Tag Archives: diversity

REPARATIONS: Taking Ta-Nehisi Coates Seriously


Reparations is the idea that a group wronged in the past may be compensated by a monetary reward in the present. The proposal that African-Americans now should be compensated for wrongs done to African slaves more than a century and a half ago had seemed absurd to many. But reparations got a huge boost in June 2014, when African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a feature in the Atlantic arguing that the terrible history of blacks in the United States required compensation. Despite earlier skepticism, critical reaction was mild.  Now, the issue is being discussed in Congress.

Uncritical reaction

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, disagreed with Coates’ proposal but was impressed with the “beautifully written monograph,” describing the prose as “intelligent and sometimes moving.” In his muted critique, Williamson gives little weight to the faulty logic and fundamental injustice of Coates’ proposal.

Williamson is not alone. Other writers, like David Remnick of the New Yorker and media critic Jay Rosen esteem Coates as a public intellectual, perhaps the public intellectual of our time. “The more radical Coates’s critique of America, the more tightly America embraces him,” comments Carlos Lozada in a mildly critical appraisal. With few exceptions, the reaction of intellectuals to Coates’ grumpy essays has been rapturous. Even critic Rod Dreher finds moving Coates’ account of his difficult and race-dominated early life.

In all this commentary, careful review of what Coates is saying, its pros and cons, is almost absent. Coates’ understandable passion, his eloquent accounts of suffering — his own and others’ —  has obliterated almost all critical evaluation of what he is actually saying. But passion need not displace reason. The obligation to take Coates’ proposal seriously remains.

John Locke’s thesis

Mr. Coates begins his Reparations article with a quotation from Deuteronomy, which says that a freed slave should get something in return for the bondage he has suffered. He continues with another quotation, from 17th century philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, which runs in part: “…there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.”
My own knowledge of Locke is far from complete. I was curious, therefore, to read a little more of what he wrote on this topic. Coates gives no page number, but I found a similar quotation, which is as follows: “In the latter case, the person who has been harmed has, in addition to the general right of punishment that he shares with everyone else, a particular right to seek reparation from the person who harmed him.” (Second Treatise, Chapter 2, para 10. emphasis added)

The quotes establish two principles: that a freed slave deserves recompense, and that the recompense should come “from the person who harmed him.” This key phrase is omitted in Coates’ version.

White people now are responsible, for what?

The rest of Coates’ article goes on to violate both these principles, since he claims that 21st-century white people, who were not party to the moral crime of slavery, should make reparations to 21st-century black people who were not victims of it. Whatever the plight of modern of African Americans, if those responsible are dead, why should the living, most of whom are not even descendants of the oppressors, pay? The rest of Coates’ piece is an attempt to trace a line of causation to implicate modern white Americans.

In fact, the situation of African-Americans today is quite possibly better than it would have been had their ancestors remained in Africa – or so says journalist Keith Richburg. In Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, Richburg writes: “[E]xcuse me if I sound cynical…it’s Africa that has made me this way. I feel for her suffering…But most of all I think: Thank God my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them. In short, thank God that I am an American.”

In other words, in Richburg’s opinion, African-Americans now, for all the tragedy in their past, are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa. If American blacks are not in fact worse off than they would have been absent slavery, why reparations? Coates demand for reparations fails on grounds of justice, fact and logic. So what are his other arguments?

Suffering, then

He begins the piece with a sad account of one Clyde Ross, a bright lad, apparently, born in rural Mississippi in 1923, one of 13 children. Life was tough for Clyde.  His parents were “robbed of the vote…through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob” in the 1920s.  His illiterate father lost his land because he could not pay back taxes.  Clyde lost his horse in a sale forced by a white buyer.  We are not told why his father agreed to the sale nor why a poll tax is ‘trickery’ rather than just unfair. “It was in these early years that Ross began to understand himself as an American—he did not live under the blind decree of justice, but under the heel of a regime that elevated armed robbery to a governing principle.”

The lives of black Americans have improved since the Jim Crow era, Coates admits partway through his essay, but he takes no comfort from the fact because the black-white wealth and income gaps remain large. When a black man does well it’s because he is twice as good: “Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much.”

Perhaps Coates has seen Barack Obama’s still-sealed Harvard transcript? Is it better (which would support Coates’ thesis) or worse than average? We don’t know, and Coates offers no other evidence for this claim.

Coates emphasizes that for every white contribution there is a white racial sin: “If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body.” (Did it happen? Did Sally consent? We can’t be sure.)

And so the article goes on, alternating heartbreaking anecdotes and frequent allusions to slavery with depressing statistics to illustrate the plight of blacks and the planful racism of whites.

