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Last summer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic Monthly, set a new traffic record for the magazine's website with his whopping 16,000-word, 10-chapter June cover story, "The Case for Reparations." Drawing not from the slavery era, but from the post-Civil War years up to the present, the one-time history major from Howard University wove together several multi-generational stories arousing empathy for the descendants of emancipated slaves. It was well-written and commendably devoid of angry overtones.
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It wasn't so much a case for reparations, though, as it was a plea for America to begin a national conversation about reparations. Specifically, Coates wants the U.S. Congress to take up HR 40, a bill Representative John Conyers Jr. has introduced in every session of Congress for 25 years running. The bill calls for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects, along with recommendations for "appropriate remedies."
Autopsy of an Idea
Curiously, four years ago, Coates wrote against reparations: "I don't support reparations . . . looking for someone to blame taints the process, it shades your vision, and before long you're ascribing identities to people who never claimed them." So, given the reversal, he followed up "The Case for Reparations" with a series of articles explaining his train of thought, a sort of intellectual autopsy of his evolution on the matter. Following is a summation of it, as I understand him.
First, racism is an act, a deed. From St. Clair Drake's two-volume Black Folk Here and There, Coates draws the conclusion that "racism, as we know it, is basically a product of the slave trade, which is to say, the seizure of power." Thus, "American notions of race are the product of racism, not the other way around. We know this because we can see the formation of 'race' in American law and policy." Notions of "blackness" and "whiteness," then, are social constructs that were formed in America and were themselves the products of policy, beginning with the slave codes. Looked at this way, racism isn't an attitude of the heart. It's an act—a bad deed, if you will. "American racism is a thing that was done." This way of thinking "pushed me toward reparations."
Second, racism is innate to America. Coates's thoughts then turn to the economics of slavery. From James McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom, he adopted the view that slavery held an essential place in the economy not just of the antebellum South but of the whole of America. This led him to see slavery as foundational to America, rather than ancillary—as "essential . . . to the American project." This was a pivotal point for him. America, from her founding—and in fact inherent in her being—is guilty of giving birth to notions of race and then perpetrating race-based oppression as a "done thing."
Third, racism has not been purged from America. Coates references the autobiographies of escaped slave Frederick Douglass, who displayed an uncanny ability to convey the humanity of the enslaved: "one of the things [Douglass] communicates is that slavery is not a sanitized form of forced labor, but first and foremost, a system of violence, an assault on black bodies, black families, and black institutions. This all gets lost in the talk about economics and robbing people of their work." (Coates makes a good point here; he just doesn't go far enough.)
If slavery was foundational to the building of America, Coates then asks rhetorically, "how could it be that its effects faded in 1860?" In other words, Hasn't the assault continued beyond the end of slavery? Returning to the economic angle, he answers his own question: "Douglass says 'a man is worked on by what he works on.' For 250 years, Americans worked on the breaking of people for profit. What I found, going forward, is that enslavement had worked on us too. You can see its ghost all over American policy, especially in the realm of housing."
And this became the basis for "The Case for Reparations," which narrates several effects of post-World War II policies on select black Americans. Coates focuses primarily on housing policies in Chicago, but also touches on banking, Social Security, and other federal programs that purported to help the black population but in practice became instruments of further plunder.
Right-Headed Reactions, Wrong-Headed Reasoning
Responses to "The Case for Reparations" predictably ran the gamut, but overall, the piece seems to have struck a chord that earlier reparations petitions haven't. The stories are moving. Also, they don't focus on the evils of slavery itself (we get that), but rather on injustices perpetrated after the slavery years. They've summoned a not unjustified kind of righteous indignation, even from people who understand that the practicalities of any reparations policy would become a nightmare. Author Eric Liu wrote that he detected in the reactions "a certain thread of uneasiness; a reflexive move to find reasons why reparation couldn't be done or why it wouldn't be workable or fair." "The greatest obstacle to considering reparation," he said, "isn't practicality; it's a dearth of moral imagination."
But I beg to differ. The reactions show plenty of well-meaning moral sentiment. We don't have a dearth of moral imagination. What we have is a dearth of moral reasoning. Coates rightly characterizes slavery as "a moral catastrophe," but he goes seriously wrong in many other respects.
