It is time for more reparations talk

Ta-Nehisi CoatesHere we go again. Ta-Nahesi Coates, who frequently writes on racial inequality, has penned a long (very long) essay that is featured on the cover of the current “Atlantic.” The title is “The Case for Reparations,” and the teaser neatly summarizes the 16,000-word shot across the bow that follows:

Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.

The money phrase in the above quote is moral debt. It’s not money per se that Coates is after so much as it is a reckoning, an evening of the score. As NRO’s Kevin Williamson writes in a fair-minded rebuttal, Coates is seeking something akin to a “South Africa-style truth-and-reconciliation commission.” I get more of a sense of a yearning for a “Nuremburg for blacks,” but maybe that view is colored by a sense that we have trod this ground many times before and that Coates’s itch — while couched in more cerebral, touchy-feely language than that of past proponents of reparations — remains unscratchable.

Williamson, who describes the piece in his opening paragraph as “beautifully written,” “intelligent and sometimes moving,” goes on to write:

Coates engages in what certainly feels like a little misdirection. Responding to the very fair criticism that public policy designed to help the disadvantaged should distinguish between, say, the Obama daughters and those without their advantages, Mr. Coates is having none of it: “In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much.” The truth or untruth of that claim can only be ascertained by asking the question that Mr. Coates is committed to ignoring: “Compared with whom?” Did Barack or Michelle Obama inherit disadvantages that forced them to perform twice as well, and bear twice as much, as a white woman born into horrific poverty in Appalachia? A white orphan? A white immigrant escaping the Third Reich? A racial disadvantage is only one of many kinds of disadvantages that can be inherited — why should it be the one around which we organize ourselves?

That reference to escaping the Third Reich necessitates a brief detour into a secondary skirmish that began on Twitter yesterday when MSNBC’s resident race lighting rod Touré provocatively wrote:

The power of whiteness: RT @hope_and_chains: My family survived a concentration camp, came to the US w/ nothing, LEGALLY, and made it work.

The reaction is symptomatic of a wildly unhealthy level of self-absorption and what might be termed ethnic self-pity. It shows that any serious attempt at a conversation on race has become co-opted by the imaginary bogeyman called “white privilege.” Coates in his essay is not immune to mentioning privilege. It comes up in that passage about the Obamas that Kevin Williamson quotes:

Malia and Sasha Obama enjoy privileges beyond the average white child’s dreams. But that comparison is incomplete. The more telling question is how they compare with Jenna and Barbara Bush — the products of many generations of privilege, not just one. Whatever the Obama children achieve, it will be evidence of their family’s singular perseverance, not of broad equality.

Belief in the myth of privilege prevents people like Coates, Touré, and their white (guilty) liberal allies from seeing anything but a dog whistle in Mark Cuban’s frank but ill-advised comment about crossing the street when he sees a “black kid in a hoodie at night.”

It is difficult to eliminate emotion from discussions like this, which may explain why white liberal commentators who have weighed in so far on Coates’s essay have been unserious in their responses. Matthew Yglesias, writing at Vox, acknowledges that Coates calls “for a moral reckoning with the legacy of white supremacy in America.” He then promptly tosses his own moral compass out the window and offers this modest proposal:

The more wonkishly inclined might prefer a specific proposal, so here’s a place to start: we could close the wealth gap between black households and white households by directing the Federal Reserve to print $55 billion a month for 25 months and divide the proceeds evenly among every African-American.

Yeah, that would work like a charm. (Yes, I am aware that Yglesias goes on to explain how his proposal is economically feasible, but his understanding of economics leaves more to be desired than his understanding of race relations.)

A second attempt at explaining why Coates’s essay is a game changer and why conservatives will never get it is delivered by Isaac Chotiner at the New Republic. His contribution consists of seven bullet points that he culled from a debate on reparations that occurred on the “Steve Malzberg Show” on radio. The seven points, Chotiner claims, represent “pathologies” used by those on the right to dismiss racial complaints.

In the interests of space, I will treat only the first, which is representative. Chotiner writes, “Malzberg began by stating that Obama would be in favor of reparations “if he could.” Chotiner counters by insisting that Obama has said “he is opposed to reparations. His evidence is a Huffington Post article from Aug. 2, 2008 that quotes Obama as saying:

I have said in the past — and I’ll repeat again — that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed.

I’m not sure I would call that a flat-out rejection, as Chotiner does, but let’s give the devil his due and acknowledge that Obama expressed opposition to reparations. But that was on the campaign trail, and it was six years ago. Is Chotiner expecting us to accept a statement Obama made then as a reflection of his position now? Does Chotiner not allow for the possibility that the president has “evolved” on the topic as he did on gay marriage over the space of several months?

The larger point is that Barack Obama can’t be separated from any conversation on race primarily because he has insinuated himself into such conversations and initiated several. In his lamentations over the death of Trayvon Martin, no one made the observation on Obama’s behalf that a putative son of his would resemble the slain teen. He brought that up himself — and on himself. And he has done it repeatedly.

If race relations under the first black president haven’t grown worse, they certainly haven’t improved. Obama is not alone responsible for this stasis. As Robert Tracinski wrote at the Federalist last month:

Barack Obama’s presidency is failing.


So the left is doing what they always do when their policies fail: make everything about race, instead. If the Obama presidency itself is what’s failing, then his whole presidency — the one that was supposed to usher in a post-racial era — must be all about race, too.

These are the same people now who are rallying behind Ta-Nahesi Coates and even Touré, whose comment is obscene and indefensible. Vicious circle much?

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