Reading Recommendation: “The Case for Reparations”

Courtesy of commentor Joseph Nobles, I’ve started reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest long-form Atlantic piece. There’s a lot to digest (and there are interactive features I’ve yet to explore) but I do sincerely hope that, over the next days and weeks, proper attention will be paid:

The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of Whites Only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows—and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere. The income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, studied children born from 1955 through 1970 and found that 4 percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed. And whereas whites born into affluent neighborhoods tended to remain in affluent neighborhoods, blacks tended to fall out of them.

This is not surprising. Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do. Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous…

With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage. An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating….

… In the 20th century, the cause of reparations was taken up by a diverse cast that included the Confederate veteran Walter R. Vaughan, who believed that reparations would be a stimulus for the South; the black activist Callie House; black-nationalist leaders like “Queen Mother” Audley Moore; and the civil-rights activist James Forman. The movement coalesced in 1987 under an umbrella organization called the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). The NAACP endorsed reparations in 1993. Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School, has pursued reparations claims in court.

But while the people advocating reparations have changed over time, the response from the country has remained virtually the same. “They have been taught to labor,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1891. “They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.”

Not exactly. Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. 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….

That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans— made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?…

40 replies
  1. 1
    guachi says:

    Bigfooting Mr. Cole, I see?

    Indeed Mr. Coates’ article is so great, it’s worth multiple front page posts. Go read it, BJ commentariat, and then come back. We’ll wait.

  2. 2
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    “They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.”

    This is the sort of language you associate with the ingrained white supremacy of the early 20th century. The sort of thing that Gandhi mocked when he was asked what he thought about “Western Civilization” and replied that “I think it would be a good idea”.

  3. 3
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    Yeah, I can cope with links to this being posted five times a day for a week.

    White Americans have, by government decree across generations, been eased into property ownership, upon which they can build economic security; they have been eased into higher education, upon which they can build economic security; they have suckled at the tit of every Farm Bill.

    And people started flipping their fucking lids and shouting “SALLIE MAE!” because maybe some black folks wanted to buy a fucking house after being locked out of Levittown and redlined out of every damn city and told that they’d be sharecroppers one way or another their entire lives? Fuck that shit.

  4. 4

    I’ve been waiting several years to write this:


    Life is good right now.

  5. 5
    Anne Laurie says:

    @John (MCCARTHY) Cole: Yes, I do. And I figured Coates’ piece was worth a second recommendation, once I’d waited the Cole-approved “after 40 minutes it’s not bigfooting” window, thankyouverymuch.

  6. 6
    SatanicPanic says:

    We should come back to this tomorrow once everyone’s had some time to read it and think about it. I’ve got some great reading recommendations from reading Coates in recent months. I highly recommend The Warmth of Other Suns– that might even make for a good BJ Book Club

  7. 7
    trollhattan says:

    C’mon, can we get a triple out here? Sooner? Who’s awake?

  8. 8
    Petorado says:

    Wow. Coates’ piece may be “long” for the web but in its relative brevity it gives a good sense of the totality of racism’s impact on the American black community. Racism is this nation’s fatal flaw, its original sin, yet it’s stunning to realize how tightly much of the nation still clings to it as if it’s an intrinsic part of this nation’s soul.

  9. 9

    “This country was formed for the white, not for the black man,” John Wilkes Booth wrote, before killing Abraham Lincoln. “And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”

    That originalism reminds me of some supreme ct justices

  10. 10
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Anne Laurie: There is, I believe, a difference between bigfooting and posting on exactly the same topic within the next few minutes.

  11. 11

    @Anne Laurie: Feh. You’re no fun. That was my moment of glory and you stole it FROM ME!

  12. 12
    🌷 Martin says:

    I think this is going to take more than 24 hours to properly ingest.

  13. 13
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: You white men always gotta stick up for each other… (/snark)

    Seriously, though, I spent a bunch of time reading & finding what seemed like a good excerpt. Went to post, saw Cole had already done that, but just a link & no description. Figured, what the heck, if we are fortunate Coates’ article will be all over the web tomorrow, it really behooves the BJ community to get a jump on the topic!

  14. 14
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Anne Laurie: I disagree with Cole every time he is wrong.

    As far as the other goes, I was being technical about the meaning of bigfooting, not criticizing the promotion of the Coates article which is worth every bit of promotion it gets.

  15. 15

    Personally, I was just happy to write that after posting, ohh, 87 things at 2 pm that AL had posted at six am.

