Ta-Nehsis Coates’s testimony today (Juneteenth) in the House in support of HR40 is pretty breathtaking:
It’s worth reading in full, but here are selected snippets.
Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible. This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations.
But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the Founders, or the greatest generation, on the basis of a lack of membership in either group. We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance. It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.
Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.
We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them. Thank you.
Sadly as politically appealing reparations are, the extent of what those reparations should be to actually be effective and the trauma of paying for them makes them extremely difficult to make sense of. And if they’re not actually effective at doing anything substantial over the long term - if everyone eligible gets some reparations, and then a generation later things are back to the status quo, there just isn’t going to be any political capital left to spend on anti-discrimination policies.
The truth is it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars, per person, for generations, to really overcome the “wealth and opportunity gap”. And the higher the payment, the more compelling it will be for conservatives in society to say “racism is now over”. That’s my worry about reparations; just giving everyone 10 or 20 or 50 thousand dollars would make their lives better, but it would not lead to outcomes of overcoming the gaps in wealth and opportunity, but would lead to a strong - maybe irresistible - call to end racially based progressive politics. Proponents need to think if gaining reparations is worth the risk of losing non-discrimination policies and affirmative action.
Determining a structure for payments could be challenging.
Marianne Williamson, a best-selling author and lesser-known candidate for the Democratic nomination, proposes that African-Americans receive payments of $10 billion yearly for ten years. Social scientists who have looked at the question say the tab would be far greater, perhaps in the trillions.
Proponents point to examples of reparations in the past. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation authorizing $20,000 each to more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.
The German government has paid tens of billions of dollars over the years to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. In 2019, Germany is set to pay out more than $500 million globally.
Who gets the payments is another thorny question. Darity believes that rather than requirements such as DNA tests or blood quantum standards, a system could be devised in which self-identified African-Americans or blacks would have opportunities to prove that ancestors were enslaved in the United States.
Darity believes that ultimately, legislation in Congress is the only way to offer restitution to descendants of slaves in the form of reparations.
“If you have already not established broad consent for such a program, it’s going to be corrupted, destroyed or undermined,” he said.
I’ve been reading a lot about this lately, I find the topic fascinating. To be honest, there would have been a time when the thought of reparations would have seemed nonsensical to me, maybe even laughable. As so many have pointed out, that was so long ago! The victims and the perpetrators are long dead, what’s a little money and an apology now going to accomplish?
But I now think that’s the short view, and an unjust one. Yes, the Civil War was long ago, and the prime opportunity to resolve its scars has passed us by. But that doesn’t mean you throw your arms in the air and say, ‘oh well!’ It seems clear to me that slavery has exacted an ongoing cost, from Jim Crow laws and segregation to the disproportionate police response and incarceration of black people. This country has wronged an entire race of people (more than one race, but that’s another topic). I believe some sort of reparations would be proper and just. I won’t claim to know how or what form that reparation should take, but I do think it’s time.
The U.S. government paid reparations to the Japanese families that were interred during World War 2. My wife’s grandmother continues to receive payments from Germany from when her husband was conscripted when Nazi forces invaded her home in Austria. It’s not unusual nor is it improper to provide some form of recompense when you recognize that you’ve wronged a group of people. If this were put to a vote, I’d definitely vote yes.
A 10K per year per individual federal firearms license fee.
An annual subtraction of federal funds to confederate states until the amount is paid.
Annual reparation taxes on descendants of slaveholders whose net worth exceeds one million dollars.
edit: not funding but forced racial qoutas of all state government employees in confederate states. Lets go 90% of all new hires must be of african american descent.
I understand the case for reparations, and I think it’s a good one. I don’t think there is any possibility they happen.
If Dems win big in 2020, they will have a limited window in which they can a few big things done. Healthcare, Climate Change, Voting Rights, Economic Justice (tax rates), Criminal Justice Reform, Education Costs, reducing the impact of money on our politics… all of those items will compete for time and political capital. They’re all difficult. They’re all critical.
I can’t imagine a scenario in which Reparations rises high on that list.
I don’t think reparations are politically appealing at all. They’re an albatross. That said, I also don’t think that Mr. Coates and other proponents of reparations are all that interested in the mechanism for it or magnitude of it. They’re more interested in dragging the immense debt that America owes out into the light. They want to tie America to its own history and make us acknowledge that our successes were won by grinding people into the dirt and that our vaunted values have always rung hollow. We can’t be who we want to be until we acknowledge who we are and where we came from.
Our progenitors deliberately created an underclass based on race. Our grandparents and parents perpetuated it through state and private terror well into living memory. And our present political structure, founded on that premise, still largely retains the shape of its apparatus. We owe a debt. We are cowards if we can’t acknowledge that. And our values are worth nothing if we decline to do anything to make it right.
And this is an honest question and not just a rhetorical one: if there are going to be reparations, why should it be limited to African Americans? Why not Hispanic people, or the Chinese, or the Irish, or the Roman Catholics, or the LGBT, or any other group that has been badly discriminated against during American history? Why not reparations to women for being the undisputed kings of the victim hierarchy (both in numbers and magnitude) for basically all of human history?
I do believe the Japanese Americans who ended up in camps during WW2 received some kind of reparations. Many of them lost personal possessions and their homes (and farms) because of that. My father was raised in an area where that happened and he knew people who lost everything.
But I think that differs from just granting money to someone because of their color. No matter how poorly a descendant may have been treated. As for other groups, they may have been mistreated but their level of freedom and the potential upward mobility of the next generation is much different from that of a slave.
The case for reparations is quite a bit more nuanced and robust than you suggest. Even in Coates’s brief statements to the committee today, he laid out justifications that I think deserve a more considered response than you’ve given. But he literally wrote the book (or rather longform article) on this subject in 2014. Read it first, then make up your mind.
I think it makes a great deal of sense to start with studying the issue in a reasoned way; to assess the economic impact of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, etc. and get a sense of the overall economic harm. We have the statistical tools now to at least come to grips with these numbers.
Once we’ve done that, we can then discuss what to do about it. I’m somewhat skeptical of direct individual payments but the idea of using the numbers to justify investments in historically underserved communities (better schools, roads, hospitals, etc.) seems like it may have some merit.
It’s a long article, and I only made it about half of the way through it back in 2014 when it came out. But from what I remember, Coates’ article surprised me about reparations because it didn’t talk about granting money to someone because of their color. He talked about many many many different individuals and how their grandfather or grandmother or great grandfather were treated, and how their farm was taken away from them, or how they were forced to sell their home, etc. I’ll have to go back and read the whole article myself, but it seemed to me he was making the case for a more targeted reparations process that addresses some of these individuals who were directly hurt from Jim Crow or Redlining. That seemed much more reasonable to me than paying someone because of skin color.