A few weeks ago, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates published an essay detailing the long, shameful history of the U.S. government’s racist policies towards black Americans. The essay, which appeared in the Atlantic (for which Coates also writes a blog), straight-forwardly acknowledges the pervasiveness of white supremacy—both the government’s role in perpetuating it, and society’s complicity in it—in modern times and throughout history. The piece carried the title “The Case for Reparations.”
Most of us (though by no means all) accept the suffering of black Americans over the centuries as a simple fact, and a source of great national shame. But when the idea of reparations—of providing some concrete form of atonement for past wrongs done—comes up, we tend to get bogged down in questions. Who’s going to pay? Who’s going to get paid? Why is it our business to remedy something (slavery) that ended a century and a half ago? These questions build and build and eventually become reasons for dismissing the issue out of hand. In many ways, this is a natural human tendency: When contemplating a vast, complex debate—even one suffused with moral clarity—it can be easier, and more pleasant, to just think of something else.
The great accomplishment of Coates’ piece is that it spends most of its time detailing, with articulate precision, the harms that black Americans have suffered—not just during slavery, but during the mid-twentieth century as well—at the hands of the U.S. government. Coates is not satisfied by simply asking rhetorical questions, nor is he driven away by the fraught nature of the debate. Instead, he painstakingly reports on the very real injuries that black Americans have suffered as a result of intentional policies enacted by their government. And he replaces our endless, misdirecting questions with a simple, direct question of his own: Why shouldn’t people who were harmed—yesterday, decades ago, and a century ago—be entitled to recompense?
Coates is, basically, making a legal argument. In court, after all, the principle underlying everything is that unjustifiable harm begets the right in the one who was harmed to be made whole. For black Americans, the injuries are legion. Take “redlining,” for instance. That was the FHA practice of systematically excluding black people from obtaining federally-backed mortgages. The result of redlining—Coates cites Chicago as a particularly egregious example, but the same thing happened in countless cities across the country—was to effectively prevent blacks from living in wealthier neighborhoods, thereby creating ghettos where black homeownership became essentially worthless. Or, to cite another example of Coates’, consider that New Deal programs, lauded as the height of American progressivism, initially excluded farmhands and domestic workers from Social Security benefits in order to ensure that most black Americans—who traditionally occupied those jobs—were left without a social safety net (because how else was Franklin Roosevelt going to get the support of southern Democrats?).
These are just two specific policies, with huge and far reaching effects, that were designed to use racism as a cudgel, and their lingering shadows continue to haunt black Americans today. Most unnervingly, these policies were enacted by and through a government, and a court system, charged with ensuring everyone the equal protection of the laws. We’re not talking about slavery here; we’re talking about things that happened this century, to Americans, many of whom are still alive today. Once again, the question is: Why shouldn’t we take steps to right these wrongs?