Coates vs. Sanders on Reparations

So, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest contribution to the race debate in America is the claim that, by not endorsing the payment of reparations to black Americans for historical racism, Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is a hypocritical socialist (since BS can see class disparities clearly, but he goes color-blind when confronted by “white supremacy.”) This, in my view, is a ludicrous claim — one betraying an impoverished understanding of both “reparations” and “socialism.”
As it happens, I addressed the subtle issues at play in this debate nearly a decade ago, in this essay linked here for your edification, which someone on Bernie Sanders’s staff should probably read before he makes his next speech about black lives mattering:
Trans-Generational Justice – Compensatory vs. Interpretative Approaches

The essay is long, and time is short, so here’s an abstract:

Black Reparations advocacy is problematic not because (as many critics would have it) the people pushing it are quarrelsome jerks. It is problematic, and bad for this country, and bad for black people ourselves, because it squanders blacks’ dwindling political capital and misses our chance to show genuine moral leadership in this nation, as the early civil rights era heroes had done. We are still a multi-racial nation, and will be for as far into the future as anyone can see. The moral and political issues most salient in the context of “blackness” remain to be addressed (over-crowded prisons, ghettos from which opportunity for social betterment has fled, and so on), and “compassionate conservatism” doesn’t even begin to address them. But, then, neither will the payment of financial reparations for historical harm.

The issue confronting those black leaders and intellectuals brave enough to think outside the box today is how to convert our historical inheritance of moral authority and our claim on the public’s attention — an inheritance derived from the sufferings and heroic triumphs of our ancestors — into a moral and political currency that is relevant to our time. Mournful recitations of the old civil rights mantras are obviously inadequate to the task. The fact is that there are no problems facing the “black community” that are not also problems for a vast number of brown, yellow, red and white Americans. And there are no solutions for these problems that can, or should, be enacted solely (or even mainly) to assuage the legitimate concerns of blacks. But there is a criticism of the regnant interpretation of America’s racial history in contemporary political discourses that can and should be made, in the name of historical and racial justice. I have tried in this essay to indicate what the broad outlines of such a criticism might be.

14 thoughts on “Coates vs. Sanders on Reparations”

  1. Long time reader of this blog (with nothing at the moment intelligent to say about this post) thrilled to see you here. I look forward to your association with this group.

  2. The following is my observation on this subject as it sits in the world today. Pardon me if it comes off seeming a bit flippant and off topic. I do not mean to cheapen Mr. Loury's excellent response to Mr. Coates. However I would suggest that what I write below is actually far more poignant than it first appears:

    The discussion of black reparations is purely academic. Only a smattering of our intelligentsia is engaged in that conversation. That makes it about as culturally relevant as the Black Hole Information Paradox.

    However interesting enough….

    The subject of white "cowboy" reparations is getting a massive amount of national play. Apropos of nothing and yet everything, I would suggest to those who really believe in black reparations, that they journey to Harney County Oregon posthaste, set up some tents, ask supporters to see them free food, grab some mic time, and demand their share of free land as well.

  3. I thought the real problem with reparations was that you'd be giving reparations to people who didn't suffer the original harm, at the expense of people who didn't perpetrate it. Reparations really only make sense if they're fairly prompt, rather than generations later.

    Under such circumstances, reparations really only make sense if you take a collective rather than individual view of both guilt and deserts, where you have no obligation to pay any attention to the actual facts of any individual case. That's a very dangerous viewpoint to adopt in almost any context, and especially in the case of race.

    In fact, getting people to abandon that viewpoint, wasn't it MLK's goal? "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

    There's good reason race reparations talk goes nowhere. It's a horribly dangerous idea.

    1. I can only assume from your argument that a failure to inherit the wealth produced by a person's forebears means that Brett is perfectly fine with a 100% inheritance tax. Or is it only when the government takes the wealth of rich white people that he has a problem, and not when it takes the wealth of poor black people?