How fair is Coates’ attack on American whites? Every society able to do so has owned slaves at one time or another.  Many countries in various parts of the world, including Asia and Africa, still do. But Europeans abolished slavery on their own, without a fight. They get no credit from Coates. Some 620,000 Americans died in a war that was mainly about slavery. They get no credit either.

“This country was formed for the white, not for the black man,” quotes Coates. But is it fair to use John Wilkes Booth as a white spokesman?

Housing discrimination

The fundamental illegality of America is a theme that runs through the article, even though many of the incidents that Coates recounts do follow law.  It’s just that the law seems racist to Coates, which at times it was. It is the same story with home ownership, a topic that makes up the bulk of the article. In the early twentieth century, “black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure…” Redlining meant that “[n]either the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion.” The entire mortgage industry was “rife with racism.” The result is that neighborhoods like Lawndale in Chicago are now poor and crime-ridden.

Racial housing discrimination was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  “By then the damage was done,” writes Coates. Not according to economist Thomas Sowell, who has pointed out that real discrimination would mean that loans made to blacks should be on average more profitable for banks than loans made to other groups. In other words, black borrowers should be held to higher credit standards than others.  But over the past several decades, loans to blacks are not in fact more profitable than average. None of this is discussed by Coates who rejects all evidence that racial discrimination has diminished. Indeed, it is no longer just discrimination. White supremacy is the problem now.

Evidence for this is found in the exodus of whites from urban areas. “When terrorism ultimately failed, white homeowners simply fled the neighborhood,” writes Coates, implicating every white who leaves an integrated neighborhood as complicit in a failed terror plot. “The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors.”

What is the proof? Who were the engineers? What were their aims? Are there other possible explanations?

Of course there are, but Coates ignores them. He does quote a white homeowner who in fact suggests one. The man objected to a potential new African-American neighbor, saying, “Bill Myers was ‘probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.’”

It’s true that if predominately black neighborhoods develop bad reputations, people likely will be more resistant to racial integration. That’s self-protection, not racism – unless the black neighborhoods have been wrongly stigmatized. But Coates himself quotes statistics that make the neighbor’s point. Black neighborhoods are statistically more crime-ridden than comparable white ones.  White flight is not social engineering, but prudence–-excessive perhaps, but not racist.

Coates ends his long article with Germany. If any country owed reparations, it is surely Germany after the Second World War. The survivors of the Holocaust were still living and so were many of the murderers of their co-religionists. Locke’s criteria were well met. In the end, the Germans paid modest amounts to Israel and other Jewish causes.

But the Germans had good reason to hesitate, despite the overwhelming case against them: the ruinous reparations they were forced to pay after World War One. The effort to cope with the depredations of war combined with enormous debt led to hyperinflation and economic collapse in the next decade.  Growing national resentment at the unfairness of the treatment imposed on them found its outlet in Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

The case for U.S. reparations is infinitely weaker than Germany’s.  The victims are dead, as are the perpetrators of the ancient evils of slavery.  Evidence that American blacks now are in fact better off than they would have been if their ancestors had remained in Africa is in fact quite strong.  Why else would so many Africans be seeking to immigrate if life in Nigeria, say, is really better than here? Keith Richburg is undoubtedly right.  If blacks now are better off than they would have been absent slavery, what exactly are they to be compensated for?  Perhaps modern American blacks should in fact compensate whites? An absurd idea, but no more absurd than its opposite.

Tracing historical causation, as Coates does so confidently, is dodgy. Whites cannot escape responsibility by “disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration,” says Coates.  But why not?  Most admit the innocence of those “dreamer” kids brought to this country by their illegal immigrant parents.  Most people absolve them of the sins of those who brought them.  In exactly the same way many white Americans will reject responsibility for the sins of their slave-owning ancestors.  Indeed, many, perhaps most, white Americans have no slave-era ancestors.  “But all have benefited from the prosperity driven by slavery!” Coates might say. But “so have contemporary blacks!” whites might respond, agreeing with journalist Richburg.

The first German reparations had disastrous and world-injuring consequences. It is not unlikely that the reparations Coates demands from white America would cause resentment and division almost as destructive to this country.

Does he care?

Following the example of discredited historian Howard Zinn, Coates interprets each bad thing that happened to black Americans as engineered by whites; each good thing is interpreted as an unintended consequence.  As long as whites pay, Coates is untroubled. Nor does he worry about the divisive consequences of a program that many whites will feel is unfair.

Some readers may be content to take  Coates’ output as eloquent prose poetry. But if he is to be considered more than a stylish provocateur, he needs to add more reason to the mix. Until he, or someone, does, there is a strong case not for reparations but for changing the subject.

(This a longer, updated version of a piece originally published here.) 

