How the conversation about reparations reveals the right's twisted morality

Opponents of reparations argue that we've talked enough about race. But look at the way the GOP talks about it

By Eric Levitz
June 1, 2014 2:59PM (UTC)
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Mitt Romney, Grover Norquist (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Jonathan Ernst/Photo collage by Salon)

Last month, John McWhorter penned a widely read rebuttal to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.” Unlike many of the piece’s dissenters, McWhorter actually read Coates’ sprawling history of, and moral meditation on, three and a half centuries of African-American oppression. He’s therefore aware that an accounting of reparations’ impracticalities would be largely irrelevant to Coates' call for “a national reckoning… an airing of family secrets… a settling with old ghosts.” Specifically, Coates calls for the passage of HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. He emphasizes that the project of studying the issue, of presenting our legislature with an authoritative account of debts incurred, and potential modes of redress, is as essential, if not more so, than the execution of reparatory transfer payments themselves.

McWhorter argues that such a reckoning would be both unnecessary and unproductive. While acknowledging racism as a scourge in American life both past and present, McWhorter is “perplexed by a depiction of America as somehow blind to it.” In his view, America is “obsessed” with its own racial history. He finds evidence of this obsession in little acts of engagement or enlightenment plucked from two randomly chosen years early in the millennium, noting, among other things, the success of a traveling exhibit of slave-ship artifacts in 2001, and a legislator’s quest to remove Jefferson Davis’ name from a Seattle highway in 2002. McWhorter sees an America eager to engage on issues of race, pointing to the frequent “declamations against racism in all forms” that attended media coverage of Trayvon Martin, Paula Dean, Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling. He notes that among the best-selling nonfiction books of the last three years were Isabel Wilkerson’s history of The Great Migration, "The Warmth of Other Suns," and Michelle Alexander’s indictment of mass incarceration, "The New Jim Crow." He reminds us that last year’s Best Picture was a nightmarish rendering of American slavery.


In McWhorter’s view, if Coates' desire for a “national conversation” on race has yet to be sated, it never will be, because Coates’ protest is “less proactive than reactive,” less political than existential:

Four-hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow left us unwhole, and unfortunately susceptible to a baseline sense of existential grievance as a keystone of being black.

Rather than asking white America for an “understanding” that will never feel complete, McWhorter calls on African-Americans to seek their assistance “in making our future brighter than our present.” Better to pursue the end of the drug war than a “settling with old ghosts,” to pursue material comfort in the future than an existential comfort with the past, if for no other reason then because  that existential comfort seems impossible to attain:

In exactly what fashion could 317 million people “reckon” or come to certain eternally elusive “terms” with racism? Especially in a way that would satisfy people who see even America’s current atonements as insufficient?

The irony of McWhorter’s argument is that, when assessing America’s racial progress, he’s the one elevating the symbolic over the material. In one sentence he evinces agreement with a book that depicts the incarceration of 2 million black men as Jim Crow reborn; in the next he’s baffled that Coates could be dissatisfied with the “atonements” America made by producing “The Help,” or forcing Paula Dean to take a vacation.


It’s true that part of Coates' argument is for the immaterial value of a national conversation, but the subject of that conversation is definitively material. Contrary to McWhorter’s interpretation, Coates isn’t seeking an existential “conversation on race” that might force the white majority to contemplate what it is to be The Other; he’s asking for a conversation about what our nation’s oppressive institutions have cost African-Americans, in dollars and cents.

America’s engagement with the evils of white supremacy is not lacking in the context of prestige cinema, museum exhibits or cable news coverage of neo-confederate ranchers. In discussions of best-selling nonfiction, we can stare our history straight in the face. It’s when the discussion turns to budgets that America’s eyes turn away. Coates’ call isn’t for a conversation on “race” but one on reparations. He isn’t seeking an acknowledgment of the effects of white supremacy on our culture, but on our political economy, on our conversations about what is owed to whom.

