By now, many of you have read "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic. If you haven't read it yet, please do so before joining the discussion in comments.
We thought it would be very important to have a discussion of not only the piece itself, but of what the views are on the issue from the Daily Kos community.
There have already been several thoughtful diaries posted here:
The Case for Reparations (randyhauser)
'When Affirmative Action Was White': Uncivil Rights (Eric Nelson)
Reparations and talking about race (Armando)
We have also had discussions about the piece in Black Kos.
The piece has attracted an extraordinary amount of news coverage— with predictable negative responses from the right-wing.
A very thoughtful response was just posted in The New Yorker:
We are discussing reparations at this moment because in two years Barack Obama will leave the White House, having repaired the economic collapse that greeted his inauguration, but with African-Americans still unemployed at a rate twice that of whites, and struggling to see how this world differs from the status quo ante. Those who saw Obama’s election as redemption for slavery were off by fourteen decades: his election was supposed to expiate sins much closer to the surface, and therefore far more difficult, and far too expensive, to confront.We decided to wait and give more members of this community a chance to read it, read it again and reflect on a response before hosting this forum.
The point of Coates’s essay—and, ultimately, the point of this conversation, despite the political impossibility of enacting reparations—is a broader understanding of black poverty as the product of public policy and private theft facilitated by racism. The belief that blacks have been given too much is made possible by the refusal to countenance how much was actually taken away in the first place.
Black Kos Editors have opinions, which you can read in our individual statements below.
We've also invited guests to join us today.
We look forward to hearing from you all.
Should reparations be paid to African-Americans? Yes!
Is it politically possible to do so today? No!
So how do we square that circle? How do we make this more than just academic philosophical exercise? The modern equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of pin? The best way to achieve seemingly impossible political goals is to consider how to move the Overton Window on this issue.
The Overton window, for those who don't know, is a political theory that describes as a narrow "window" the range of ideas the public will accept. On this theory, an idea's political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that window rather than on politicians' individual preferences. It is named for its originator, Joseph P. Overton a former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. At any given moment, the “window” includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.
Overton described a spectrum, as the spectrum moves or expands, an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable. Under this theory degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly:
UnthinkableI think most would agree the majority "popular opinion" in the US at this time views reparations as lying somewhere between "Unthinkable" and "Radical". So the challenge is how to move the idea of reparations from current location into the realm of "Acceptable" and "Sensible". I think this requires a two prong effort, one part legal and the other part political.
On the legal front there is a large volume of precedent that could easily be utilized establish a "legal reparations movement". The successful lawsuit from black farmers against the US Agricultural Administration for generations of discrimination comes to mind, as well as lawsuits in various locals against racial profiling. African-Americans who grew up in pre-1970's America could organize and file lawsuits with just cause. Lawsuits aimed at states agencies who were culpable in Jim Crow discrimination could be highly effective. Coordinated class action lawsuits could be quite effective.
The "legal reparations movement" has some advantages in that it would be largely immune to public sentiment against reparations. But this is a strength as well as a weakness, in that movement conservatives have a well developed political narrative aimed at "unelected officials" (read: judges) "creating laws" and engaging in "social engineering". By itself, if used exclusively the "legal reparations movement" runs the danger of generating a political backlash, that could actually pass laws banning future lawsuits (maybe modeled after legislation protecting gun owners). That is why a second political movement would need to operate in concert with it.
A political movement centered around "piece meal" reparation grievances at the state and local level could be effective. I would envision this movement centered around "broad appeal" ballet initiatives. For example a ballot initiative that would use state resources to expand the endowment of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) without explicitly doing so could be effective ways of introducing the idea to general public. (Imagine wording that increases funding to Universities that wee funded before 1940 that received less funding than their peers, this would apply almost exclusively to HBCUs without ever mention the words "black" or "reparations"). The aim of this would be to win initiatives even if they aren't 100% directed solely at African-Americans. The political capital from winning even "soft" reparation victories, would start to swing the pendulum of the Overton Window from the "Unthinkable" and "Radical" regions into the "Acceptable" and "Sensible" ones. Redlined neighborhoods could be addressed in this manner, especially when cases such as Clyde Ross the still living victim of Jim Crow that Ta-Nehisi Coates used as his example to base his argument on.
By carefully managing a balance between the political and legal reparation movement, theoretically a shift in the Overton Window could be triggered. There is a viable path towards reparations, the question is "is there the will?"
The question for me isn't so much if reparations should be paid, but if there is a viable path to victory. I do not know if there is a current leader who would be able to guide the large unified, message disciplined movement that would be required to accomplish this. But without an understanding of the Overton Window, I don't think it can be accomplished.
