Sunday, August 30, 2015

"The Case for Reparations"

In the category of confronting one's own predispositions, for me a life-long endeavor, consider reading Ta-Hahisi Coates' essay "The Case for Reparations" if you have not already done in the year since it was published. With a few qualifications -- I think Coates unnecessarily weakened its otherwise considerable power with a pointless digression on climate change toward the end -- I found it persuasive.

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?

8 comments:

"The Hammer" said...

If we are to pay reparations to African Americans, why not to Irish or Jewish Americans? Were they not discriminated against? Plus, if reparations are to redress past wrongs then should we then not "repatriate" African Americans to their ancestral homeland as well? What could be more just? And to show this is not a racist policy, we could agree to take a West African immigrant for every returning AMERICAN West African cast into slavery on American soil. A one for one trade.
They get reparations, renounce their citizenship and go forth with a new life in the Ivory Coast. Everything is back as it was. Again, what could be more just?

TigerHawk said...

Again, one suspects from your questions that you did not read the essay.

"The Hammer" said...

I read it. It's rubbish from beginning to end. If blacks were the only group to get screwed over you might, I say MIGHT have a point. The fact is most of the people of West Africa WISH their family had been sold into slavery in America.
This idea is so absurd, so ridiculous and so divisive at this point in time, after eight years of Obama, it could very well start a race war. A war blacks would lose badly and possibly destroy them.
I knew a guy once who worked with kids from "troubled" homes. He said many of these kids angry and depressed FOR GOOD REASON but it was his job to not let them fall into the hole of victimization, a hole just about none could climb out of. He had them focus on what could be, not what was.
TigerHawk it seems guys like you have been looking for ways to assuage black anger for decades, at a cost of trillions! You have shit all over the equal protection clause of the Constitution, spent trillions on transfer payments, may special provisions here and set asides there, and nothing works. Put this shit to bed! Stop making excuses for black America. Let them be and they will show you what they can do...WHICH IS A LOT! With every liberal idea on how to "fix" black America, they fall further and further behind.

Michael Patton said...

Jack - I'm curious to know the priors required to take TNC's paper seriously, and whether you see any downside at all?

TigerHawk said...

Michael, I am no expert, but I know enough to be dangerous (which, I suppose, is the implication of your question). In any case, I see the huge potential for "downside" in paying reparations. The question is whether there is a good justification for entering in to the inquiry as to scope and feasibility. I think the case has been made, and is well-summarized by Coates (and, yes, I have read at least some of the criticism of Coates, and offered a bit of my own above).

Regardless, the public debates of the last couple of years have gotten me to pay more attention to the history of our treatment of blacks, even in relatively recent times. I think that too few Americans have confronted it sufficiently to revise their expectations for ameliorating African-American poverty and social pathology, and *that* would probably be the main "upside" to the effort.

Hammer, when you say that Coates' argument is "rubbish from beginning to end," do you mean that he is wrong (or lying) about the history, or that the elevation of that history to common understanding among whites would cause a "race war"? Or are you saying that there is no point in us understanding that history if we are not then going to pay reparations, and it is the paying of them that would trigger the "race war"?

(I do agree 100% with your last sentence, which is why I believe that even the Democrats do not want this inquiry. They know that a great deal of the blame, even for relatively recent damage, is because of their failed policies. Like most questions of justice, the point of the reparations commission would not be to "fix" anything.)

"The Hammer" said...

If there are reparations to be paid, let it be paid by those who benefited by slavery. That would not be me but I'm sure would include some of the "better" families in New York and Boston. My family didn't own slaves, but we fought a war instigated by many who did including Northerners. Where are my reparations for the suffering of my ancestors? Where are the reparations for the killed, the raped, the murdered, the farms burned, the crops destroyed and the livestock stolen?
Gentlemen your white guilt is showing. You guys are way off in the weeds. This is an unworkable intellectual exercise by some egghead who wouldn't spend five minutes in the company of a working class African American, has no clue what motivates him or her but thinks throwing money at them will solve a problem that 10 trillion dollars in transfer payments couldn't.
Maybe you guys should stick to polo and yachting, you know, something you're good at.

TigerHawk said...

Neither Coates nor I fit your description, although I am much closer to it than him. No polo nor yachting for me, but one branch of my Southern family owned slaves, and another, different branch, fought for the Confederacy, having just gotten off the boat from Germany. However, as you now know from reading Coates' essay, the argument is not based entirely on the legacy of slavery, but includes the de jure discrimination set up by both state and federal governments to discriminate against blacks for 100 years after emancipation. 350 years in the aggregate is a long time to live under really pretty brutal treatment, and to expect recovery in only a generation or two is not reasonable. Do I think reparations can be paid? No. Do I think that they would "fix" the condition of African-Americans and the disparity between them and whites? Only to a limited degree, obviously depending in part on the amount and manner of those reparations (which are highly unlikely to be paid in any case). Do I believe that a complete reckoning of the history, and its economic toll on the descendants of American slaves is important for us to do to realize the society we say we are and want to be? Yes. Anything less is frankly cowardly.

"The Hammer" said...

Well if your family owned slaves I'll await my check. $50k should cover it.

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