* * *


In Coates' own telling, a central impetus for the essay was his frustration with the way our political discourse explains the persistence of the ghetto. To the nation’s unrepentant racists and “bravest” intellectuals, the resilience of black poverty is explained by the hereditary mental inferiority of the darker races. Mainstream Republicans are more generous, casting the urban poor as victims of a government that robbed them of self-respect by helping them feed their hungry children. Even national Democrats, while paying homage to the structural origins of black poverty, signal their political bravery by pinning its persistence on a degenerate culture that glorifies men with loose pants and looser attachments to the mothers of their children. For Coates, an America that had “come to terms” with its racial history would have no need for such hypotheses.

In his view, the privation of our central cities is the inevitable product of three decades of collusion between the government and the private real-estate industry, collusion aimed at locking African-Americans out of “the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history.” In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration, a department tasked with insuring private mortgages, thereby reducing interest rates and the down payment necessary for purchasing a home. This subsidy, coupled with the unprecedented growth of the post-war boom economy, gave birth to the American middle class. As Coates explains, the FHA designed its policies to minimize the melanin in that class’s complexion:


The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red.

The effect of this “redlining” was to make integration anathema to white society. Even the most racially enlightened white person was made to understand that a black family across the street was a blow to her own family’s wealth. A house ineligible for FHA backing was worth a fraction of one that was. This threat to the foundation of middle-class prosperity spurred white communities to terrorize African-Americans seeking a home in their midst. Even within their assigned ghettos, African-Americans were denied access to the legitimate mortgage market, their frustrated ambition pushing them into the hands of ruthless “contract sellers” who “would sell homes at inflated prices and then evict families who could not pay — taking their down payment and their monthly installments as profit.”

The incipient African-American middle class was thereby kept separate and unequal. Denied access to the spoils of the post-war boom, the stability of asset wealth, well-funded schools and public services, the black community was left uniquely vulnerable to the stagnation and contraction that's defined the last four decades of the American economy.

The greatest achievement of Coates’ essay may be the way it elucidates mid-century housing discrimination through deft summaries of sociological research and vivid anecdotes from the lives of those affected. While McWhorter argues that America’s engagement with its own history of racism has been obsessive, our discourse suggests white America is far from fluent in the history of the FHA. I myself, a northern liberal whose childhood best friend was African-American, graduated college with a more detailed understanding of The Bell Curve than of redlining.


I submit that the reason the FHA is rarely mentioned in our discussions of the ghetto is the same reason “The Case for Reparations” is a productive and necessary essay: To acknowledge the reality of the African-American experience is to acknowledge the utter falsity of the idea that our status quo’s distribution of wealth and privileges is in any way natural or just. This may seem an obvious point, but it is hardly treated as such in American politics.

* * *

Redistribution is still a dirty word in the twilight of Reagan’s America. With trickle-down economics’ utilitarian case for tax cuts thoroughly discredited, Republicans increasingly rely on moral arguments against taxation. The libertarian right champions the Non-Aggression Principle, which holds that an individual’s right to her property is as inalienable as her right to life, a concept that renders redistribution of wealth by the state an act of unconscionable violence. Grover Norquist has argued that the government’s collection of Estate Taxes is morally indistinct from the Nazis’ collection of gold teeth out of the mouths of murdered Jews. The last Republican candidate for president characterized the bottom 47 percent of the population as parasitical moochers, hell-bent on using their franchise to confiscate the wealth of their betters.


A belief in the grotesque immorality of redistribution aimed at the black community in particular has fortified the Republican coalition since Nixon. Chants of “Welfare Queen” and “Food Stamp President” have brought the white working class, Christian right and plutocrats into harmony. Bipartisan belief in the need to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor has created a welfare system that provides far less assistance to the the most destitute of our society than it does to the working class.

“The Case for Reparations” flips this understanding of our collective relationship to the urban poor on its head. The single mothers of our central cities are not indebted to the U.S. government. The balance runs in the other direction. Were America to truly engage with the truth of the black experience, were its legislature to calculate the billions stolen from the African-American community over three and a half centuries of exploitation and discrimination, our politics would have to dispense with the fantasy that our economic hierarchy was formed by a perfect market impartially assigning value. It would have to accept that the allocation of wealth in our society was not determined merely by discrepancies in talent and work ethic, but also by systemic, inhuman crimes. It would still be possible to debate the practical wisdom of redistribution and reparation, but never again their moral legitimacy.