Lemuel Pepys Esq., time traveler

This satirical piece is based on the leaked transcript of an editorial staff meeting at The Atlantic magazine in April 2018. The two principals are black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and the editor, Jeffrey Goldberg.

In which a Gentleman of the Eighteenth Century is Miraculously transported to a Twenty-First Century Editorial Meeting

Through a worm hole, unknown in the 18th century, but now routinely available on Twitter, Mr. Pepys, a distant cousin of the well-known diarist Mr. Samuel Pepys, has been time-traveled, in the guise of young staffer, to a meeting at a major publication of the US East Coast intellectual elite. Much is unfamiliar. He perceives that he has been taken to the remote future. He recognizes the jobs of the scribblers he is witnessing. He is puzzled at the presence of ‘negroes’ and young women. He is baffled by their discussion.  The following are extracts from his diary.

Friday April 6, 2018

Two men, one black, one white address the meeting. The white one seems troubled. The tall black one appears to be the master. They all labour for a periodical called The Atlantic (we seem to be in the colonies).

“Of no party or clique” is their motto. (Is it true that this publication supports no particular faction? Rare!)

The black man complains about his previous employment at an organ called the New Republic: “No black people worked there. I’ve actually verified this. No black people worked there at all. And to my mind — other people will probably feel quite differently about this — but as far as I was concerned, it was basically a racist publication.” We learn later that The Atlantic suffers from the same distemper: “basically white dudes”.  (And what is this “dude”?)

What is racism?

None dissented from the black man’s claim: absence of black people is racism, which is a sin, it seems. But what meaneth ‘racist’? No Negroes are at my own employment, in the Royal Navy Sick and Hurt Board. Are the Navy yards therefore ‘racist’? But of course, few blacks are available – more in the colonies, I believe, though most in bondage.

Apparently, there are many free black people in this new time. Are they excluded from all literary employment? Can they not write? Unlikely, since my black man writes much. Perhaps he is possessed of a Royal Prerogative? Are other black men in some way not fit for employment by The New Republic?

The black man is aggrieved. He missed black people at the NR because, he said “there was no me to learn from.”  I am puzzled. As a child, my teachers were actually women. Though myself a boy, I yet learned quite well from them. I learned a little music from Signor Ottocelli, an Italian gentleman, a very foreign person. Are black people somehow different?  Can they learn only from their ilk?

The black man is sad: “I don’t know how to put this without sounding like an a–hole.” But after debating the matter within himself, he decided that it was after all good to learn, even from people he believed to be “f—-ing racist” – that word racist again.

The black man has difficulty learning from others if they differ from him either by color or opinion.  He is concerned that his teachers did not see him “completely as a human being.” What does this mean? It is natural to see negroes as different, of course; they look different from Englishmen. Those who have arrived in our island since 1600 were savages, mostly, naked and illiterate. But many free black people are now in the colonies and, as I later learn, look and behave more or less as others do. I cannot comprehend his difficulty.

The black man apparently has one white colleague with whom he differs, but to whom he can speak: “You can go into The Atlantic archives right now, and you can see me arguing with Andrew Sullivan about whether black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people. I actually had to take this seriously, you understand?” But Mr. Sullivan is evidently an exception: The black man can talk to Mr. Sullivan, but not to any others of his party (except Kevin, apparently). And what is “genetically”?

Are black people (in general, I suppose, there must be exceptions) in fact stupider than white people?  Apparently the proposition is too silly to debate, according to the black man (but he would say that, wouldn’t he?).

The trouble with Kevin

There is a discussion about a former colleague. A man called Kevin was recently ejected from the group after a very short stay.  Evidently, Kevin is one of those white folk who fails to see the black man and others like “as fully realized human beings.”  What does this mean? That Kevin doesn’t like them? That they don’t like Kevin? That he thinks black people are but hairless apes (tho’ he doth deny it!)? Apparently Kevin has views that are “batsh-t crazy” — not explained. But it is clear that “batsh-t crazy” opinions are anathema, like Popery or disbelief in the Trinity.

The willful disposing of unborn infants is a contentious issue.  The practice is a crime in my time. Kevin apparently is of the same view. But — O, tempora, O, mores! — Apparently, abortion is permitted now in some parts of the colonies and embraced by the present company.

The black man refers to the execution of criminals (I discovered later that criminals are now executed in a barbarous and ignoble fashion, by a medical procedure. Surely, hanging, which would at least preserve the honor and dignity of the condemned man, is to be preferred?)  The black man seems to believe it is wrong to execute anyone, no matter how heinous his crime.