  16. 16
    DextersNewApproach says:

    I wonder if he will address the book that has the usual crowd feeling better about their racism, The Troublesome Inheritance. For those that are not familiar, author Nickolas Wade asserts that that white and East-Asians evolved towards non-tribal traits that result in lower violence, higher work ethic, lower urge response that explain their better outcomes in the modern world.

    Wade does qualify that his conclusions are not based on even-current gene science, but common-sense understanding of economic history with the scientific understanding that there are identifiable genome differences in peoples from different regions that result from natural selection. Hence, whites and East Asians are just more evolved for modern economy and culture.

    I’m not sure how this squares with history even. North Africa, the Middle East, Non-East Asia, Southern Europe and Spain/Portugal all had high points in culture and economy in the modern era. The Germanic Tribes got the Roman Empire, and couldn’t make shit out of the advancements they conquered, and now they’re the most “advanced” scientific culture.

    And of course there’s the propensity to violence thing that ignores the many wars, and why the most “advanced-at-the-time” Western Europeans and East Asians killed ~100 million people in a 30 year period in the very near period (for reasons that the author believes are true.) No propensity for violence there.

    Which brings me to my last point. If the racist are right, that some group can be pegged as inferior inherently, what’s the policy? I know it will make them feel better, but what then? Please proceed non-racist sober rational racist.

  17. 17
    PJ says:

    @DextersNewApproach: I haven’t read Wade’s book, but from the reviews I have read, as put it, this is just another straw in the “scientific racism” pile. There is no evidence that there is any “social gene” (or genes) that has lifted the Europeans or Asians above the other peoples of the world in any meaningful way. If Wade were to have made his same argument in 1000 AD, he would be arguing that caucasians were genetically inferior because they couldn’t get their shit together while Arabs and Persians, with their science and orderly empires, clearly were more advanced genetically. (And if he made his historical slice at 2000 BC, he would have to argue that Africans were clearly genetically superior.)

    People like Wade have this need to justify their racist beliefs with “science” (which is no science at all because it has no evidence behind it) because they can’t admit to themselves that their craving to recognize white people as better than others is just a reflection of their fragile egos. Without people whom they are justified in looking down upon, they feel worthless.

  18. 18
    Mumbles says:

    I get the strong sense that Coates is bringing his best possible game to this argument. Hell, I’ve followed him for years, fully agree with him, and even I can’t really digest it all at once. It’s as if the man picked up a second sword, and started swinging both of them expertly.

    Yes, we’ll see right-wingers whining “But I wasn’t around for slavery, my grandparents moved to the US during WW2”, and then continue on, not realizing that they already lost the fight. An they’ll blather on as if thievery idea of black people receiving the same aid they did, is a personal attack against them. SO what?

  19. 19
    tybee says:


    white man’s burden.

  20. 20
    serge says:

    Brilliant article.

  21. 21
    Jim Treacher says:

    After you, honkies.

  22. 22
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:


    Nickolas Wade asserts that that white and East-Asians evolved towards non-tribal traits that result in lower violence, higher work ethic, lower urge response that explain their better outcomes in the modern world.

    Very gracious of him to include the Chines this time around but Wade care to address the blazingly obvious fact that Europe was a backwards third world hellhole filled with murderous religious crazys up until 16th Century? Pretty remarkable how us whites suddenly got to have those superior genes in 400 short years when contrasted to the Chine’s 6,000 years of being one of the most civilized and advanced countries on Earth.

    “Which brings me to my last point. If the racist are right,…”

    They facts say they aren’t. Unless you believe in magic. Europe isn’t genetically isolated, archeologists have found plenty of Africans in Medieval European cemetery and 400 years is just to short.

  23. 23
    Matt McIrvin says:

    Coates has been working up to this for several years.

    His second long response to Jonathan Chait about the “internal social pathology” analysis of African-American troubles was in many ways a preview of it. It felt as if he were finally synthesizing multiple lines of research and argument that he’d been pursuing for a long time. I suspect it was really in preparation for this piece, though that article even covered an angle that isn’t mentioned here: the key role of black soldiers in winning the Civil War.

    I winced when I heard this article was going to appear, because even without reading it I knew (1) that his argument would probably be morally right and exhaustively researched, (2) that it was going to make a lot of white people squeal like stuck pigs, and (3) pretty much exactly what they were going to say, since I’ve heard it all about a million times already.

    So far the response has actually been less negative than I expected, which might be a sign of a real change in American culture. Maybe because, upon reading it, I suspect that this is the kind of essay that people might be talking about a hundred years from now.

