See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Ta-Neisi Coates and the Wages of Supremacy

Ta-Neisi Coates has written a long and provocative deep-think piece entitled “The Case for Reparations”, his “take on the Atlantic as a Journal of ‘Big Ideas'” and it is a tour-de-force. Please, read the whole thing, summaries can’t do it justice. That goes double for those of you who are not interested in the underlying case, Coates tells a lot of important stories along the way, and his writing is an artistic treasure. Don’t miss it.

I was deeply moved upon reading The Case for Reparations. The article follows multiple threads, historical events as told by both experts and by those who survived them. I now have a deeper appreciation for the damage done to black America by America, in all the meaningful senses of the term, and I can begin to sense the hazy boundaries of how ignorant of it I really am. Much as I was informed, I was challenged; as I was challenged, I was compelled; but despite being compelled, I remain unconvinced. This is because that Coates’ argument is not valid, (in the formal logic sense, not the internet shouting match sense) but his assertions are true.1 He has proven a great deal, just not out what he set out to do. I worried that I was nitpicking – letting a mind shaped by years of formal argumentation training miss out on the substance of the article. The article reads like a documentary more than a brief after all. Coates is not just telling stories, he described his article as “an argument in support of reparations” in a blog posting, describing the evolution of his thinking.

The article begins and ends with Clyde Ross, son of a farming from the deep south, now resident of North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. Ross has been a repeat victim of white supremacy his whole life. I don’t fully know the entirety of what the term “white supremacy” means to Coates but I use it to mean a pervasive hostility above and beyond mere prejudice.2 What Ross suffers is not merely whites shying from his side of the street, or irrational gut level reactions of fear and disdain. What Ross has suffered was active and systemic. Ross was disadvantaged by his ancestors being slaves, no doubt, but that, in his haunting words “is just one of [his] losses”: his family of black farmers was victimized by Mississippi tax authorities and converted into sharecroppers; as sharecroppers his family was victimized by white landowners and the white legal system they infested; his family was victimized by the Mississippi authorities; Ross was later forced to sell his prized possession as a child and he eventually escaped north. In Chicago, he was welcomed by Jews looking to model integration, but he was still victimized again by contract sellers and their predatory contracts, contracts that sprung into being when the FHA declared that neighborhoods with blacks were high risk, and could not be insured. The white supremacy that victimized Ross, Coates shows us, is a predator with many faces, but one of the most fearsome is the FHA, and White America and government coffers grew fat on its spoils.

I had heard the same story I think most people had about segregated neighborhoods – that prejudiced whites used contracts to force other whites, prejudiced or not, to stop blacks from moving into their neighborhoods, and when that didn’t work, their prejudice made them run to the suburbs in “white flight” leaving behind black ghettos. Coates says differently: FHA redlining gave whites access to insured mortgages and served up blacks to predatory whites. It made explicit that insurance came only to those who used restrictive covenants. Segregation was explicit federal housing policy, and any white who wasn’t compelled by prejudice to flee would still see redlining destroy his property values. This is where Coates’ story is at its most compelling and unfortunately it is where his argument begins to fall off the rails.

The article depicts a lot of predators, bound in common by white supremacy, working as coordinated wholes to pilfer the most successful blacks, but it also suggests systemic changes by discreet actors causing individuals to respond rationally, but unfairly. Which is it, then, a massive conspiracy between governments, realtors, and countless homeowners with white supremacy as its aim, or an overwhelming tragedy with a few social engineers as villains? Somewhere between surely, but where? Coates neglects to tell us if the villains of his piece hunt in packs or are more like an ant hive, and it weakens the article terribly. Bad acts may be bad acts, but the details of what bad acts measures heavy when determining what reparations look like. argument for reparation must be a logical chain, and the facts, no matter how horrifying and compelling, do not link themselves as cause, effect, and responsibility.

Just as the article blends together emergent and curated evils, (more on this in a forthcoming post) it also merges the enduring legacies of theft with distinct incidents. It confuses legal terminology. It leaves me confused on what it is exactly that is being asked for. To make reparations is to compensate, to make someone wronged whole again by demanding the exact amount of harm be extracted from who did the harm.3 Alternatively, one might seek restitution, the extraction of wrongful gains. Occasionally, along with compensation, a wronged party may ask that the wrongdoer be punished above and beyond what was lost. Finally, sometimes, we punish and incapacitate criminals for wounding society. All of these things are part and parcel of what it means to have the protection of the law in America. Yet, when Ross and the Contract Buyers league sued the contract sellers demanding recompense for reaping unjust profits, Coates describes it thus:

Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer appealing to the government simply for equality. They were no longer fleeing in hopes of a better deal elsewhere. They were charging society with a crime against their community. They wanted the crime publicly ruled as such. They wanted the crime’s executors declared to be offensive to society. And they wanted restitution for the great injury brought upon them by said offenders. In 1968, Clyde Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer simply seeking the protection of the law. They were seeking reparations.

So what exactly does Coates mean by reparations, anyway?

