Ready? Let’s Talk Reparations

Justice Delayed Justice Denied

Have we all had a chance to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s cri de coeur about the historical argument for reparations? If not, take this opportunity to grab a cup of coffee and dive into it. We’ll wait. The piece is well-written and well-argued; you will emerge from it with a much deeper appreciation of the effects of several hundred years of Constitutionally-enshrined, community-enforced, and, up until only a few decades ago, government-supported white supremacy.

Spoiler alert: He isn’t asking us to agree on a dollar figure. He wants America as a country to face up to the facts and have the conversation:

We must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced.

The Internet being what it is, naturally some interesting response pieces have come in and are worth reading in conjunction with TNC’s:

+ A skeptical take from an economist: How much have white Americans benefited from slavery and its legacy?  

I would suggest that most living white Americans would be wealthier had this nation not enslaved African-Americans and thus most whites have lost from slavery too, albeit much much less than blacks have lost.  For instance it is generally recognized that freer and fairer polities tend to be wealthier for most of their citizens.  (We may disagree about what “fair” means for many issues, but slavery and its legacy are obviously unfair.) … Empirically, I do not think whites in slavery-heavy regions have had especially impressive per capita incomes.  And a lot of the economic catch-up of the American South came only when the region abandoned Jim Crow.

+ A supportive take from The Forward: The Jewish Case for Reparations

Collective accountability is a cornerstone of Judaism, however, beyond any particularistic commands — I don’t have to employ laborers to share the obligation of building a fair society. “All Israel is responsible one to the other,” we learn in the Talmud; in Leviticus we’re enjoined to remember that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” Certain prayers may only be said in community; on Yom Kippur, we seek atonement in the plural. We’re even taught that the coming of Messiah (or the Messianic age) turns on our interconnected behavior.

The structured, institutional, top-down-and-bottom-up nature of American racism laid out in “Reparations” was never the decision of a single person or a group; likewise, the implications and consequences of individual decisions wash along distant shores. As a child growing up in suburban Chicago, did I have anything to do with policies that snared Black families in poverty-wracked city neighborhoods? No — but everything in my adult life stems from the education provided by suburban property taxes (and a constantly growing tax base) from which those families were systemically barred. Even unto the third and fourth generations.

+ A podcast take from the Slate Political Gabfest

Have you encountered other worthwhile responses?

photo via dan4th nicholas



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