  24. 24
    skerry says:

    I was a bit surprised that he didn’t include the Japanese-American internment during WWII, the redress movement and reparations. Seems a bit closer to home than discussion of the Germans and Israelis (not that that didn’t fit).

  25. 25
    PaulW says:

    Do I hafta advert for The Horde (aka Lost Battalion) in EVERY post about TNC’s writings on this place?!

    Just keep an eye out on The Atlantic for Mr. Coates to post an Open Thread – after a major article that he locks the comments down (’cause it will clearly summon the hater-trolls), he tries to follow-up with an Open Thread At Noon (OTAN) – and you can all visit and say hi to the Horde – the Ready-For-Prime-Time Commentators like Emily Hauser, Yoni Appelbaum, and hundreds more – and sign up for membership.

  26. 26
    Betty Cracker says:

    Hey, look everybody! It’s Speed Bump!

  27. 27
    Rob in CT says:

    The case for reparations was strongest in 1866, IMO. By the time we got around to “doing something,” 100 years later, it was indirect and limited. Affirmative Action, for example (which Right wingers often refer to as a form of reparations). And it was up against countervailing forces (the disparate impact of the Drug War).

    I don’t disagree with the fundamental argument. This country spent centuries setting up a dedicated peon class. It’s been about 50 years since a majority of us (and not that huge a majority at that) have felt that was a bad idea. The “hey, why isn’t it all evened out… must be somethin’ wrong with ’em” bullshit is ridiculous.

    In the end, we need to decide if we really are all in this together. If we are (and I think we are), then it follows that having 1/8 of our population stuck in this sorry state of affairs is not only wrong, but a huge waste. The problem is, and has always been, that a serious effort at repairing the damage would require a lot of money be taken from non-black folks and spent on/given to black folks. Redistribution of wealth on a massive scale, with race as the determining factor. Many people will recoil at that, even if they agree on the past. There is also the worry about precedent. If this were done, what about Native Americans? Their case is just as strong, no?

    So we continue to tinker around with less focused (and very limited) redistribution.

  28. 28
    Betty Cracker says:

    @Rob in CT: You’ve outlined the problem and obstacles to repairing it admirably well. Like I said in the other thread, I put the chances of reparations happening at somewhere between “never” and “no fucking way.”

    However, what might be possible is to more widely disseminate the facts that TNC outlines in his piece. That context is really important for understanding the situation.

    Greater knowledge of the context won’t stop assholes like Speed Bump from spewing ignorant shit, but it’s information that many people of good will simply do not know.

  29. 29
    Fred Beloit says:


    Syllogisms: for your consideration:
    -Slave owners must pay all former slaves reparations.
    -Slave owners and slaves are all dead.
    -ERGO Dead slave owners must pay dead slaves reparations.

    -Descendants of slave owners must pay reparations to dead slaves
    -Dead slaves cannot accept reparations
    -ERGO: Descendants of slave owners cannot pay slaves reparations.

    -Descendents of slave owners must pay reparations to non-slaves
    -Their is no reason for descendants of slave owners to pay reparations to non-slaves.
    -ERGO: Descendants of slave owners owe no reparations to non-slaves.

    -Today’s white American population is a mixture of descendants of slave owners, descendants of non-slave-owners, and descendants of those who were not in America during slavery times.
    -Some white Americans are married to and fathers of descendants of slaves.
    -ERGO: ??????

    The syllogism was invented by the Western world many centuries ago. It is a way of expressing simple truths in order to come to logical conclusions.

  30. 30
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Many people will recoil at that, even if they agree on the past. There is also the worry about precedent. If this were done, what about Native Americans? Their case is just as strong, no?

    Hell yes, even stronger maybe since on the whole they’re in even worse shape today.

    But Native Americans (of documented North American ancestry, at least) are much less numerous in the US today than African-Americans, and a lot of the work of identifying them is already done for reasons having to do with tribal sovereignty, so that might actually be easier to manage.

    The biggest problem as I see it is just that poor and struggling whites are going to feel super-ultra-shafted and will probably be easy to mobilize against any reparations scheme. And they need relief too! But Coates does, I think, a good job of emphasizing that that is a separate issue. Poor Americans of every color need help, but the US owes African-Americans in a very specific sense that does not apply to poor whites.

    (Incidentally, any kind of big direct cash transfers to downtrodden groups would probably work wonders as economic stimulus. But that’s not why you do it.)

  31. 31
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Affirmative Action, for example (which Right wingers often refer to as a form of reparations).

