Among the many things that might be said, and have been said, about Coates' essay, there are several worth mentioning.
Coates distinguishes between establishing the fact of the debt for which reparations would be owed and the means by which reparations might be paid, and offers no detailed or even useful solution to that end. One might say that the means of the reparations and the case for reparations are intertwined with no hope of separation. If reparations were cheap and easy, surely we would have done at this point. It is the probability that they would be vast, after a true accounting of the value stolen from American slaves and their descendants, that makes this such a difficult discussion. Of course, if the unspoken fear of the scope of reparations keeps us from a full reckoning of the underlying injustice, then we stand at the brink of admitting its enormous scale. But only at the brink.
Coates' solution is to support HR 40, a bill that John Conyers introduces every year. According to Coates, HR 40 would establish a commission to study the feasibility of paying reparations, including their size and the device for making payment. It is easy to dismiss Coates for signing up for what seems like a dodgy way around the feasibility question. It is also easy to charge that a reparations commission would become just another means for stirring up Democratic constituencies. I disagree. I think Conyers bill has not gone anywhere, even in Democratic Congresses, because it would fracture the Democratic coalition, of which more later.
The greatest value in Coates essay, and the reason intellectually honest Americans of good will ought to read it, is that it teaches that African-American poverty and social pathology have extremely deep and aged roots, were exacerbated by government policies from the left and right for 100 years after emancipation, and that expectations for their rapid amelioration are woefully misguided. A further exploration of this history and its consequences for African-American social and economic parity would be, I think, the greatest value in a reparations commission, at least if it demanded rigorous standards in the history it produced.
If Coates' essay has a glaring flaw, it is that he argues for African-American exceptionalism -- that oppression of African-Americans was and is unique in scope, duration, and consequences -- without exploring the consequences for other groups that make claims against the privileged. If African-Americans have a unique claim to a remedy that we have mostly ignored, then what ought our response be to claims from blacks not descended from American slaves, Latinos, LGBTs, women, and other constituencies important to Democrats? One suspects that even Democratic Congressional leaders have bottled up Conyers' bill precisely because there is no politically useful answer to that question. If we were to decide that African-American descendants of slaves (and perhaps Native Americans) deserved reparations and nobody else did, the required distinction between the proposed recipients and other groups would blow away the justification for a huge number of big government programs and other legal preferences for ethnic constituencies. And, worse for the academics, it would establish a "hierarchy of oppression," which is anathema to the ideologues in the field.
For my part, I have long regarded reparations as the only sound basis for demographic preferences in hiring, contracting, or university admissions because, well, all the other rationales make no sense at all. That view is extremely unpopular, though, because it requires liberals to admit there is no real basis for preferences for constituencies other than African-American descendants of slaves and Native Americans, and it requires conservatives to acknowledge that African-American poverty and social pathology depend heavily from slavery and Jim Crow, those ugly stains on the American virtue that conservatives hold so dear.
Regardless, it cannot hurt you to read "The Case for Reparations." Or can it?