So, Ta-Nehisi Coates’Â 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 â€“ 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 â€œblacknessâ€ remain to be addressed (over-crowded prisons, ghettos from which opportunity for social betterment has fled, and so on), and â€œcompassionate conservatismâ€ 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 â€œblack communityâ€ 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 Americaâ€™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.
For those among you who haven’t encounted Glenn’s work, it often puts me in mind of an adage I learned from Edwin Land: the truth of a polarized debate often lies not somewhere along the polarity, but at right angles to it. Glenn is about the most orthogonal thinker I know.
Black poverty and white poverty are not the same.Â As Ta-Nehisi Coates demonstrates in this brilliant article in The Atlantic, African-Americans have been subjected to continuous, intentional and organized theft by a kleptocracy masquerading as a democracy.Â If you’re not angry by the time you’re done reading about how the US government maintained black poverty to benefit white people, you haven’t been paying attention.Â The title, “The Case for Reparations,” is a bit misleading, as Coates is less concerned with a financial reckoning than with a moral one.
The article should be of especial interest to Chicago readers, as it includes an account of the scams and cheats and outright thefts which created today’s hopelessly segregated city.Â The nearly-forgotten “contract sellers” bought houses low because they’d terrified white owners with the prospect of black neighbors, and then sold the self-same houses high to black families barred from moving into unsegregated neighborhoods.Â Then they took the houses back on any pretext, or none at all, leaving their “purchasers” with nothing.Â But these sellers were the only option for African-Americans who wanted to own a home, because the Federal Housing Administration statute and regulations essentially precluded bank lending to black people.
Come to think of it, the article should be of especial interest to anyone who’s ever been moved by A Raisin in the Sun.Â Â Hansberry’s version of the story of housing segregation is more uplifting, but Coates’s is truer.
My dialogue with Ta-Nehisi Coates about youth violence in Chicago and beyond.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and I recently had a nice dialogue at the Atlantic. We talked about youth violence in Chicago, and beyond:
I don’t know if I’ve told you how I come to this issue, but I should say for everyone reading this that I am from Baltimore — the West Side, as we used to call it. I came of age in the late 1980s and early 90s, a period in which violence spiked in our cities. I don’t know if Chicago today is as bad as it was in, say, 1988, but this was a period of deep fear for everyone in the black communities of Baltimore. And the fear was everywhere.
It changed how we addressed our parents. It changed how we addressed each other. It changed our music. The violence put rules in place that often look strange to the rest of the country. For instance, the mask of hyper-machismo and invulnerability — the ice-grill, as we used to say — looks strange, until you’ve lived in a place where that mask is the only power you have to effect a modicum of safety.
I’m in my late 40s. I was a typical suburban kid graduating high school outside New York. It wasn’t as tough for me as it was on the west side of Baltimore, but crime certainly touched my life. On one occasion, I was in Washington Heights on my way to an AP class at Columbia University. A group of middle-school or early-high-school kids jumped me in the subway station, and they attempted to wrest away my watch. My high school sweetheart had just given it to me; I didn’t want to give it up. So a kid grabbed me by the hair and smashed my head against the concrete floor until I finally relented. As you know, my cousin was beaten to death by two teenage house burglars a few years later.
So I remember very well both the fear and the anger that accompanies one’s sense of physical vulnerability. Of course this anger often comes with a race/ethnic/class tinge that poisons so much of what we are trying to do in revitalizing urban America…..
I’ll let you guess who-was-who there. More hereÂ at Ta-Nehisi’s place.
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