After a brief jocosity with the white man, the black man speaks again: “you know, I was an admirer of Kevin’s work, and I think I can say this, you know, Jeff [the white man] talked to me about this. And I was not like, don’t hire that dude. To the contrary, I thought, OK, well he can come in and represent the position, and then we can fight it out…I feel like I failed the writers of color here in that advice.” Why “failed”? Are black people approving of abortion, as Kevin apparently is not? Can they not bear a contrary view? Do they not enjoy vigorous debate, as we do? Later discussion suggests that white people at the publication also fear debate. And what is a “dude”?

The black man at last explains the difficulty: “This publication is diversifying…What is debatable comes up for question because you bring different people in, and those people are not just brown-skinned or dark-skinned or women who would normally — you know, who are just the same as any other. Their identity — and I know this is bad in certain quarters, but I don’t think it is — that identity cannot be neatly separated from the job.”  By “diverse” he seems to mean adding women and colored people to the group.

Diversity impedes debate?

It is clear at last:  This “diversity” is the problem. So long as the scribblers were all white men, they could converse and debate freely. But now colored people and women are in the room (yes, young women are present! Although they wear trousers and shirts, like men – only exposing more chest). Since the paper has become ‘diverse’, free debate is no longer possible: “So maybe the job changes a little bit” says the black man.

Now I think I begin to understand the dilemma at the New Republic: to have a vigorous and open group of writers, they needed to be all men, or at least not diverse. (Would all women, or even all black people, work as well? Or are such groups considered to be ‘diverse’, hence incapable of robust debate?)  “Like, those two things [diversity and a ‘broad range of debate’] actually, as you said, they’re part of each other. And I guess what I’m suggesting is they actually might also be in conflict with each other”, as the black man points out later. Though awkwardly expressed, the black man sees the problem: with women and blacks in the room, debate is stifled. Best go back to the old way, men only, as in my time? I well understand that many things may not be discussed in the presence of women.

The white man speaks. He has failed to grasp the black man’s point: “trying so hard to diversify gender, race ethnicity, orientation, whatever, part of it is to make sure that we’re of no party or clique.” So, he wishes to be ‘diverse’ but cannot understand that it conflicts with their motto.  The black man perceives that free debate is not possible in a ‘diverse’ group. The white man admits that certain issues cannot be discussed. He wishes debate “without touching the third rails of gender and abortion and race.” So, gender, abortion and race cannot be discussed? Which is a puzzlement, since they seem to be at the top of everyone’s minds. (And what is a “third rail”?)

The black man speaks again: perhaps I have mistook him: “I think the deal is that in the ’90s, when this room would not have looked like this room does [i.e., no women or blacks?], there were things that were considered out of bounds. I don’t think we would have published ‘The Case for Reparations’ then.”

Much is made of this important “Reparations” production, which appeared in The Atlantic some years earlier. The black man refers to it frequently, making no mention of criticism that has appeared elsewhere.  “And I think the problem is, some of those things — this is the huge, huge problem — some of those things that I would argue should be out of bounds, actually a large number of Americans actually believe.”  He doth not say what those things are — perhaps a suggestions that there may be differences between black and white people? (But if blacks and whites truly are the same, why keep treating them separately? Why complain, as the black man frequently does, that “I was the only writer of color”?) Or is it just anathema to discuss things believed by the common people?

We cannot know whether “The case for reparations” would have been published in The Atlantic in years past. But if not, the reason might have been that its thesis seems unjust. Should living white people pay living blacks for injuries inflicted by dead whites on dead blacks?  Especially as some blacks believe themselves better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.  Or, as some have suggested, because the argument made is feeble.  Or that the style of writing is too enthusiastic for a scholarly publication.  We cannot know.

The white man speaks: “Do you think The Atlantic would be diminished if we narrowed the bounds of acceptability in ideological discourse, even as we grow in diversity?” He begins to see the black man’s argument. He begins to discern, as through a glass, darkly, the conflict between diversity of race and diversity of thought. A young woman later asks a similar question. She had heard “a certain amount of nostalgia for that time, which was the ability to just get out there and punch each other and people debating and actually having genuinely different ideas and having that spirit of really wanting to engage. And we just don’t have that anywhere on our website.” (What is this “website”?)

In the end, ‘diversity’ seems to win over open debate at The Atlantic.

Towards the end of the meeting, it becomes clear that the white man is supposed to be in charge. He is the Editor of The Atlantic, ‘tho he always defers to the black man. Indeed, he says at one point: “I mean he’s one of the dearest people in my life. I’d die for him.”

The black man seems to object, and the white man responds ruefully: “Can’t I just express my love for you? What’s so bad? What’s so wrong?”  To which the black man responds: “Can I just say — and I would only say this sitting in this room — but that was a very white response.” This seems to be a condemnation. Is love a bad thing? Is love from a white man bad. Do white men always express love for black men?

Or is the black man’s response in fact (that word again) racist?