What does the USA owe its black citizens?

Almost all nations have things in their past that their peoples find hard to come to terms with.   We Americans have not yet come to terms with our nation’s history of slavery and white supremacy.

Racism in the United States is more than just the bad attitudes of certain white individuals toward black people.  It is the history of government action t0 enslave black people, to deny black the rights of citizenship after slavery was abolished in law, and to exclude them from full participation in society.

The New Deal was tailored so as to freeze out black people from most of its benefits.  Social Security was written so as to exclude domestic servants and agricultural laborers, which were the majority of black people in the 1930s.  The Federal Housing Administration for decades had a policy of refusing to lend money in any neighborhood in which a black family lived.  White suburbanites who said that the value of their house would be destroyed by having a black family in their neighborhood were speaking the literal truth.  This was official government policy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic goes into all this an interview with Bill Moyers, which is shown above, and in an article, The Case for Reparations, in the  Atlantic’s  June issue.

Coates reported on black families who escaped to Chicago from the Deep South, where they were outside the protection of the law, where their incomes were sobject to the whims of white people, and where their property could be taken from them at any time.  In Chicago, they were confined to ghettoes by action of the government, the banks and white mobs, who had the same impunity as white mobs in the South.  Their red-lined neighborhoods are the parts of Chicago where poverty and crime are highest today.

Nor is this all in the past.  The new voter ID laws and other voting restrictions are aimed at discouraging black voting.  Refusal to expand Medicaid disproportionately affects blacks.  Drug laws are enforced selectively against poor young black men, who as convicted felons are then excluded from the protection of anti-discrimination laws for the rest of their lives.

Coates doesn’t deny there has been progress.  The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a better start in life than Frederick Douglass, but he did not have an equal start with white peers.   Black people once were barred from many occupations.  Now it is just more difficult for them to be hired.

“Reparations” is a trigger word that is easily misunderstood.  Coates did not call for the government to write checks to the descendents of American slaves.  Rather he called on Americans to recognize that the nation (not just white people, but the nation as a whole) owes something to black people, and to discuss just what that is.

I have reservations about the word “reparations,” but I think that Coates is absolutely right to say that we Americans need to face up to our history—the bad along with the good.  I think every American should read his article.


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

The Case for Reparations: an Intellectual Autopsy by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic.  How and why Coates changed his mind about reparations.

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 argument that poor white people are better off than poor black people.

Will the Caribbean Reparations Initiative Inspire a Revitalization of the US Movement? by Don Rojas in The Nation.  Fifteen Caribbean nations seek reparations from Britain, France and other European governments for slavery when the Caribbean nations were their colonies.

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



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3 Responses to “What does the USA owe its black citizens?”

  1. thetinfoilhatsociety Says:

    Reparations…? Really….? In that case Ireland should be paying me reparations for the hundreds of years of subjugation of my ancestors by stealing their lands and giving it to English lords, preventing my ancestors from owning weapons and defending themselves, denying them the right to vote or hold office, and denying them jobs based on heritage and religion. And I’d like the lands back please, in addition to the cash.

    Whatever. They need to grow up and assimilate it as part of their history and move on, like every other people has done throughout time (or perished in the process). I do believe our country has already offered an official apology. Money is not deserved nor should it be offered.


  2. Holden Says:

    I don’t think, reparations are going to help anything. The black community has a societal problem they need to address.

    Yes, everything you say about the treatment of blacks by whites is true, unfair and sad, but how many other groups have also experienced their own bouts of oppression in America (The Jews, Japanese Irish, Italians, Mexicans…) and most of them have moved on and up in American society over time.

    Yet, after all this time the African American community keeps limping along, hung up on the injustices of yesterday. Sure, racism still exists and always will, but remember- the racism goes in all directions by all groups of people. It is practically universal, not just a Whites against Blacks thing.

    Its time for the African American community to pull itself up by its bootstraps, and perhaps start proving anyone who ever thought anything negatively of them as a community wrong through their actions and efforts, instead of looking for governments payments to somehow make them whole for the transgressions against their ancestors.


  3. philebersole Says:

    Reparations are an issue about which reasonable people can differ, but there are two important things that should have been clear not only from the video or the Atlantic article, but from my post.

    1. Coates wrote about not just the injustices of yesterday, but injustices continuing into the present.

    2. He didn’t ask that black people be given money. He asked for recognition of the fact of injustice as an issue to be dealt with.


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