You have to admire Ta-Nehisi Coates for his persistence is getting the discussion started. In 2014, Coates wrote a long piece in the Atlantic Magazine titled “The Case for Reparations”. He generated a lot of buzz back then and we are still talking about it almost two years later. If you haven’t read it, you probably should if you have any interest in race in America.
My parents were incarcerated into “relocation” camps during World War II because of their race.
In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. The law won congressional approval only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese-American community.
Reparations were easily determined in this instance. There was a list of everyone who was in a camp regardless of age. Those who had died in the meanwhile got nothing and their estates and heirs got nothing. My parents, uncles, and aunts got checks. But the money was not enough to cover what had been lost, but was more of a token giving the apology some weight.
Coates has recently taken Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to task for not supporting reparations.
What candidates name themselves is generally believed to be important. Many Sanders supporters, for instance, correctly point out that Clinton handprints are all over America’s sprawling carceral state. I agree with them and have said so at length. Voters, and black voters particularly, should never forget that Bill Clinton passed arguably the most immoral “anti-crime” bill in American history, and that Hillary Clinton aided its passage through her invocation of the super-predator myth. A defense of Clinton rooted in the claim that “Jeb Bush held the same position” would not be exculpatory. (“Law and order conservative embraces law and order” would surprise no one.) That is because the anger over the Clintons’ actions isn’t simply based on their having been wrong, but on their craven embrace of law and order Republicanism in the Democratic Party’s name.
One does not find anything as damaging as the carceral state in the Sanders platform, but the dissonance between name and action is the same. Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies—doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same “A rising tide lifts all boats” thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation. Sanders proposes to intensify this approach. But Sanders’s actual approach is really no different than President Obama’s. I have repeatedly stated my problem with the “rising tide” philosophy when embraced by Obama and liberals in general. (See here, here, here, and here.) Again, briefly, treating a racist injury solely with class-based remedies is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages. The bandages help, but they will not suffice.
To a certain extent Coates is correct. Whether one uses the rising tide image or sticks with trickle down, programs begun in the 1960s like affirmative action and various anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing have helped but have not come close to solving the problem that black Americans are more likely to be poor than white Americans. No one can deny that slaves, former slaves, and their present day descendents have not suffered every form of economic discriminations one can think of because they have. The question is are reparations a good solution.
Conor Friedersdorf provided some speculative reasons why Bernie Sanders is right in not embracing reparations in his recent piece in the Atlantic.
Perhaps Sanders just thinks reparations are bad policy on the merits. There are many plausible reasons that a principled radical might come to that conclusion (though it isn’t entirely clear to me that Sanders is that radical even on matters of class).
Perhaps he is convinced that the highest incarnation of justice is a government that redistributes resources toward its citizens based wholly on their need, and doesn’t want to shift the Overton Window toward any model that is predicated on dessert beyond need, or that would redistribute wealth from poor to rich in some instances.
That seems consistent with principled socialism.
Perhaps when Sanders says that reparations would be divisive, he doesn’t mean that they would damage his campaign or the Democratic coalition by dividing its supporters––the plausible interpretation that Ta-Nehisi argued against in his critiques––but that it would divide Americans of different races against one another in a manner likely to cause more harm to vulnerable minority groups than good, or necessitate a divisive process of bureaucrats defining who qualifies as black.
The Overton Window referred to above is a media pundit term meaning the range of discourse the public is willing to accept.
When I commented on a friends Facebook page during a discussion of reparations that I thought it would be difficult if not impossible to figure out who was owed, another friend commented that maybe that was what Coates was trying to do – get us to talk about the issue. If that was his aim, to move or enlarge the Overton Window, then he has succeeded.
I have a question for Sanders. Why not take up Coates’ call to support a study?
…For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”
A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.
Perhaps rather than demand reparations now we, Coates included, should push Congress – and all of the Democratic Presidential candidates to support HR 40. Let’s keep talking about this.