I'm thinking about it with the Supreme Court set to dismantle Affirmative Action. Isn't the "diversity" argument actually kind of weak? Isn't the recompensation argument actually much more compelling? Except this was outlawed with Bakke. What I am thinking is right now, at this moment, American institutions (especially its schools) are being asked to answer for the fact that country lacked the courage to do the right thing. In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision coming down, in the wake of (what looks like) a second Obama term, we could make a really strong case that now is the time to renew a serious discussion about reparations.This really gets to the issue of “how we talk about race” (and gender, and ethnicity and sexual orientation). Because the African American experience is so stark, so clear and compelling, Coates is right that in an honest world, we SHOULD be able to talk about race and racism with regard to African Americans. I mean—SLAVERY! JIM CROW! Do we really need to spell it out? And yet, we do. Consider the case where diversity became the legal lynchpin to the Supreme Court’s support (for now) of affirmative action programs, University of California v. Bakke. In Bakke, the plurality opinion of Justice Powell featured a desire for diversity as the constitutionally acceptable purpose of affirmative action programs. But it was Justice Blackmun in concurrence that got to the real issue:
I yield to no one in my earnest hope that the time will come when an "affirmative action" program is unnecessary and is, in truth, only a relic of the past. I would hope that we could reach this stage within a decade, at the most. But the story of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), decided almost a quarter of a century ago, suggests that that hope is a slim one. At some time, however, beyond any period of what some would claim is only transitional inequality, the United States must and will reach a stage of maturity where action along this line is no longer necessary. Then persons will be regarded as persons, and discrimination of the type we address today will be an ugly feature of history that is instructive, but that is behind us.I have more to say on the flip.
[…]It is gratifying to know that the Court at least finds it constitutional for an academic institution to take race and ethnic background into consideration as one factor, among many, in the administration of its admissions program. I presume that that factor always has been there, though perhaps not conceded or even admitted. It is a fact of life, however, and a part of the real world of which we are all a part. The sooner we get down the road toward accepting and being a part of the real world, and not shutting it out and away from us, the sooner will these difficulties vanish from the scene.
I suspect that it would be impossible to arrange an affirmative action program in a racially neutral way and have it successful. To ask that this be so is to demand the impossible. In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently. We cannot -- we dare not -- let the Equal Protection Clause perpetuate racial supremacy. [Emphasis supplied].
"In order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently. " This is the essence of the concept of reparation. To repair, to restitute for the denial of equality, those who were and ARE advantaged can not be treated the same as those were and are wronged. This is especially true on a societal level.
To repair and provide some measure of reparation requires discussion, understanding and action to address the uncomfortable truth, non-minorities are advantaged because of our past and present.
In order to get beyond racism, to start discussing and implementing real remedies for racism, we must first take account of race. This is, I submit, the essence of Coates’ argument for reparations. And, to “repair” our race problem, we must first speak honestly about racism in America. Coates’ compelling piece is a great start.
As Coates puts it in his companion blog post "The Case for Reparations: An Intellectual Autopsy:
The relentless focus on explanations which are hard to quantify, while ignoring those which are not, the subsequent need to believe that America triumphs in the end, led me to believe that we were hiding something, that there was something about ourselves which were loath to say out in public. Perhaps the answer was somewhere else, out there on the ostensibly radical fringes, something dismissed by people who should know better. People like me. -Emphasis supplied]I was so struck by that passage. It brought to mind The Bell Curve nonsense championed by Coates' friend Andrew Sullivan - an attempt, in my opinion for nefarious reasons, to explain inequality as a result of nature (a scientific result) in order to avoid this explanation for inequality - racism and other bigotries. It helped me understand my rage at those attempts back in the day. (See my rants on The Bell Curve or Lawrence Summers and his 'women have less aptitudes in the sciences' crap.)
In any event, Coates’ article has certainly brought the issue of how we talk about race and racism to the forefront. And that is, in my estimation, a necessary first step toward actually formulating policies to address and eliminate racism from our country.
Some of you may be thinking, that’s interesting about how we talk about race, but what about the issue of reparations? I admit to a bit of a cheat here. But I think the spirit of what I am arguing is quite relevant to the issue of reparations. For I view the issue in a collective sense—that is policies intended to address and remedy that which our history has created with regard to race and racism. Yes, affirmative action is an example, so too would be a policy that recognizes that our past and present demand policies that recognize the harm racism of our past and present create today. It is a call for race conscious remedies that fully understand how the racism of our past and present require action today. Race conscious action.
In an earlier essay, I quoted Justice Sotomayor explaining why race matters:
Race matters. Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process. [...] Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society—inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities. [...]How we are permitted to talk about race and racism matter in a very real non-wanking sense is critical because how we are permitted politically to discuss race and racism creates strong openings and limitations on what we can do about racism. Not just in the sense that the Roberts 5 will blather about “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” But in the sense of what our politicians will consider, propose and adopt in terms of policies that really attempt to address and remedy racism.
And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from?”, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”
In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter.
Coates’ article, on the heels of his dialogue with Jon Chait and Justice Sotomayor’s response to Chief Justice Roberts’ fatuous nonsense is a critical contribution to changing the conversation and, maybe, just maybe, changing the way we attempt to remedy racism.