      Like many white conservatives, the Brett Bellmores of the world stood up sometime around 1985 and said to black people, "Hey, you're right. We spent 300 years stealing all of your stuff. We're sorry, and we promise not to do it again, but it would e reverse racism to ask for any of your stuff back."

  4. Welcome, Glenn, from the oldest inhabitant.

    A fine essay. Is its central argument really very different from Coates'? Loury:

    What is required, instead, is a commitment on the part of the public, the political elite, the opinion-shaping media, and so on to take responsibility for such situations as the contemporary plight of the urban black poor, and to understand them in a general way as a consequence of an ethically indefensible past.

    As Kevin Drum points out, Coates does not make any specific proposal for a scheme of reparations. He is not a policy wonk like most of us RBC bloggers but a cultural critic; his aim is to change the American discourse on race, which will put affirmative action policies on a morally sounder and politically more robust footing.

    If you take financial reparations as a policy proposal, there is a difficulty you do not mention. Who should pay? The descendants of Union soldiers who died to end slavery? The descendants of Irish, Jewish, and Mexican immigrants who never owned a slave in their lives? Is it just the descendants of slave-owners and slave-dealers, with liability prorated according to ancestry, rather like the rococo scheme of limpieza de sangre in which candidates for office or honours in old Spain had to prove their absence of Jewish ancestry for many generations? The only practicable representative of society here is the state. But a state payment funded by taxes would do nothing to address the ongoing social processes that reproduce stigma and discrimination, which you and Coates agree to be the main issue.

    You are I think too hard on classical colour-blind liberalism, at least in a strong Rawlsian variety. Equal opportunity is one of its central values. It implies substantial equality of condition, and strong compensatory measures against embedded disadvantages. For instance, children facing such disadvantages – poverty, racial prejudice, disability – should have much more spent on their public education than those from privileged backgrounds. Centralised education systems like the French generally aim to pay the same. The current US system gives more resources to the privileged. We can imagine, as a goal, an affirmative action policy in education far, far stronger than the current simulacrum – see the University of Texas case. The successful model is disability: schools spend far more than the mean on say a blind child. The Cambridge University physics department had to provide wheelchair access to its entire building to accommodate Stephen Hawking.

    At a slight tangent, on the subject of African-American élites you might enjoy an old post of mine, on the question "Is Barack Obama Black?" My wishful thinking for hopes for a sea-change on race in American society following his election have not been borne out, far from it. But I still hope over time for "a reconciliation beyond redress."

    1. If you are a white American, the odds are overwhelming that your family is richer than it would have been if African-Americans had been justly compensated for their labor from the time that they were first brought to America, had been allowed to accumulate wealth in the same ways that white Americans were, and had been treated equally by the justice system. That's true no matter which side your ancestors fought on in the Civil War or whether your ancestors were even in America in 1865. Yes, some white people are more better off than they would be under the hypothetical of a just America than others, but it is not unfair to ask all white Americans to contribute to an effort to redress these grievances.

      The same is true for compensating Native Americans.

    2. The history of disability rights over the past few decades is indeed a fascinating metaphor. The key difference however is the fuzzy area between what is genetic and what is environmental. Indeed, many "disabled" children come to school with constitutionally guaranteed and legally binding support than many poor "typical" children could only dream of, despite being functionally far worse off in terms of environmental nurturing.

      Unfortunately, with disabilities the disease is in the genetic code. With poverty and disadvantage, the disease is in the larger society that both pays for its dysfunctions (jails, crime, services) and reaps its benefits (cheap labor).