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[, … w]e are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. […]

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[, …] a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

That is a tall order (and Coates makes his case for it well), but that doesn’t sound like reparations to me. That sounds like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or a similar cousin. A serious undertaking by a duly appointed and representative body to bring the truth of the past into the light. And there is truth to be brought to light. As Ezra Klein points out

They may not be the villains of American racism, but they are the beneficiaries of it. The average white southerner in 1832 was far poorer than the average white southerner today, and part of that vast increase in wealth and income and knowledge and social networks is the result of compound interest working its magic on what the slaveowners and the segregationists stole.

Yet, Coates seems to be undercutting himself at this point. He explained that part of the impetus to write was in response to the cultural pathology critiques:

There is massive, overwhelming evidence for the proposition that white supremacy is the only thing wrong with black people. There is significantly less evidence for the proposition that culture is a major part of what’s wrong with black people. But we don’t really talk about white supremacy. We talk about inequality, vestigial racism, and culture. Our conversation omits a major portion of the evidence.

Yet, if the advantages pilfered by the whites have compounded without any villains, so to it seems that the disadvantages too compound. Black poverty and white poverty are not the same, Coates reminds us.

Indeed, in America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife. We believe white dominance to be a fact of the inert past, a delinquent debt that can be made to disappear if only we don’t look.

There has always been another way. “It is in vain to alledge, that our ancestors brought them hither, and not we,” Yale President Timothy Dwight said in 1810. “We inherit our ample patrimony with all its incumbrances; and are bound to pay the debts of our ancestors. This debt, particularly, we are bound to discharge: and, when the righteous Judge of the Universe comes to reckon with his servants, he will rigidly exact the payment at our hands. To give them liberty, and stop here, is to entail upon them a curse.”

Coates is surely right that having a father did not save Trayvon Martin, but surely it helped others like him. White supremacy has left a deep scar, but that gives the struggle at the margins more meaning, not less. To tell fathers to be fathers to their children is not to deny the power of the assailant, but an exhortation to drag yourself to a field hospital and begin to heal. How can Coates demand a spiritual accounting, and not a cultural one? If society is to pay for that it has done, it must see all of it.

Yet a fiscal accounting is still demanded. The indignities faced by blacks in America are old and recent both, varied and wide, and Coates has shown us a few. To take Coates seriously is to attempt to examine through these indignities and ask what must be paid by who, what prosperity stolen demands restitution, and when is the only remedy sunlight. It is still an unimaginably huge task, and Coates gives little guide in the sorting. Instead, Coates waves aside questions on what reparations are, exactly, by pointing to a bill by John Conyers, Jr., (Democratic Congressman from Michigan District 13) H.R. 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.

A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.

It seems strange to me that the indicator of the unseriousness of America to reconcile with reparations is Congresses failure to take up a bill. Some truly tiny fraction of bills introduced ever make it to law or are even discussed. That’s not all bad, you can still introduce a bill to try to drive a media narrative, or raise funds, or otherwise advance an agenda. It turns out part of the reason that this was the first time I’ve ever heard of HR 40 is because Conyers didn’t even put out a press release. A search of his official Congressional website turns up only Conyers’ “issue” page, and the Reparations subpage, last updated August 15, 2012 11:09 AM. A search of his campaign website returns no hits. I spoke with someone knowledgeable on Michigan politics who said “If you’re not even willing to put out a press release it’s unclear why you’re doing it at all”. Maybe Conyers was a great legislator once, but he’s little more than an empty suit now, and its distressing to see Coates fail to adhere to his own maxim of posing questions to people who know more than you.

As incomplete of an answer as the invocation of Conyers and H.R. 40 was to the question of what reparations look like, there are other unanswered questions as well. Where does responsibility for theft begin and end? If labor stolen from the black must be paid for, what of the land stolen from the Amerindian?7 What of the colonies plundered, the women’s whose franchise was stolen? States are sometimes evil, but they are more often amoral. Is there a way to account for only some of the evil done, without throwing into question the entire enterprise? I don’t know the answer to that either, but I wish Coates’ article had proffered one.

Coates has made a powerful case that there is a long history of distinct but systemic predations on blacks aided, abetted, and sometimes originated by governments at the Federal, state, and municipal level, and there must be an accounting. That is no small feat, and perhaps a far greater service to the United States than reparations qua reparations ever could be. Coates has proven a great deal, just not what he set out to prove.



3 responses to “Ta-Neisi Coates and the Wages of Supremacy

  1. Pingback: Emergent Evil, Perspective, and Responsibility | See Infra

  2. ebrew79 05/23/2014 at 17:23

    Best thing I’ve read in a long time? Particularly the personal story of Clyde Ross The World War II vet who has experienced nothing but a lifetime of bigotry!


    • K. Chen 05/23/2014 at 18:11

      The tale of Clyde Ross was very good, and anchored the piece well, but I’d like to think there was more to his life than bigotry. He had successes and joys too, “awards for service in his community, pictures of his children in cap and gown.” Ross was not just a victim, but a survivor, and I think that is important to remember.


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