I am in support of reparations.
I see no way however, that the current Congress (no matter how many times Congressman John Conyers submits legislation to discuss the topic) will deal with it. I do however support Conyers' Bill and think it is something we could push for.
Conyers on Reparations:
In January of 1989, I first introduced the bill H.R. 40, Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. I have re-introduced HR 40 every Congress since 1989, and will continue to do so until it's passed into law.It should be a no-brainer for progressives to support a bill to open the door to discussion and study.
One of the biggest challenges in discussing the issue of reparations in a political context is deciding how to have a national discussion without allowing the issue to polarize our party or our nation. The approach that I have advocated for over a decade has been for the federal government to undertake an official study of the impact of slavery on the social, political and economic life of our nation.
Over 4 million Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and its colonies from 1619 to 1865, and as a result, the United States was able to begin its grand place as the most prosperous country in the free world.
It is un-controverted that African slaves were not compensated for their labor. More unclear however, is what the effects and remnants of this relationship have had on African-Americans and our nation from the time of emancipation through today.
I chose the number of the bill, 40, as a symbol of the forty acres and a mule that the United States initially promised freed slaves. This unfulfilled promise and the serious devastation that slavery had on African-American lives has never been officially recognized by the United States Government.
My bill does four things:
It acknowledges the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery
It establishes a commission to study slavery, its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;
It studies the impact of those forces on today's living African Americans; and
The commission would then make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African Americans.
The US Government paid reparations to slave owners.
On April 16, 1862, the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act became law. Originally sponsored by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the act freed slaves in the District of Columbia and compensated owners up to $300 for each freeperson. In the months following the enactment of the law, commissioners approved more than 930 petitions, granting freedom to 2,989 former slaves.We all know about the GI Bill from WWII and Korea - which I've dubbed "white welfare".
19 billion dollars was spent on that effort. It founded what today is America's white middle class.
Due to the prevailing social climate that existed in the United States after World War II, one in which racism was a prominent factor, African Americans did not benefit from the provisions of the G. I. Bill nearly as much as their European American counterparts. Though the bill did provide a more level playing field than the one blacks faced during Reconstruction, this is not saying much. Representative John Elliott Rankin, who was also an avid segregationist and racist, sponsored the bill in the United States House of Representatives. Although the law did not specifically advocate discrimination, the social climate of the time dictated that the law would be interpreted differently for blacks than for whites.I propose that in the interim that a Reparations Foundation be established which would raise funds to be distributed to each African-American slave descendent and Native American/Native Alaskan Native Pacific Islander citizen, who applies—awarded tax free, for education at a state school or community college or job training program.
Not only did blacks face discrimination once they returned home after the war, the poverty confronting most blacks during the 1940s and 1950s represented another barrier to harnessing the benefits of the G.I. Bill as it made it problematic to seek an education while labor and income were needed at home. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), because of its strong affiliation to the all-white American Legion and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), also became a formidable foe to many blacks in search of an education because it had the power to deny or grant the claims of black G.I.s. Additionally, banks and mortgage agencies refused loans to blacks, making the G.I. Bill even less effective for blacks.
Take a look at the Foundation databases—there are thousands of them that award grants to specific ethnic or religious groups.
Future program ideas—I'd like to see a corporate tax imposed by the government to fund education and loan guarantees for housing. The business wealth of this country was based on slavery and land seizure from Native Americans. The 1% was built on our backs and blood.
Perhaps we could grant each eligible citizen a 50 year income tax waiver.
There are many avenues we could take, but without clarity and education about not simply the history of slavery and genocide but around the current day status of blacks and Native Americans which are a result of that past, we will not have the support to move forward.
If we can push our elected officials to do something—can we at least see public hearings held that make the matter a point of national conversation?
I have written before about my step father, Thomas Watanuki, a Nisei who fought for the United States with the 442nd, while his family was held in a concentration camp in Montana. His elderly father died there, while Thomas fought the Nazis from rocky Sicilian hillsides.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
They not only lost a father and husband, but they also lost the family farm along the coastal hills of Orange County, California, a farm house they had for over 20 years, all the equipment and all the crops.
In the 80's, a reparation of $20,000 was finally extended to Japanese Americans interred during World War II. Even though a pittance, the usual bigoted outcry from the usual bigots rattled water coolers and Sunday go to meeting ice cream socials from Topeka to Macon.
But it wasn't enough to stem the tide to make right a terrible wrong.
I asked Thomas about the meager monies extended. The farm was literally sold for pennies on the dollar in a government enforced sale to what became the Irvine Company. His dad perished. He fought bravely and was awarded medals few were awarded. I insisted the money wasn't enough.