  5. 2 observations, 1 major, the other less so (on 2nd thought, I'll save the minor obs. for a new comment)

    Your essay does not really engage with the specific argument that I recall Coates making in the Atlantic essay. Part of the problem is that he or his editor takes a Humpty-Dumpty like approach to the word reparations, part is that he then apparently moves back and forth between which meaning he is currently using. In common parlance, in the US, when applied to African-Americans, reparations is understood to refer to harms from slavery and Jim Crow. This is the meaning I recall that was intended back in the 1980s or 1990s when Jesse Jackson raised the issue; this, I think, is the meaning you intend in your essay from 2006, and IIRC this was the meaning you understood in your initial (somewhat cranky, if I may so) response to Coates's article. Shortly thereafter, having read the article, you realized that Coates was using a different perfectly valid meaning of the word, but not the one usually understood in that context. Rather, he was using the word in the same way that it was used in a different (though in some ways similar) context, that of the Japanese-Americans who had been interned during WW2. There (I believe), rather than applying to a group of people who had been harmed en masse, reparations were calculated based on documented harms to individuals, and the payments were made to those individuals and their immediate heirs.*

    Let me recap Coates's Atlantic article (again, I am basing this on memory from a year and a half ago; blog posts, like fish and guests, generally grow stale quickly so it is rarely possible for comments to be adequately researched). Coates documented the costs to specific individuals, some still alive, of federal housing policies. In Chicago (and other northern cities, thus not Jim Crow, strictly speaking) African-Americans were de facto kept out of specific neighborhoods and restricted to others. Federal housing policy restricted mortgage subsidies to the neighborhoods that they were banned from. Banks would not issue mortgages for housing in AA neighborhoods, very effectively denying AAs any of the benefits of this federal policy. That is one harm done to all potential AA homebuyers in Chicago, and it continued at least through the 1960s, well into your and my lifetimes, likely even into Coates's lifetime. The other harm to individuals that Coates documented had to do with the financial instrument that was developed, ostensibly to substitute for mortgages in these neighborhoods, but with none of the legal protections normally accorded to borrowers. Rather than being an instrument that allows borrowers to save and increase their wealth, it was developed pretty much explicitly to swindle them. Federal, state and city policy, as well as judicial rulings, supported this use: the term of art is, I believe, aid and abet. This was harm to specific individuals that Coates documented, much like that of specific European Jews whom the Nazis stripped of their wealth, or specific Japanese-Americans who lost their property due to internment. In the Atlantic essay, I understood (after reading the essay) that by reparations, Coates meant payment for specific harms, experienced and documented, to individuals and their heirs; perhaps also harms estimated — wealth not accumulated — from not being permitted to take advantage of a policy available to everyone else, again for AA residents of Chicago in the 1930s-1960s; and (here I believe he was quite explicit, if weird in including this as "reparations") something along the lines of a truth and reconciliation commission.

    It is not at all clear, certainly it is not to me, which meaning Coates is leaning toward in his recent criticism of Bernie Sanders. I think it worthwhile to keep these distinctions clear if only so that the argument has a change of being productive.

    *It is perhaps worth mentioning that the word reparations has been used in both ways with regard to European Jews and their descendants following The Holocaust. Many individuals have received payments from Germany for documented harms, and the Israeli government received payments for many years, essentially as the representative or surviving heir of Jews who were enslaved in the concentration camps and of Jews whose property was taken. So that Coates moves back and forth between these meanings is not without precedent, but I think the different meanings are clearer in these 2 contexts than they are in Coates's use: reparations to individual Jews <–> due to documented harms they or those of whom they are heirs; reparations to Israel <–> due to harms experienced by European Jews as a people, had individual effects, but paid to a representative organization to allow the group as a whole to get back on its/their feet.

  6. I haven't read Coates's book yet, just the Atlantic piece. My issue with reparations is that Americans are not united enough, would never agree, and if they did, would offer too little. Then after, they'd wash their hands even further (if it's possible). Whereas, I thought even just on the economic crimes — the redlining, the wage theft of slavery, the funny "loans" (I forget the name…) — it was basically a slam dunk. Something I wonder about but have never calculated, is, what would be the comparable amount in the US to what Germany spent to re-unify? Folk here like to try to add up all government spending that happens to also include African-Americans, but I don't think that's quite fair. Have we *ever* spent $90 billion in any year, solely on trying to put African-Americans where they would have been? (Not on just trying to keep the poorer of them not dead, as f.e. with food stamps. Mind you… I don't actually know how Germany spent that money, exactly.) Frankly, we lack the sincerity.

