The Case for Reparations: Round Table 1

So because I don’t have anything to add on a purely factual/archival level, except my enduring admiration for his ability to balance the longue durée with individual life stories, and the acknowledgment that I learned a lot from him … I think what gets me most is the incredible control over tone, over his own positioning with respect to the material. It’s a really amazing balancing act. Conversations today about issues like structural racism refuse utterly to countenance Black voices speaking as such, and exclude them immediately and by default from having anything legitimate to say. Sometimes with “it’s all in the past” or “my [immigrant] forebears suffered greatly, too” but also, not-infrequently, with the kinds of things he cites from Calhoun (and others.) In the Autopsy blog post, he writes “(I don’t, for instance, think it would be a good idea for Obama to support reparations. That would actually be a horrible idea.)” Here I think you see him recoil from the idea of Obama speaking about reparations as a Black President — a shudder that echoes on down to his own task, writing about reparations as a Black American.[Watching this now, this comes up in Moyers, as well -- he is really insisting on an American discussion that suppresses individual perspectives from places of victim or beneficiary status, because these are non-starters.]

So Coates has the impossibly tough task in a feature like this (and it’s a feature, not a blog post, which is significant, I think, in terms of audience and permanence and tone) of suppressing every last bit of inadmissably race-situated standpoint, positionality, proximity to the material, that he can, while at the same time grounding his presentation of this country’s bloody and ongoing history of racist exclusion in an understanding of right and wrong that ultimately demands we recognize that reparations should be considered by the highest government.

Without the steady, careful reminders he adds about their persistence in the present day, the centuries-old data might not have registered as compelling reasons to consider the question of reparations. They would just have looked like another retelling of something we all learn, and then suppress. There are a couple of missteps, like where he analogizes family separation to “murder” (a term whose strict sense is important to retain, and which really needs to be kept away from metaphoric or analogic usage in an essay like this) — places in the essay where the fury with which he’s mainting his moral position overrides the patient clarity of his procedure. But really just a really excellent, important piece of writing whose strongest asset is its blending of voices — existing scholarship, dispassionate synthesis, historical documents, quotes from interviews — and his reticence to make a personal case.

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This certainly feels to me like a monumental offering to American discourse. I anticipate that, if only for the masterful “blending of voices” employed to build, support, and elaborate the case, it will make its way into many high school and university syllabi beginning this fall, and my instinct is that it will endure for many years to come.
Two things struck me most. One is, as you mention, Coates’s tone and rigor, a feature of which is the really compelling counterargument embedded and sustained throughout (I suppose this is what Charlie Pierce means by Coates “talking to himself”). The second is how he casts light on not only on our most obviously destructive public policies but also the shortcomings or oversights of conventional American liberalism. Which is the real subversion here, since this is a cover story for The Atlantic. Lastly, I will add that I had serious trouble sleeping after this. Not recommended for bedtime reading!

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For me, the most affecting part was that, after reading it, I felt almost chastened – put in my place. Not that Coates’ tone is scolding, but it’s definitely accusatory – of everyone. His twisting of terms like “White Supremacy”, taking it from shaved-head swastika tattooed white guys and applying it to the US social order as a whole is an example. When people have spoken about reparations in the past, all I could think was “My Dad’s family came from Canada in the 1920’s, and my Mom’s came from Russia in the 1930’s – my mom marched in civil rights protests! I didn’t do anything, it’s not my fault.” Well, even though it may not be my, or my family’s “fault” (and it’s conceivable, I suppose, that’s not even true) it’s still a system that helped put me where I am today. My grandparents, first generation American on both sides, were never disqualified from anything by their physical appearance. They got to live, largely, where they wanted. They got legitimate financing on their homes. When they built their livelihoods, nobody attempted to take it from them. They were able to put my parents in the schools they wanted, and allowed to accumulate wealth – they even paid for my college. How can I separate where I am today from all the opportunities they had that generation of blacks had taken from them? It’s not my “fault”, but it makes me think that at least part of what makes me “special” is my skin tone.

I also greatly approve of how apolitical the article is. It’s the sort of point that would lead pundits to say “well Republicans/Democrats aren’t the only ones responsible – Democrats/Republicans did this too” – absolutely! No argument. Coates’ argument is completely non-partisan: everyone is to blame, everyone is part of the solution. I also like that his solution – legislatively prioritizing the interests of black people – sucks the poison from many arguments here. He’s not asking for checks to be cut – he wants an acknowledgement of a historic fact, and an attempt of remedying the fallout of the fact.

Was anyone else struck by John C. Calhoun’s cameo as The Voice of Reason? John C. Calhoun admits this, people! John C. Calhoun!

I wanted to highlight one more thing I touched on, which you did as well: I think it’s amazing how Coates manages to literally be accusatory without being judgmental. I mean, this is a loaded issue, and he’s unquestionably pointing a pretty big finger at America in general, but he somehow couches it in terms that don’t make the reader (who is being accused) feel attacked. It’s really the only way he can spark self-reflection.