"Of course the money wasn't enough," he told me, "but we exacted something more valuable, in the end. They apologized."
I might argue the handshake and apology was mere platitudes, but they also apologized in cold, hard, cash.
Isn't that the American Way?
I don't know how much in reparations MUST be extended to descendants of Slaves. But if $20,000 can be extended and administered to my Japanese American relatives and friends, relatives and friends who suffered inhumane indignities for roughly four years, then I think the calculus speaks for itself.
The opponents of reparations to Japanese Americans hoped to wait them out.
It was not allowed to happen.
Thomas and I spoke about what to do for Native Americans and the descendants of Slaves. He said that to prepare and lay the hardscape, the nuts and bolts foundation for Reparations for the descendants of Slaves is a difficult task, indeed. He thought maybe they built one concrete form of that foundation. But the blueprint is there. There's no reason not to build on it. The waiting is over.
The time is now.
Reparations and Talking About Race
In his important piece in The Atantic, The Case for Reparations, Ta Nehisi Coates provides conclusive evidence that the effects of systemic racism, rooted in the institution of slavery, has continued to significantly effect the lives of African Americans.
The really fascinating part of the essay to me is certain conclusions Coates arrives at regarding how we talk about race. Quoting from an earlier essay he wrote, Coates states:
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 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, 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.In order to get beyond 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 :
[…]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 [p407] 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].
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.Coates’ article has certainly brought the issue of how we talk about race and racism to the fore. And that is, in my estimation, a necessary first step towards actually formulating policies to address and eliminate racism from our country.
I have long thought that the idea of reparations for slavery, jim crow, and modern America (now) is basically absurd and insulting. Quite frankly, all the white people in the world don't have enough money to satisfy the debt they have to Black people everywhere. I thought it best to write it off as basically an academic exercise in futility backnin the late 80's when I first became aware of it.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Coates makes a very persuasive case to reconsider my views on the subject. He doesn't start with the calculator but with a moral case. It is a good one. However, it falls short in one critical aspect in my view: it demands nothing from what is in my view a failed generation of black leadership. My belief is that the generation of black leaders we have had since the assassination of King have been abysmal, in business, entertainment, politics, and religion. Even if you could get money for reparations, who would be in charge of doing anything with it. I hope its not our leaders because our leaders are terrible. Just recently there were articles about how terribly bought off and corrupt the Congressional Black Caucus is, a well known secret that gets little coverage.
So, my view is that black folks have housekeeping to do before there can be any serious talk about reparations. A critical case for new black leadership is the Coates essay I'd love to read.
My "opinion on "Reparations" evolves, in my mind, and in my heart, every~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
time I think about them. Ta-nehisi Coates' "Case for Reparations" merely
became the latest catalyst for that ongoing process.
I have not historically not worried much about reparations. This has been,
more a proactively defensive "not worried" than anything else. I knew the
numbers, which depending on who you talk to are between $3 and $20 billion
dollars. I knew it would make a sea-change, that amount of wealth
redistribution, in the slave-descended Black diaspora here in the US.
But my mama didn't raise no fools. She knew, and taught me (as her mama
taught her, and I suspect her mama too) from decades of observation that you
can always what American whites collectively value most by what they choose
to collectively spend their money on. And you can always tell what they
don't value watching how much they collectively recoil at the idea of
spending any money on it.
If there is one thing that makes white Americans collectively recoil, it's
the idea of reparations to the descendents of its former slaves.
So, since I'm not given to flights of fantasy except in video gaming, I
usually just say "I'd be happy with a national apology, and a Truth and
Reconciliation process. Like South Africa. Like Australia." I have seen,
and heard of, the difference it is making. Slowly, but surely. And that
makes me happy. It brings me joy.
That is true, when my ever-evolving evolution on the question of reparations
pauses upon itself, sometimes.
But then I read Ta-nehisi Coates tying together, with a neat, brutal, bow,
all the links of economic exploitation right up until the present. An
exploitation and abuse in the mortgage markets that I opined in 2007 (in a
piece about Black neighborhood destruction because of the mortgage crisis)
would destroy our collective historic neighborhoods. Our homes. But then I
think of the clients who I fought for, to save their modest ghetto homes
that they'd scrimped and scraved to buy, against the predatory lenders and
brokers who descended upon our Black communities long before the Great
Recession, with their exotic mortgage products and the brokers who would
have clients sign blank mortgage application paperwork, and forge their
documents to make it look like they had more money than they did just so
that they place them in a loan that would one day strangle the client, and I
get angry. Especially when I think of how organizations like ACORN tried to
help, tried to stem the tied, and were thrown on the dustheap and destroyed
by liberal politicians for the sake of political appearances, rather than
I think of the displaced in New Orleans following Katrina, many of whom are
STILL fighting today but increasingly forgotten because now New Orleans is
so white and clean now, who can never Return Home because when the waters
rose, 50% of them were trapped in exploding, predatory mortgages that
ultimately cost them their homes when they couldn't get enough to rebuild
from insurance (which still is figthing paying many people) or FEMA or the
government programs supposedly there to help rebuild.
