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Ta-Nehisi Coates on Reparations: A Hammer in Search of a Nail

In “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates never makes the case for reparations. So what is the actual point of the article?

Post-racial politics is officially over.

The hope that electing the first black president would put an end to the era of racial politics has long ago seemed quaint, along with many other exaggerated expectations for Barack Obama. But now we have proof that a whole new era of racial politics is just beginning.

The new era is heralded by a long article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations.”

It’s not so much the article itself, but a reception for it that is so rapturous it borders on orgasmic. Mollie Hemingway collects some of the more embarrassing praise: the article is “revolutionary for the field of journalism” and “justifies the existence of magazines”; “‘Must read’ is nowhere near strong enough”; it is “a text that should be taught immediately” and “confirms his position as the greatest writer of our generation.”

God forbid that anyone should react that way to anything I ever write, because it’s a build-up no author could hope to make good on. Coates’s article, while impassioned and occasionally eloquent, kind of falls apart about three-quarters of the way through, as if he doesn’t really know where to go with it, and ends on an inconclusive note. So no, they won’t be teaching this text.

That’s why the reaction is so significant. It’s not that people were swept away by the overwhelming logic of the piece. Instead, they were ready and primed for something like it. The idea of reparations for slavery has been kicked around since—well, since 1865, and well before then. It has bubbled up a few times in the past couple of decades but without much enthusiasm. Now the enthusiasm seems to be here (at least, until Hillary decides she needs the votes of blue-collar whites). The question is: why?

A close reading of Coates gives us a good idea of the answer.

The first thing to note is that, despite its title, this is not actually a case for reparations. Coates never describes what reparations would consist of, who would pay them, who would be eligible for them, how the system would work, how it would avoid creating new victims of injustice—those caught on the wrong side of higher taxes or preferential treatment—or how anyone would make the political case for it. In other words, all the topics you would cover if you were actually, you know, making a case for reparations.

So what is the point of the article, if not that?

The first clue is that this argument is not about reparations for slavery, either. Coates devotes relatively little space to slavery and talks instead about “black reparations,” i.e., reparations for anyone who is black, presumably by anyone who is not black (though that’s one of the many issues that is left vague and unsettled). His case is about racism in general and how it has limited the opportunities that have historically been open to blacks in America.

This is a subject about which he writes eloquently and with sincere feeling. And it is definitely worth taking a good, hard look; there were many aspects of this story that I was already aware of, but a few that were new to me. So as a cri de coeur about the evils of racism and the unrepaired harm it has done to its victims and their descendants, the article is effective.

But racism, as such, is an offense that is general and diffuse, in many cases involving actions that are reprehensible but neither criminal nor tortious, and it seems impossible to devise a concrete, specific system of compensation for the victims. So Coates does not attempt to do so.

Instead, he gives us a spectacular punt.

Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers, Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”

So this is not a case for reparations. It is a case for thinking about reparations, with such thinking to be done at a later time by other people. It’s like one of those UN negotiations where diplomats hold meeting at which they agree to hold more meetings.

But since reparations have been bounced around for so many years, this doesn’t seem quite adequate. If you want to add anything new to the discussion, you have to go farther. You have to actually demonstrate that this is a real, workable idea.

Yet the punt is instructive, because it tells us what this piece is actually about: it’s about making the case that America is guilty.

Coates doesn’t just offer up a long litany of injuries and injustices suffered by blacks due to slavery, segregation, and racism. He goes farther to claim that these injustices are inherent to the American system, that these evils are “the roots of American wealth and democracy.”

He never really attempts to demonstrate this. He provides a long list of moving anecdotes about individual victims of racism, but no systematic accounting of the overall role of slavery in the American economy and political system and no attempt to balance it against other (much larger) economic and ideological forces. Instead, he outsources this point to a few quotes from historians like the unreconstructed Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, who is cited for the claim that the Industrial Revolution was built on slavery (as opposed to, say, Watt and Boulton’s steam engine). Let’s just say that a guy who spent his career whitewashing the Soviet Union is not a good authority on the subject of slave labor.

Ideologically, far from slavery being somehow essential to America’s founding, many of America’s Founders knew that it contradicted their doctrine of individual rights and that the country would eventually have to reckon with the question of how to eliminate it. Economically, from the very beginning it was widely remarked upon—Alexis de Tocqueville discusses it at length in Democracy in America—that America’s slave states were much less productive than its free states. American agriculture was expanded, not by the plantations of the slaveholders, but by the homesteads of the pioneers; American industry was driven, not by slave labor, but by innovation, not by cotton but by steam engines and steel mills.

Coates cites figures about how dependent the America economy supposedly was on slavery, which would imply that the country should have undergone an economic collapse immediately after the Civil War, when quite the opposite happened. Indeed, in his telling of American history, the Civil War is inexplicable. You would think no white person wanted it.

In fact, the Civil War happened precisely because the balance of wealth and population was tipping against the slaveholding states. As Northern politicians sought to block the westward expansion of slavery, the Southern states saw that they would be a quickly shrinking minority in Congress, and they tried to get out of the Union before the inevitable moment when it would ban their “peculiar institution.”

But Coates gives us an utterly one-sided history in which America’s struggles over slavery, segregation, and racism are not taken seriously. He pursues his indictment of America with a prosecutor’s zeal, and he is not about to admit any evidence that would mitigate the guilt of the defendant.

