Reparations: Yet Another “Conversation”

(Isaiah L. Carter)
(Isaiah L. Carter)

I had to laugh weeks ago when discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece, “The Case For Reparations” with friends on Twitter. Having known what to expect from Coates for a while now, it did not shock me that people were waiting with the proverbial bated breath as they watched the trailer–yes, in the manner of a summer blockbuster film–heralding the piece validating everything that Black people all over the country that enslaved our ancestors had always known. Coates is viewed by many to be the intellectual scion and/or reincarnation of James Baldwin, so the adulation before the piece was written came at no surprise.

Allow me to declare something that will surprise most of my readers: Never before have I read such a complete, all-encompassing historical artifact. Coates deserves both all credit and praise (and will no doubt receive a Hillman award) for taking his time with this piece, and I personally congratulate this man for such an achievement. This is the type of writing that originally drew me to Coates in the first place, and before this work was written, I had no idea of the existence of Belinda Royall, a former slave who successfully petitioned the government for reparations. Nor had I ever heard of Clyde Ross, the 91-year-old who fought Chicago’s housing discrimination with the Contract Buyers League. Despite my differences with Coates, this was a very important piece.

What disturbed me most about this article is that after drawing one of the straightest lines of comprehensive historical progression, Coates provided nothing even remotely representing a clear definition of what modern reparations should look like, save for support for Rep. John Conyers’ H.R. 40. As he stated in his afterword the next day, this was his intent all along. Others began filling in the gaps Coates left, offering their own definitions of reparations in the context of housing discrimination, which some (including myself) believe is the overarching theme of Coates’ article.

But then, I had to remember something very important: This is Ta-Nehisi Coates, the one who has blatantly stated he really only wants to remain “intensely curious” about racism, and is not vested in actually solving anything. And as more commentary on Coates’ work continues to come out, it becomes more clear that a goal for making reparations a reality–a full redress for every ill and injustice ever suffered by Blacks in this country over nearly five centuries’ time–is something many of these Black Thought Leaders simply do not want to tackle. The stated goal, it seems, is just to “continue The Conversation.”

Consider this from Peniel Joseph, author of Stokely: A Life:

…in the Obama age, where the fact of a black first family frequently muffles the national conversation on race and democracy, Americans need a primer on why race matters now more than ever. This includes young black folk, who are at times confused or ambivalent about the way in which the seemingly distant past (to them, the 1980s, let alone the 1960s or the 1860s) connects to their contemporary lives.
A candid discussion of reparations will ultimately force us to “imagine a new country,” observes Coates, in a note of hard-earned optimism in an otherwise unfailingly sober historical and political assessment of race in 21st-century America.

Coates confirms this case here:

And so 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. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans. What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

This bit of commentary seems high-minded and noble. But when you consider those who have made monolithic Black oppression their brand identity, any trace of real progress by Blacks in this nation must be dismissed as some impractical, unattainable exceptionalism. This abstract of reparations–one wide open, all-platform, grand Conversation where a precise definition remains open-ended to anyone–is both disingenuous and insulting because its sole purpose at bottom is to retain overall relevance.

How can we know this? Let’s start at his interview with BuzzFeed deputy Editor-in-Chief Shani Hilton last week, who gave this response when asked why his cover story broke online readership records:

 When we came up with this idea on the edit side and we started talking about it and it got out into the company what we were doing, I would talk to business people and they would say, “Yeah, this is gonna be big.” And I was like, How is reparations going to be good for business? How is anyone going to walk into an ad meeting and say, “Yeah. This is what we’re doing?” I think a part of it is, one of the things I learned very early in my career is that if you made any claim or charge about racism, people click. So, I literally could have gone when I first started, and said, blog post number one: “Racism.” Blog post number two: “White Folks Did It.” Blog post number three: “Black Folks Did It.” And you could just go down the line because people, for some reason it sets their hair on fire. That’s it, right? I think that’s the first thing.

Get clicks. Set records. Further “The Conversation.”

Okay.

The second way to tell the lack of seriousness from these falsely so-called Black Thought Leaders is when they openly declare that advancing “The Conversation” on reparations to its inexorable next stage–the logistics–is somehow “missing the point” or, as NPR’s Gene Demby writes, evidence that one has not read Coates’ case past the headline. This position asks that one immediately shut off all intellectual endeavors in solving and repairing the impacts of this nation’s Original Sin at precisely the moment they’re needed most, which is frankly stupid when by one recent estimate, there is at least $10 trillion we could be discussing. If one dares to “imagine a new country” without presenting a single tangible solution as to how it is made reality, what is it all worth?

Is it possible that a serious discussion of reparations scares even the mighty Ta-Nehisi?

