The case against reparations

I wish that every American would read The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June issue of The Atlantic.  It is painful reading.  It tells how U.S. government policy has worked against African-Americans from the days of slavery and Jim Crow down to the present time.

But while I think the facts he cites are true and important, I do not think he makes his case.  The word “reparations,” like the phrase “white privilege,” diverts attention from the real issue, which is equal justice for all.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

The word “reparations” shifts attention away from present injustice to past history.  The problem with focus on the past is that all of us, except for a few kings and aristocrats, are descended for poor, oppressed people, and have historic grievances.  It is human nature to be more aware of injustices committed against your own group than injustices against others, and any claim that one historical injustice deserves more attention than all the others is bound to meet with resistance.

There have been many crimes against humanity besides the enslavement of the American Indians—the Nazi Holocaust (which was not limited to the Jewish people), the crimes of Communism, the dispossession of the American Indians, U.S. military aggression against Mexico and Spain, the Irish potato famine and on and on.

Now perhaps there is somebody in the world with enough wisdom and Olympian detachment to make an objective judgment as to which historic injustice is worst.  But I don’t think that there is anyone in the world with enough moral authority to make people accept that judgment.

atlantic.reparations300I grant that in present-day USA, African-Americans on average will be treated worse than others, no matter what their position on the social scale.  In fast-food restaurants, you will find members of minority groups in the kitchen and white people serving customers—not always, but typically.  Black people earning $100,000 a year typically live in the same kind of neighborhoods as white people earning $30,000 a year.  And if the Obama daughters were ever as rowdy as the Bush daughters, the press would cut them a lot less slack.

Nevertheless race and racial prejudice aren’t everything.  The Obama and Bush daughters have many more life experiences in common than they have with middle-class members of their own races.   And black and Hispanic fast-food workers are not going to get anywhere until they join forces with their white Anglo co-workers to demand better pay and working conditions for all.

The key to ending racial prejudice in the United States is not by trying to make white people feel guilty, but by showing them that it is in their self-interest to unite with black fellow citizens to achieve common goals.

Labor has always been weaker in the United States than in other industrial countries, and the reason for this is that working people have been divided against each other along racial, religious and ethnic lines.  “Reparations” is a trigger word that widens these divisions.

I still recommend reading The Case for Reparations.   It is a succinct, readable and accurate article about things in the U.S. past and present of which many Americans (especially but not only whites) are not aware, and are not comfortable with.

Coates did not point the finger of guilt at white Americans individually.   He pointed to the consequences of government policy for which we the people are all responsible.

He does not ask that descendents of black slaves be given the equivalent of the “40 acres and a mule” that their ancestors were promised.  All he proposed is enactment of a bill by Rep. John Conyers, to appoint a commission to discuss the topic of reparations.

I think that what he really wants to do is to start the national conservation on race that President Obama and Attorney-General Eric Holder wanted, but never got.   If I am right in thinking that is what he wants, here is my contribution.


The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Reparations Article Sparks Conservative Outrage by Isaac Chotiner for The New Republic.

You can be a beneficiary of racism even if you’re not a racist by Ezra Klein for Vox.

How much have living white Americans benefited from slavery? by Tyler Cowen for Marginal Revolution.

What White Privilege Looks Like When You’re Poor by Mychal Denzel Smith for The Nation.   An example of the point of view I’m arguing against.

Obama, Reparations and the Subprime Mortgage Meltdown by Robert Kuttner for Huffington Post.


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One Response to “The case against reparations”

  1. John Pennington Says:

    A whole slew of excellent articles, Phil. I’m particularly impressed by your conclusion that all of us non-rich would be better off joining forces cross-culturally than by seeking redress for mistreatment in the past. Hell, even my all-white family suffered as Puritans, and we’ve been here since 1642.


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