In service to this indictment, he likes to play it both ways. Government-backed red-lining of mortgages to exclude black neighborhoods is part of the indictment, but so is the expansion of sub-prime mortgages into those same neighborhoods, which was promoted precisely as a remedy for the old red-lining. The exclusion of most Southern blacks from Social Security is part of the indictment, but so is the construction of high-rise public housing projects in black neighborhoods.

Coates keeps bumping into the ill effects of the welfare state’s attempt to combat black poverty, but he never confronts the implications. A huge motivator of the War on Poverty and the Great Society was precisely to provide compensation to blacks for the historical injustices of segregation and racism. The fact that this didn’t work out should surely be at the center of any attempt to grapple with the concept of reparations. But Coates skips past it.

Well, you know what they say: If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In this case, if you want a hammer, you have to make everything look like a nail.

That’s the best way to understand Coates’s case: he wants to be able to use the historical injustices of racism as a political hammer to accomplish—well, whatever he wants to accomplish. Hence the vagueness about what reparations would entail and how they would be implemented. He just wants the hammer, and he’ll decide later what should get pounded flat.

That’s the point of the Conyers proposal for a congressional commission on reparations. Coates presents this as an attempt merely to “study” the issue, which implies that he must think his audience is incredibly naive. Anyone who watches politics knows the purpose of this kind of commission. The whole game is to stack the commission with people who back your preferred approach, and then use the supposed authority of the commission’s recommendation to label opponents as unreasonable. Given the ability to staff such a commission, Democrats would treat reparations the way they treated the stimulus bill: as a great omnibus to be loaded with whatever welfare-state proposals they already wanted anyway.

The reparations commission is a hammer, meant to set up the argument that if you don’t go along with its welfare-state remedies, you must be a racist.

This is the wider sense in which the issue of reparations is a political hammer. Coates bills it as an attempt at racial healing, but again, he must think we’re naive. He knows that any attempt to set up a system of reparations will meet extensive resistance. And since the proposed reparations will almost certainly consist of an expansion of government and of the welfare state, with a concomitant expansion of taxes to pay for it, he must expect that reparations will be opposed specifically by Republicans.

I think that explains some of the renewed enthusiasm about reparations: it is an attempt to indefinitely extend the pattern of voting by racial blocs. Coates’s piece is best read alongside a recent analysis by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times. It bills itself as a kind of impartial and dispassionate examination of the idea that Republicans can win elections by appealing to the white vote alone without engaging in any outreach to minority voters, as opposed to the Democrats’ strategy of winning elections by appealing to a coalition of minority voters. The not-so-subtle theme of the piece is that Edsall is goading Republicans to please, please, please embrace their assigned role as the party of white people, letting Democrats keep a monopoly on the minority vote—in the hope that minority voters will eventually constitute a majority.

That is the deeper sense in which this is the beginning of a whole new era of racial politics. In the last two presidential contests, Democrats got a taste of how they could win elections by mobilizing racial blocs, but they also know that President Obama won’t be on the ballot again, so this moment will be difficult to recreate. That’s where the argument for reparations comes in. It is a perfectly divisive issue, meant to provoke a backlash among blue-collar whites and to be opposed by Republicans, and therefore to maintain the racial polarization of the electorate.

This is not just narrow electoral politics. It ties in to a deeper ideological goal of the left. If America was founded on slavery and racism, then the American system is inherently illegitimate, and every aspect of it is subject to being thrown out or fundamentally transformed. It’s all fair game. Specifically, every part of the economy is fair game. As Coates puts it: “The wealth gap [between blacks and whites] merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution.” Capitalism is based on the security of the right to private property. But Coates’s argument is that all private wealth is presumed to be stolen goods subject to forfeiture to the state.

That’s a sweeping goal, to be sure, but it’s not really about ending racism or about what’s best for black people in America. If the injury suffered by blacks is poverty, the remedy should be a policy that helps them rise up out of poverty and accumulate wealth. Yet Coates keeps gliding away from any serious consideration of what such a policy would be. Worse, he goes out of his way to dismiss some of the known and established steps for climbing the rungs of the economic ladder. He dismisses the importance of marriage, fathers, homeownership, and the rest, on the grounds that it’s all an illusion nullified by white racism: “Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder.” As for those blacks who have been successful by adhering to these values, they are “exceptional” and supposedly prove nothing about what is possible for everyone else.

Coates clearly comes to this discussion with a pre-existing animus against capitalism, and reparations just serves as another legal, political, and rhetorical hammer to attack it.

Yet that does not mean that we should dismiss his arguments. There is a lesson here for the right, and especially for those of us who are seeking to recast the free-market agenda to make it relevant to a wider audience. The legacy of segregation and racism—often backed by government intervention—is real, and we should take it seriously. But in some ways, the worst legacy is the degree to which capitalism and Americanism are already de-legitimized in the minds of many blacks. We’ve let the Democrats, the party of slavery and Jim Crow, win back the black vote, while the party of Lincoln let it slip away.

Yet capitalism was never the culprit behind racism. Segregation entailed systematic violations of private property rights, a refusal to enforce tort laws and the sanctity of contracts, and a vast network of economic regulations. It was not capitalism but an attempt to exclude a whole class of people from capitalism. And to exclude them from capitalism meant to exclude them from economic advancement and the accumulation of wealth.

If the actual injury to black Americans is exclusion from the benefits of capitalism, then the real remedy is greater inclusion in the capitalist system, the system of work, savings, ownership, entrepreneurship, and wealth-building.

That’s precisely the opposite of the solution suggested by Coates and his hyperventilating fans. Yet this is the kind of “reparations” that would actually do the most to improve the lives of blacks and put an end to America’s bitter history of adversarial racial politics.

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