The Brookings Institute’s Megan Bradley offers this to explain why discussing the logistics of reparations are appropriate and necessary:

Outside of the legal framework, definitions of reparation, restitution and redress have become particularly muddled. For example, scholar Elazar Barkan’s definition of restitution has significant overlaps with the legal definition of reparation, but is much broader than the concept of restitution under international law. In his influential text The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, Barkan offers a comprehensive notion of restitution as the ‘entire spectrum of attempts to rectify historical injustices’ (Barkan 2001: xix). Barkan (2001: xviii) contends that the legal tools of remedy, that is, restitution, compensation and satisfaction, ‘are all different levels of acknowledgement that together create a mosaic of recognition by perpetrators for the need to amend past injustices’. Although broad, this conceptualisation is salient because it encompasses the diverse yet interrelated approaches available to remedy injustice, including high-level legal initiatives such as trials and property restitution mechanisms, political efforts such as apologies and truth commissions, and grassroots reconciliation and coexistence projects.

Coates and others of his ilk bid this nation to live in a perpetual state of remorseful, unending penitence; to forevermore wallow in the regrets of American white supremacy within bounds only they can set. He writes, “The payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” The problem with this argument, other than Coates’ premise that America is cursed ground specifically engineered for Black extermination (though factual, one may wish to ask an Indian about that some time) is that as a nation, we are already very much introspective, as John McWhorter points out:

Despite frequent claims that America “doesn’t want to talk about race,” we talk about it 24/7 amidst ringing declamations against racism on all forms. Over the past year’s time, I need only mention Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Over the past few years, three of the best-selling and most-discussed nonfiction books have been Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Rebecca Skloot’s book about the harvesting of a black woman’s cancer cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), and Michelle Alexander’s invaluable The New Jim Crow. And let’s not forget recent major release films such as The Help12 Years a Slave, and The Butler. Can we really say that these are signs of a nation in denial about race, racism, and its history?

I certainly can’t. While only a deluded fool would dare deny the legacy and continued effects of white supremacy in these United States,  it is nothing short of perverse to incessantly draw the Black gaze to the perceived monolithic riches of white people to one’s own station in life and hopelessly declare Blackness as a destitute, zero-sum game. An incomplete “Conversation” on race that refuses to focus on how we improve our own future merely feeds the beast of confirmation bias.

But finally, the greatest impediment to reparations lies not in any grand cabal of white supremacy; it rests firmly in the yet unchallenged ethos of individualism, which permeates every facet of our existence and has resisted repeated historical challenges, as Allen Guelzo wrote in 2002:

American law, both in terms of statute law and common law, is rooted in long historical assumptions about where rights are located. From the time of the American founding, we have understood rights to be located in individuals. We recognize no titles of nobility: this means not only that the American republic repudiates the notion of a titled aristocracy, but that it does not recognize any special category of rights belonging to a class of people. There is, in the politics of the Founders, no essential quality of nobility that all aristocrats are presumed to share and others not, and which we are all obliged to recognize legally. By the same logic, we recognize no national language, no national church, and no national race, because we do not locate civil status or rights in groups, whether those groups are ethnic, religious, or racial. So, when a crime is committed, we want to know about the guilt or innocence of the individual, not someone’s racial group, religion, or other characteristic. And when a civil judgment is issued, we want to compensate the individuals who were actually harmed, even in a class action, not the race or church or bowling league they belong to.

The grain of American jurisprudence thus runs completely against assigning blame on the basis of group identity (something which we have shown most recently in our instinctive recoil from the practice of racial profiling). It expresses the measure of resistance we have toward identifying individuals as anything but individuals, and it poses a philosophical stumbling block for reparations litigation right on the threshold of the courtroom.

It is individualism and esotericism that derails progress and eliminates real traction for political and social change in this country. Stories abound of movements that begin with much fanfare and hope, then become easy targets of punchlines and scorn once revealed as aught but shameless self-promotion. Coates’ grand sermon delineating the sins of this Nation and demanding its repentance boost his brand and his profile, but true reparations–the admittance of wrong; the apology and recompense by the offending party, and the forgiveness of that party by the victims–would be the single-most collectivist act ever committed in this country,  an amazing feat given that not only do few believe in paying for the sins of generations long dead, but that many are not interested in forgiveness of wrong either.

Thus, the impasse remains, and the hurt further entrenches.

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2 thoughts on “Reparations: Yet Another “Conversation””

  1. As usual thought provoking. What I enjoy about reading you, even when I disagree, is that I can clearly see the progression of your argument. I also like that you acknowledge the god parts of the Coates piece. As a historian I would like to add that I understand your desire to see solutions offered particularly when writing on subjects of such significance.I too read the McWhorter piece. What I think is often left out in the continuum of this subject is the important role of excavating the stories of African Americans, that have been left out of the narrative of American history. This is also true of almost all underrepresented groups in the U.S.I think about all of the documents yet to be discovered, archived, digitized and studied. SO we progress and at the same time stories of both progress and pain are still being revealed.

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