The Call For Reparations Isn’t About Justice, It’s About Power
What do we mean by reparations? Writing recently in the Washington Post, Sheryll Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown University, argues that “reparations should repair what white supremacy still breaks. Atoning for the legacy of chattel slavery is simply not enough.”
That is, reparations must be broad enough to encompass the many crimes and injustices perpetrated against black Americans throughout our history, from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. The effects of these injustices, says Cashin, are “direct and measurable” among slavery’s descendants: wage gaps, educational disparities, homeownership and property values, incarceration rates, health outcomes.
She is of course right. There is no question that black Americans have suffered greatly, not just from the memory of slavery but from its long legacy of rampant discrimination and racist policies.
It was this history that Ta-Nehisi Coates invoked in testimony last week before a House subcommittee considering a bill to create a commission to study reparations. Responding to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comment that reparations are not a good idea because no one responsible for slavery is alive today, Coates reeled off a list of racial injustices that were perpetrated in McConnell’s lifetime.
Because McConnell was born in 1942, there is plenty of injustice to point to, and Coates, who has built a successful career on elegantly expressing outrage over such injustice, made the most of it:
We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
This is powerful stuff. The history of America, like the history of all the world, is replete with wickedness and injustice, crimes perpetrated by the powerful against the weak. Slavery and racial discrimination are America’s awful inheritance, which cannot be gainsaid.
The proper response is to reproach the crimes of the past and, if possible, make restitution. The unique genius of America is that it contains within its system and structure a way to push back against the evils of the past.
The American Founding itself was a promise against the perpetuation of those evils—not all at once, but eventually. The only way, in fact, to root them out and guard against them is to adhere more closely to the American ideal, to insist upon it and cling to it through every circumstance and change in our national life.
Ta-Nehisi Coates Believes America Is Irredeemable
Coates does not believe this. To him, America was from the beginning a regime based on injustice and theft and violence. His 2014 Atlantic cover story on reparations is not so much an argument for reparations as an argument against America.
“If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?” Coates asks. Later, he answers: “America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.”
Another way of expressing this is to say that America is irredeemable, and that in order for justice to prevail, the regime itself must be destroyed—violently, if necessary. Coates has hinted at this. In a 2017 podcast, Ezra Klein asked Coates what justice would look like for black Americans:
When he tries to describe the events that would erase America’s wealth gap, that would see the end of white supremacy, his thoughts flicker to the French Revolution, to the executions and the terror. ‘It’s very easy for me to see myself being contemporary with processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a construct, and being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process. I think these things don’t tend to happen peacefully.’
For Coates, even hope can be covered in blood.
This is a vision of America wholly at odds with that of, say, Martin Luther King Jr., and not far removed from the one held by Richard Spencer and other blustering white supremacists. It posits that America was founded not on the proposition that all men are created equal, but on the belief that some were born with saddles on their backs and others with boots and spurs to ride them. It is America as a photographic negative, the inverse of the ideals stated in our founding documents and therefore nothing but a hypocritical enterprise based on vast plunder. It cannot be redeemed, so it must be swept away.
Advocates for reparations claim that the victims of this plunder are no less figures of the past than are the perpetrators, which is why the debate swirling around reparations has less to do with our troubled history than assigning guilt in the present day. Assigning guilt is of course a means of seizing and wielding power, which is the true object of reparations.
Yes, McConnell was alive for the electrocution of Stinney; he was two years old. He was alive for the blinding of Issac Woodward; he was four. He is of course responsible for precisely none of these things that Coates lays at his feet by implication. Like every American in his or her seventies, McConnell has lived through momentous change. Given the sweep of human history and the corrupt nature of man, the remarkable thing about the past seven decades isn’t that black Americans suffered injustice but that the civil rights movement was so successful.
That is not to say everything is fine now and we need not contend any longer with the consequences of our history. But the goal of Coates’ strong rhetoric is not to do that, it is to associate McConnell with historic injustices against black Americans and thereby to impute guilt. The purpose of imputing guilt is ultimately to oust him and others like him from power, and usher in a new regime.
Reparations Are Just a Way to Divide Americans
Reparations, then, is like any other issue that animates the American left these days. Where you stand on reparations is like where you stand on immigration. It has nothing to do with the merits or wisdom of a given policy and everything to do with whether or not you are a good person.
If you oppose reparations—just like if you oppose immigration or gay marriage or transgenderism—you are not a good person. In fact, you are part of the problem. You are helping to perpetrate the injustice at the heart of America, and therefore culpable. At a minimum, you can’t be allowed a say in how the country is governed, not anymore.
The goal here isn’t to heal or to bring together, but to divide. Cashin, the law professor, tries to shoehorn reparations into nothing more than increased taxpayer spending on “richly resourced schools and community centers, public transit, opportunity fellowships, housing choice vouchers, and mandatory inclusive housing elsewhere.” Nothing more than balancing out public spending in the face of “opportunity-hoarding among affluent whites.”
But this won’t be enough, because reparations aren’t really about outcomes or disparities or public spending. They are about sorting out Americans, separating the good from the wicked and making sure everyone knows the difference. They are about ushering in a new regime and new ruling elite.
You might think it insane for the 2020 Democratic candidates to push reparations going into the election cycle, especially since it polls so low among Democratic voters. But for them it is not about winning over Americans who are on the fence. The entire point of the debate is to ratchet up racial tension and drive a wedge into our national life.
That is another way of saying reparations aren’t really about the past at all. They’re about the future.