    That was actually one of the most interesting and novel pieces of TNC’s essay for me, the bit in which he pointed out that judges have generally shied away from “reparations” justification for affirmative action, asserting a positive benefit of diversity instead, so that any sense in which it is a variety of reparations gets diluted in the execution.

  32. 32
    Fred Beloit says:

    @Matt McIrvin:

    “… the US owes African-Americans in a very specific sense that does not apply to poor whites.”

    Really. By the U.S. I assume you mean the white part of the U.S. But the white North U.S. of the 1860s paid every cent of the cost in money and blood for a war that resulted in an end to slavery. All Americans have been paying for the war on poverty that is color-blind by intention but vastly helps African-Americans by percent of the population. I’ve heard estimates of a trillion dollars since the mid-sixties.

    The Aminds have also received many ‘reparations’ from Euroammis and African Americans: eyeglasses, dentistry, medicine, literacy, metals, peanut butter.

    The Chinese came to the American West and ended up in grueling,
    low-paid work on the railroads. The Japanese, who refused to move from the Pacific states to the interior of the U.S. in WWll, overcame, as did the Chinese by hard work and family values. Something besides the usual librul blather that has not done much to help African Americans except to make them wards and dependents of the government.

  33. 33
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Fred Beloit:

    Really. By the U.S. I assume you mean the white part of the U.S.

    No, actually, I chose that phrasing quite deliberately; I mean the whole US, not just the white part. The labor of enslaved and quasi-enslaved black people created things and institutions that everyone in the country benefited from. The Capitol and White House are just the most visible symbols.

    Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans and the Germans and Norwegians and Northern Irish I’m descended from, they all came to the US or to colonial North America and were at some point treated horribly and had to deal with bigotry.

    But the treatment of African-Americans was special (and, yes, the treatment of Native Americans was special in a wholly different way, but this is another story). TNC just spent that whole long essay explaining how in immense detail, and his long responses to Chait gave even more explanation.

  34. 34
    Richard Armstrong says:

    @Rob in CT, Thank you for pointing out the obvious.

    Native Americans have much greater grievances than do any other minority. The simple fact that they once were the only people on this continent and now are one of the smallest population groups is proof in itself.

    Since the TNC writes about a minority that significantly outnumbers Native Americans I’d have to say the former as a group received much better treatment than the latter.

    The policy of the majority population was to enslave one group while the policy towards the other group was eradication.

    Someone get back to me and explain how eradication, or ethnic cleansing somehow ranks lower than slavery?

  35. 35
    Fred Beloit says:

    @Matt McIrvin:

    A lot of his work is individual stories. So much so that he doesn’t mention the big picture, there orangeman. He doesn’t spend much time on the success stories of hard working Ta Nehisi Coates, Justice Thomas, Condi Rice, Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Dr, Ben Carson, and all the other highly successful African Americans all around us. Do we have to pay them ‘reparations’ too? And, if not, how will those to be paid off be separated from those who won’t be?

    This reparation[sic] concept, that comes up every few years, to be paid by the not guilty to the un-enslaved, isn’t just a bad idea; it is an insane idea.

  36. 36
    Caravelle says:

    @Rob in CT:
    -Where would the money come from ?
    -> There’s this thing called “the government” that has various ways of obtaining money. Heck if i’m reading Krugman right it could just borrow it, call the reparations “stimulus”, repay the loan from the resulting increased growth and congratulate itself on a free lunch well obtained.

    -What about the Native Americans, shouldn’t they get reparations too ?
    -> Yes.

    That was easy.

  37. 37
    Caravelle says:

    @Matt McIrvin: I love how Rob in CT is worried about precedent. Because Heaven Forfend the US does anything to address the fact it was founded on expropriation and genocide and the survivors continue to suffer from the consequences (and, I’m pretty sure, ongoing policies) to this day.

  38. 38
    Mnemosyne says:


    Dare I mention that our tax rates are historically low, so we probably can afford to spend on a few more things?

    (I’m still convinced that half of the my taxes are too high! complaint is because of the well-known wage stagnation we’ve been experiencing since the late 1970s. People see that their paycheck is not increasing and blame taxes instead of their wage.)

  39. 39
    300baud says:

    @Fred Beloit:

    Syllogisms: for your consideration

    As far as I can tell, you didn’t even read the article.

    Arguing with the voices in your own head is a bad sign, Fred.

  40. 40
    Pococurante says:

    The best way to address all these inequalities for all the different affected peoples? Everyone in America pull out a five dollar bill and hand it to the person on their right.

    Problem solved.

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