The argument for slavery reparations revisited

Ta-Nehisi Coates made the argument back in 2014 that the United States owes reparations to the descendants of American slaves for slavery and for denial of basic rights continuing into the second half of the 20th century.

Since reparations has become an issue in the 2020 Presidential campaign, it’s time to take another look at his argument

Coates pointed out that even after slavery was theoretically ended, the Jim Crow system subjected black people in the South to a system in which their property, their freedom and their lives could be taken from them at any time.

When black people moved to the North, they were still refused jobs and credit based on their race.

This meant that, unlike all other ethnic groups in American history, they were unable to build up through wealth generation by generation.

Coates said reparations is not a claim against individual white people for what their ancestors may or may not have done.  The claim for reparations is against the government of the United States for what the nation has done.

When Union Carbide was sued and forced to pay damages to victims of the Bhopal, India, chemical plant disaster in 1984, the executives, employees and stockholders at the time of payout in 1999 were not all the same individuals as when the disaster occurred.  Claims are still being made, including claims against Dow Chemical, which became a part-owner of the plant in 2001.

The idea is that a corporation is a continuing enterprise, separate from the individuals who own and run it.  The present-day executives and stockholders benefit from the profits earned by those who came before.  They also inherit the claims and liabilities incurred by those who came before.

When nations pay reparations, it is based on the same idea.  A nation is a continuing entity.  All Americans, whether they were naturalized last week or trace American ancestors back to 1776 and before, are heirs of what their nation has done in the past, both good and bad.

Reparations will not get rid of racist thinking, racial prejudice or racial discrimination.  That is not the purpose.  The purpose is compensation for a wrong.

Do people in the present still suffer from the effects of slavery?  Maybe they wouldn’t if African-American slaves had been given full citizenship rights after the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted.  But they weren’t.

Coates tells the story of Clyde Ross, a black man born in Mississippi in 1923.  His father managed to acquire a farm, but a white judge had it confiscated and sold for taxes he claimed were owed.   Clyde’s most prized childhood possession was a horse.  A white man came and took it, and that’s the last he saw of it.  There was nobody the Ross family could appeal to.

Clyde Ross served honorably in World War Two and afterwards settled in Chicago.  At that time, the Federal Housing Administration was financing the construction of new housing in suburbia, which formed the basis of middle class wealth for generations to come.

By FHA policy, Ross could not get a mortgage loan for a house in a majority-white area.  He was forced to turn to a loan shark, under an agreement in which he would forfeit all his equity if he missed a single payment on his high-interest loan.  He managed to get a house, but many didn’t.  He still was unable to accumulate the wealth to pass on to the next generation that his white neighbors did.

There are no such restrictions on loans now, but Ross’s heirs are still affected by what happened back then.  All this was done by the U.S. government, which represents all of us.


My problem with reparations for slavery is that black people are not the only Americans who could make claims on the basis of historic injustices.  The reason so many people in Appalachia, both white and black, are to poor is that mining companies in the past took so much wealth out of the region while keeping workers, both white and black, in bondage.

Coates is right to say that no group of people in American history, except for the American Indians, suffered so much systematic degradation over so long a time as African-Americans.

But “less” is not the same as “nothing.”   “Not treated as badly as black American slaves” is not the same thing as “privileged.”

Jewish people make the point that no other people, except for the gypsies, were marked for extermination by the Nazis.  This is true, as far as it goes.

But it’s also true that the Nazis murdered millions of Poles, Ukrainians and Russians, not to mention Communists Jehovah’s Witnesses and gay man. According to one estimate, the Nazis murdered 10 million civilians, of whom 5 to 6 million were Jews.

Slavic people as a race were targeted for decimation and enslavement.  You can’t say this is not worth talking about because it is short of total extermination..

I don’t like attempts to rank groups of people in terms of how much injustice they have suffered.  I think this hardens the heart.

A lot of the “white privilege” talk is like that.  There are studies that show it hardens the heart against the struggles of the poor white people.

I think a successful black claim for reparations for slavery will inspire all kinds of other claims, some plausible and some not, because everyone except a few kings and aristocrats think of themselves as the descendants of poor, oppressed people.  This is not a way to build solidarity in the fight for equal justice for all.


Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay is still worth re-reading.  What I take away from it is the importance of (1) keeping in mind the facts of the American history of slavery, white supremacy and racial discrimination and (2) doubling down in the effort to assure equal justice for all today.


The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic (June 2014).  The linked article breaks off abruptly, so I’m not sure it includes all of the original.  But it is enough to show Coates’ argument.

The argument for slavery reparations revisited, an interview of Ta-Nehesi Coates for The New Yorker.  [Added 6/11/2019]

Text of H.R. 40: Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.

The Consequences of Forgetting by Keeganga-Yamahtta Taylor for Jacobin.  Remembering American slavery and anti-black racism.

Lessons Learned About White Privilege, Social Liberal Backlash and Trump 2.0 by Lambert Strether for Naked Capitalism.

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6 Responses to “The argument for slavery reparations revisited”

  1. Notes To Ponder Says:

    Read my post on white pride –


  2. Summit702 Says:

    Thanks for the counterargument.


  3. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    “When black people moved to the North, they were still refused jobs and credit based on their race.”