One of the most oft-cited practical objections to reparations is to ask rhetorically, If African-Americans are compensated for the injustices they suffered, what about every other category of individual that was wronged at some point in our history? What about gender reparations for the centuries of uncompensated domestic labor and economic discrimination suffered by the fairer sex? What about reparations for the descendants of the Japanese interned during World War II, of the Irish denied employment in the early 20th century? Is there enough money in the Treasury to compensate the survivors of that continental genocide on which our whole society was founded?

In my view, such questions don't point to a fatal flaw in the concept of reparations, but rather to that concept's vital promise. At the bottom of the slippery slope such objections decry is a politics that takes justice as its central mission. Once white America recognizes the poverty of the inner city as a product of mass theft, not want of virtue, they’ll be better able to scrutinize their own struggles for signs of grand larceny. What is owed to the mining towns of West Virginia for centuries of abusive labor conditions and environmental degradation? What is owed to the underwater homeowners of America by a banking system that encouraged predatory lending? What does that system owe every American taxpayer for acts of fraud that collapsed our economy?


A tangential, but maddeningly overlooked point in the debate over reparations is that compensating the victimized wouldn't actually require confiscation from the victimizer. Forty years free of the gold standard, the U.S. government can print dollars in unlimited quantities, restrained only by the risk of inflation. The Federal Reserve is presently printing $45 billion a month to buy government debt and Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac bonds, in a process called “quantitative easing.”

As Matt Yglesias notes, that monthly $45 billion could just as easily be distributed to African-American households, indebted homeowners, or every American citizen. Inflation is still lower than the Fed’s stated target. We don’t need to tax the plutocrats to begin righting the wrongs of our history, or at least helping states keep schools open and bridges upright. We’re restrained only by economic illiteracy and a misplaced moral conviction that wealth allocated through past crimes is more legitimate than wealth allocated through present democracy.

In Coates’ narrative, white supremacy in America was born of the profound challenge the New World presented to its extractive ruling class: How to maximize the exploitation of laborers on a continent where workers were scarce and land abundant? The initial answer was to achieve control through sheer brutality, as Coates writes: “White servants were flogged, tricked into serving beyond their contracts, and traded in much the same manner as slaves.”

In 17th century America, before the establishment of a racial caste system, enslaved Africans mixed freely with white indentured servants. Some even joined them in marriage. Some, more crucially, joined them in class struggle. In 1678, they rallied together under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon to torch the Jamestown colony.


By legislating the Africans into an untouchable caste devoid of legal rights or protections, the rulers of the southern colonies created the maximally exploitable labor force necessary for the emancipation of indentured whites. The slaves were reduced to objects, so the indentured might be elevated to citizens. The separation of the white working class from those of African descent was the precondition for American democracy.

Almost four centuries later, the survival of that democracy may depend on their reunification. Today, an extractive elite exercises so much power over the mechanisms of our government, the preferences of the broad electorate are unrecognizable in its policies. In a time of unprecedented productivity and abundance, public schools are being shutteredpensions forfeitedinfrastructure left to rot. Financial institutions too powerful to be constrained by law channel record profits toward privatizing the commons and socializing their own losses.

McWhorter asks how we'll know America has "come to terms" with race in a manner Coates would deem satisfactory.  Answering only for myself: When white workers recognize their country isn’t being lost to a runaway deficit but to runaway corporate power; when they see that the parasites afflicting the body politic don’t lurk in the projects of Detroit, but in the halls of Goldman Sachs; when they abandon the existential comforts of racial supremacy for the material and spiritual rewards of class solidarity, the “reckoning” will have arrived, and reparations will be paid.

Follow Eric Levitz on Twitter @EricLevitz.


Eric Levitz


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