Reparations as National Salvation?
To start off, it's important to remember that slavery preexisted America, and moreover, that race has rarely been a determinative factor. From at least as far back as ancient Egypt, Africans enslaved other Africans. "By the time the New World was discovered," historian Rodney Stark tells us, "the exportation of black slaves had been going on for several thousand years—in recent centuries, mostly to Islamic societies—and African dealers were well organized and prepared to offer a seemingly endless supply of prime laborers. . . . most were sold by their own tribal leaders." This is not to excuse America, but to set human enslavement in an accurate historical context.
Coates frames his appeal with biblical allusions, but these, too, have been removed from their context. The closing chapters suggest that reparations will bring about "a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt. . . . What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal." Clearly he's invoking the biblical themes of sin, atonement, and rebirth. But he's misapplied them.
Where the Bible identifies sin as a color-blind condition of the human heart, Coates judges it a condition of white America, the substance and evidence of this charge being the unequal distribution of desired goods—a wealth gap, an achievement gap, differences in education levels and standards of living.
The way Coates has cast it, sin is not a trait of the human heart or an act of which a human being may be guilty. The inequality itself is the sin, the guilt residing collectively in the haves. The have-nots are sinless: "There is massive, overwhelming evidence for the proposition that white supremacy is the only thing wrong with black people."
This is classic Marxist thinking. To place a Bible verse over the heading and finish it off by prophesying spiritual renewal is worse than hubris. It's a bastardization of the gospel.
Clarity About Sin
And false gospels inevitably lead people astray, often back into some form of slavery. Coates would have done better to retain his opposition to reparations. Looking for someone to blame has indeed tainted the process for him. Slavery is evil, not just because it compels someone to work against his will, but because, as Prison Fellowship president Jim Liske puts it, "it denies the full dignity and value of the enslaved person." At root, it's a gross failure to love a fellow human being made in God's image.
But there's a related principle at work here that we should see. Evil, because it is evil, wreaks a terrible kind of judgment on the perpetrator. Coates was deeply moved by Douglass's depiction of the lot of the slave compared to that of the slaveholder. But he completely missed the point Douglass was making. "The poor slave, on his hard pine plank, scantily covered with his thin blanket, slept more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclined upon his downy pillow," Douglass wrote. Lurking behind the façade of the latter's apparent life of ease lay "invisible spirits of evil, which filled the self-deluded gormandizer with aches and pains, passions uncontrollable, fierce tempers, dyspepsia, lumbago, and gout."
Douglass saw that, despite the grotesque disparity in outward trappings, it was possible for the slave to be at peace. But not the slaveholder. It is not a sin to come under oppression, but it is a sin to oppress. A man is indeed worked on by what he works on, as Douglass said. In doing violence to the humanity of the slave, the slaveholder gradually destroyed, not the slave, but himself. Certainly it's undesirable to be oppressed. But it's even worse to be an oppressor.
Clarity About the Remedy
Coates may be right, though, that the concept of racism as something sinful which should be renounced was made in America. But this is evidence of American virtue, not American guilt. The idea that all men are created equal, and that it is therefore wrong to "own" another or even to look upon him as inferior, arose from the clear reading of America's founding documents. That it took several generations for America to become in practice what she had formally declared in parchment is evidence of sin, yes. It is evidence that men who profess the noblest of intentions still harbor the capacity for great evil. And this is especially true of men who fancy themselves sinless.
Which brings us to the subject of a national discussion on reparations. Coates is correct that federal policies have enabled the strong to take advantage of the weak. Given what we know from human history, we should expect nothing else from any seizure of power. So it's borderline delusional that, after charging white America with guilt in her exercise of law and policy, he recommends we take up the conversation of "appropriate remedies" in the very same seat of power, the place of law and policy. All the moral imagining in the world won't change the inevitable outcome: more abuse.
There are no national remedies for the sin of slavery. In fact, there is no true remedy for any sin, save for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. The man who desires spiritual renewal, and a final laying to rest of the sin in his own heart, will look to the gospel of the cross. Therein lies the only salvation offer running. •
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