The case against reparations

Posted: June 10, 2014

SEVERAL weeks back, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic magazine's national correspondent, wrote a long piece, "The Case for Reparations," which seemed designed to ignite a discussion about compensation to African-Americans that we never had.

Except for a few corners of the Internet, it quickly evaporated.

I think I know why.

First, the Atlantic indulged Coates with 16,000 words to present a catalog of crimes against black Americans from slavery (mostly in the South) to redlining (mostly in the North). That was too long for most Americans.

Second, Coates never put a price tag on it.

Coates quotes black victims and white bigots. He mentions Congress' refusal to take up HR40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, introduced annually since 1989 by U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

Proponents say that "it's just a study." Critics doubt it will stop at "study."

Attorney General Eric Holder once called America "essentially a nation of cowards" for failing to openly discuss the issue of race.

What (white) Americans fear is being called racist every time that conversation starts.

Coates acknowledges that "the lives of black Americans are better than they were a half-century ago," but that "the income gap between black and white households is roughly the same as it was in 1970," and black families have 5 percent of the wealth of white families. No American should feel good about that disparity, but reparations wouldn't cure it.

Coates believes that every segment of white society has directly benefited from slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and discriminatory business practices.

That's the part that sticks in the throats of many whites, including me, whose grandparents arrived a half-century after the Civil War and who were themselves treated like dirt and cheated six ways to Sunday. As bad as slavery? No. Beneficiaries of slavery? No.

Instead of the chestnut of "white privilege," which is thrown about by people suffering from white guilt, Coates used "white supremacy."

Now I'm the Klan?

Coates admits that the concept of reparations founders on questions such as who will be paid, how much will they get and who will pay them.

Would I be required to send money to Oprah Winfrey as reparations for slavery, which I did not cause and which she did not endure?

Most Americans know that African-Americans - most of whom have deeper roots in this nation than the rest of us - have suffered greatly in the past and face remnants of racism today. I believe that most Americans, if given a sensible and effective way to make amends, would take it.

Others say that our good faith was proved in a Civil War and by laws to create equality in housing, voting, jobs and education.

Coates says, "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." That's it?

No. He adds: "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 founders' wisdom? The guys who permitted slavery? Does Coates think there are slavery deniers, as there are Holocaust deniers?

If Coates wants a confessional, let's follow South Africa's example with a Truth Commission. The dirty laundry gets examined, no one gets a bill.

There is no rational way to diagram who gets how much from whom to satisfy an impossible debt. Attempting to do so would tear us apart.


Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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