    You touch upon redlining. And I wouldn’t forget sundown towns, the main reason Northern blacks became concentrated in impoverished and trapped in inner cities. It’s easy to forget that until quite recently most African-Americans were farmers and farm workers. It was only around the 1960s or 1970s that the majority of African-Americans were urbanized.

    “My problem with reparations for slavery is that black people are not the only Americans who could make claims on the basis of historic injustices.”

    The problem isn’t mere injustice but a total failure of capitalism… or rather its success in serving its intended purpose, that of plutocracy. If we were to implement reparations for everyone who deserves them, most of the population would be beneficiaries. There has been centuries of exploitation and theft that has left nearly everyone in a far worse state than would have been the case in a free society.

    “I don’t like attempts to rank groups of people in terms of how much injustice they have suffered. I think this hardens the heart.”

    It’s what some call the victimization Olympics. But it doesn’t bother me to admit that most people in the world objectively have been far more harmed than I have. Despite being working class at present, living as a white male in the wealthiest and most powerful country in world history has given me privileges, benefits and opportunities that cannot be denied, that which has been paid for with other people’s suffering and blood.

    Still, that doesn’t tell us much about how to make a better society that benefits all.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fred (Au Naturel) Says:

    Bad mistake. Life isn’t fair and it isn’t supposed to be. Probably a large majority of people could logically demand reparations, given how we love to divide ourselves into us and them and then oppress based on that distinction. Latin Americans, Native Americans, gays… possibly even women. I’m on the autism spectrum. God, how I’ve been bullied at school and discriminated against in education and employment. I never got my privileges, benefits, and opportunities. I want my compensation too!

    Does a successful middle-class black get them? How about Barak Obama? Do we start measuring out ancestry by racial percentage for partial compensation? It is difficult to claim that the intangible effects of racial bias are monetarily compensable when all the material success is there.

    Wasn’t affirmative action supposed to be the compensation to “fix” the problem?

    I have distant ancestors who died in the war to free the slaves. Would the US gov. tax me for reparations on something they died to end?

    Time blurs everything. Once enough time passes, so does the option for meaningful compensation for official wrongs. You will never get a majority to go for it. Even if you did, it isn’t clear that flooding the black community with “found” money would have any benefits. OTOH putting some of that money into schools in poor areas (because they are historically poor and oppressed – not just because they are black) might just do wonders.

    The world is what is it is right now and effort put into demanding compensation is effort that would be better spent pursuing something within the realm of the possible.


  5. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    I would put this issue in context. Most people think of it as ancient history. But things like sundown towns, redlining, Jim Crow, etc are all within living memory.When my parents were younger, the last born slaves and Civil War veterans were finally dying off. Eugenics in the US was still going on in my lifetime as a GenXer. So were sundown towns in a few places around the country.

    Even the last of the Indian Wars are within living memory. Derrick Jensen mentions a town on the West Coast where the Native Americans still live on their ancestral land, but it became property when it was stolen earlier last century. Some of the Native Americans are renting from the very people whose grandfathers killed their grandfathers.

    If someone had killed your grandfather and stolen your inheritance, if their descendants were still benefiting from that theft and you were daily reminded of it, would you feel like were owed something? Whatever you think about reparations, understand that these are still fresh wounds. It’s like telling the Jews that they should simply get over the Holocaust. The Jewish people got reparations, by the way.

    The sense of injustice is justified. But once we go down that path, we quickly realize that practically every aspect of this society is drowning in injustice. Our government was built on patriarchy, genocide, slavery, and class oppression. And our economy was built on theft, exploitation, plutocracy, and corporatism. If we are serious about justice, we’d have to raze this society to the ground and rebuild it from the bottom up. Reparations could barely begin to touch the depth of moral failure and profound harm to so many.


  6. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    I would take it even further. It’s not even that all of this is in living memory. It is still happening. If anyone doubts this, they should read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. In the US, blacks are stopped and frisked more, arrested and convicted more, and sentenced longer even for crimes committed at higher rates by whites.

    Our entire society wasn’t merely built on bigotry. It is systemic and institutionalized in every aspect of our society. Far from being ancient history, this is what blacks are forced to deal with everyday. That isn’t to say it isn’t also shitty to be a poor white. But the data shows that it is easier for a poor white to live in a wealthier community than it is for a poor black.

    For example, I’m a working class white in a middle class town and I fit in just fine. Yet this town, a liberal college town I might add, has one of the highest racial disparities for drug arrests, despite the vast majority of drug crimes being committed by whites. Simply being black around here has a stigma to it, based on the assumption the person is from ‘Chicago’.

    An entire book was written about the racism in this town. It included how the local media obsesses over black neighborhoods and the crime there, even though most of the crime in general is committed by whites and against whites. The only time I’ve been a victim of a crime here was when two clean-cut white guys robbed me.

    Still, the reparations issue is mostly a distraction, a method of divide and conquer by creating a sense of conflict. Most blacks aren’t fighting for reparations. They simply want to live in a society that isn’t constantly shitty toward them for the color of their skin. Likewise, poor whites would like to have less shittiness as well without feeling like they have to constantly prove the harm done to them and their families for centuries.


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