping everything that had been paid to that point.

The net result of all of the discrimination against African Americans is a wide and growing wealth gap between blacks and whites. Coates argues persuasively that understanding the history of either robbing wealth from blacks or depriving them of the means of wealth creation is essential for understanding the present picture of American society. His essay has already spurred healthy debate and will likely be cited as a sentinel piece for years to come.

That said, a particular problem with possible reparations must be noted. Past reparations have generally been granted when individuals could show direct harm from government action. Reparations for Japanese Americans who were interred during World War II and a class action suit by Native Americans over government mismanagement of Indian land offer two examples.

But racist plunder of African people was a public-private partnership. The stories Coates tells could not have happened without government action, but much of the actual taking was accomplished by private citizens, whether they were slaveholders or landlords of sharecroppers or contract home sellers.

How to pay out reparations for harms done by individuals with indirect aid by the government presents a complex set of questions. That is not to say that those questions should not be asked. And thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates, we now have framework for asking them.