    I used to always think it was too late for a Truth Commission, but these days, I'm not sure. Maybe we should try it. At least have an accounting done, of the economic crimes as well as all the violence, all the suffering. All of it. Funny that it's illegal to deny the Holocaust in Europe, but we here won't even do the math, officially.

    Meanwhile, moral authority is nice… but it's lost on a big chunk of the population anyway. And you can't eat it.

    The issue of stigma, I need to think about some more. Even if we did reparations and a commission, I have a feeling we'd still have issues. Not a reason to not try though. Darn it… keep hope alive!!!

    And as for whether it's fair for everyone to have to pay, well, black people pay taxes too. A lot of it is symbolic. We didn't all put the Japanese Americans in camps either. The government did it. There was no vote. But the reparations were widely accepted.

  7. Second minor comment.

    In your essay, you wrote, "We are no longer, and will never again be, a nation of blacks and whites. Some 30 million immigrants, mostly of non-European origins, have arrived on our shores since the height of the civil rights movement."

    What is the basis of your confidence in this assertion?. I am pretty sure most readers here know the history I am about to recite, but I want to make some connections. Before about 1850, this was a country of blacks and whites. Beginning with the mass Irish immigration and continuing to the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, many people now considered white were not quite white. Members of the elites (channeling Sarah Palin, here) spoke freely about the different European races: the Italian, Portuguese, Jewish, German, Swedish and various and different Slavic races. TR is perhaps the best known of this sort, but I am pretty sure I recall that other "great" Progressive politician, WWilson, speaking similarly. Not only were these different races, there was real concern that they, we, my ancestors, were destroying the unique greatness of the U.S. I have read (but cannot recall the name of the book, by a political scientist who viewed US history through the lens of ethnic political battles) that this changed only during the interwar and post-WW2 period, in response not only to Nazism and the Holocaust (and a revulsion from looking into the mirror and seeing in the reflection of the US something that resembled Nazism), but also to the rending of the social fabric during WW1 and the anti-German sentiment that that war aroused, the tensions being very profound esp. throughout the midwest and the Northwest.* Thereafter, over the course of a generation, all the European groups were brought into the "white" fold as the 1-drop rule became much less a regional and much more a national convention than it had been previously.

    In your essay, you state agreement with the proposition that race is a social construction, a convention. There is no reason to think that it won't be redefined again.

    My own expectation, though I am unlikely to live to see it, is that those whose ancestry traces to (a) northern India, whose complexion and other physical characteristics is similar to southern Europeans, will be easily incorporated into White America; (b) ditto for West Asians and North Africans (at least once we get by the current phase of Islamophobia); (c) I think the same is likely (though it may take a generation longer) for East Asians, whose physical characteristics are a bit less similar to Europeans; (d) some Hispanics, like Rubio and Cruz, whose ancestry appears to be predominantly if not almost entirely, European. What of those with ancestry from other parts of the world, specifically those with darker skin color? There I am less optimistic. But the possibility that new definitions develop of what is white and what is black, and they become the conventional organizing principles for interpreting the US racially seems easily within the realm of possibility.

    *The author thought that the German ancestry of 3 of the top US military leaders during WW2 (Eisenhower, Nimitz and Spaatz) was a deliberate signal to indicate that this was not an anti-German crusade and to avoid the severe tensions during WW1.

  8. Welcome, Glenn! I've been watching you over at Bloggingheads for years, and quite glad to see you over here. You often have me shaking my fists in frustration. But just as frequently I'm nodding my head in agreement. I look forward to more of your eloquent taking-to-task of knee-jerk liberalism. Your call to look deeper than race, deeper than "choices", to the interplay of both structural and behavioral forces, is in my opinion where you are at your best, and sounding a voice too solitary on the political landscape.

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