And I think of my father, my just-dead and God it hurts so bad daddy, who
despite being a hard worker and a hustler could never buy a home for his
I think of his father, who couldn't provide my dad and his siblings with an
education because he was raising 16 kids on $10 a week as a tenant farmer. A
sharecropper. Right until granddaddy's heart just exploded in 1949.
Then I think of his father, who as best we can tell was from the wealthy
family that once owned my family, but who died penniless and was buried
separate from the rest of his family, outside the family cemetery, we
suspect merely because he had the temerity to have fathered 5 Mulatto
children with my great-grandmother. Who I cannot find, thanks to the loss
of the 1890 census. (Her name, the only name I know, was Sarah.)
In those moments of thought, I evolve again. The weight of knowing what
Coates described has gone on for more than 150 years and then some makes me
angry. It makes me sad.
But I don't want these feelings.
I want joy.
The joy of knowing my unknown ancestors, on all sides, did not labor in
vain, even though they were never able to escape the poverty.
The joy of knowing that America really wants to heal, because it really is
sorry for what it did to those of us descended from slaves.
And the joy of knowing that collective white America really means it.
I want to see us heal, and believe that it will come only after the most
heartfelt, embraced, NATIONAL apology - and the programs, like those in
Australia - that are trying return at least some of what was stolen.
No matter what any individual white person might feel about it.
I want to cry with joy, like I did when Kevin Rudd stood before his
nation--a nation not all of one mind, even to this day--and looked
unflinching in the camera and told the Aboriginal people of Oz: We are
sorry. I want to know that the labor, the survival, of all my ancestors who
picked the cotton and survived the lash and worked the fields they did not
own was worth it. Despite the broken promises of Sherman's Field Order 15
and the Freedman's Bureau, strangled in their infancy by Andrew Jackson
after Lincoln's assassination, and all the immeasurable lost potential of
Black America because those promises to my ancestors were broken.
But then I read the ignorant comments in response to Ta-nehisi Coates
well-documented, well-reasoned call to support John Conyers' now decade long
effort to get the government to just STUDY reparations for my people, from
both the Right and the Left. I hear them whine about how welfare, which no
longer exists, was our reparations. About how affirmative action, which has
never been fully implemented in this country as even that asshole Richard
Nixon envisioned since it was attacked in the courts from Day 1, was our
And about how our Black president is our reparations.
I also read about how we really owe whites for our enslavement in the past
and economic enslavement today. We owe them for being such a burden after
they stole us. Such criminals. Such an underclass. Such a hated people. Such
a dismissed people. Such a problem.
It is not only Cliven Bundy that can "tell us one more thing about the
Negro." All you have to do is bring up justice for Black people, reparations
for Black people, and you will get told a lot about the Negro.
Of course, this reaction is not new. It's merely on display, thanks to the
miracle of the Internet, for all to see in a way that the hushed all-white
private conversations never allowed us to see before.
My heart knows that is not an anomaly. It's the majority. Even those who are
well meaning. Even those would never reach to the well of insult and overt
hatred of Black people consciously. They still express that it's just "too
hard." And it's "not fair." Because it "wasn't them."
Every excuse in the book.
And given this, the wisdom I started with--that you can always tell what
white America collectively cares about by watching where it spends its
money, indeed remains wise.
But the pain of knowing that truth about America and its white majority in
the collective, and knowing that this majority doesn't by and large even
realize that their collective behavior and collective response to reasonable
ideas, like simply studying reparations, telegraphs clearly that message,
drills into my mind, drills into my heart. Whenever they hit bottom, as they
usually do, for just a moment the misty fantasy joy fades, and I see clear.
So, in those nanoseconds of clarity about what this country really thinks of
the people whose free labor made it a wealthy nation--MY people, we who are
dark and descended from slaves--I turn again.
I evolve, yet again, on the question of reparations.
And say to myself, "Fuck it. White people are collectively hopeless. Just
give us the money you stole from us, through our stolen labor, stolen homes,
stolen lives. Because with it we can't do any worse than we've had to
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