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The case for reparations and the lies we tell ourselves

Ta-Nehisi Coates' case for reparations doubles as an essential, concise history of racism in American policymaking.
Policemen are lead a group of black school children into jail, following their arrest for protesting against racial discrimination near the city hall of  Birmingham, Ala., on May 4, 1963.
Policemen are lead a group of black school children into jail, following their arrest for protesting against racial discrimination near the city hall of Birmingham, Ala., on May 4, 1963.

It's possible, as Bill Clinton put it, to work hard and play by the rules. But the history of black people in America reveals one set of rules for blacks and for everyone else, even if you do succeed. 

The strength of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic essay arguing in favor of reparations to the black community is that it does not focus on slavery. The core of the piece is one of the most concise, eloquent summaries of the parts of history we so like to forget, or have never learned. 

The case for reparations

May 24, 201414:09

Contemporary black poverty is not an accident of history or simply a failure of blacks to inculcate themselves with the virtues of thrift, modesty and diligence from their betters. It is rooted in public policy. As Coates writes, "The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance."

Many people believe that America's obligations to the descendants of slaves ended with the adoption of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, or in the 1960s when Jim Crow finally fell. Yet that, as Coates writes, is hardly the end of the story.

Reconstruction, America's all too brief experiment in interracial democracy after the Civil War, was shattered by violence and terrorism. Black Americans were rendered back into an exploitative system of labor but a step away from slavery. Disenfranchisement immunized the American political system from being responsive to black interests, violence curtailed the ambition of those who would rise above their station, and those who escaped North found themselves fenced into ghettos and subject to what Coates calls legal plunder and the forces of a "free market" that appraised the value of homes and neighborhoods based on skin color. The modern American middle class was built on government policies that deliberately enriched whites while excluding blacks, Coates writes. 

One needn't agree with Coates that monetary recompense is necessary or possible. But his essay shatters what we might call the myth of the white bystander -- the idea that where we are today is a result of something other than the deliberate consequences of public policy; that institutionalized racism was confined to one region or political party; and that the benefits distributed by America's racial caste system did not accrue to white Americans who arrived after emancipation. 

People of goodwill do not know this history, not because of animus or personal racism but because it is rarely taught. Black and white Americans must discover it on their own.

The constant companions of policies meant to disenfranchise and dispossess black Americans are the grand national myths to justify their impact, and to contemporary ears the logic has always seemed as firm as iron.

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens famously declared that his government "rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition." After emancipation, the coercion of the freedmen back into a forced labor system was deemed necessary for blacks to learn the responsible habits of free people and honest labor, to be taught by the those who had stolen theirs. The public school system in the South was constructed so as to deny blacks an equal education and reinforce preconceptions of black intellectual inferiority. 

During and after Reconstruction, as North and South built their reconciliation on a framework of white supremacy, it was said that black men were not ready for the ballot, or for emancipation, so as to justify a reconstituted near-slavery. History was written so as to sustain such an arrangement not just after Reconstruction but for decades hence. Yet even during Jim Crow, the role of the state in enforcing differences in status between black and white were dismissed.

"Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences," wrote Judge Henry Brown in Plessy v. Ferguson, "If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane."

That was more prescription than prediction. While the state deliberately placed black people on a separate plane, it insisted whatever distinctions resulted were not engineered but were as natural as rain. So we have ever since, though our rationalizations have grown more sophisticated, our methods for avoiding responsibility more efficient. The self-reinforcing dual principle of exclusion and inferiority in Plessy would be sustained through the New Deal's creation of the modern welfare state, which as Coates writes, "rested on the foundation of Jim Crow."

The success of the civil rights movement made bald assertions of racial inferiority untenable, but those who had once insisted that black poverty was intrinsic uncovered new explanations. Though Jim Crow fell with the Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Acts, blacks chasing the American dream "were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport," Coates writes -- a practice that continues to this day. As the justifications for Jim Crow gave way to the need to justify mass incarceration, the phrenology of slavery gave way to scientific racism and lamentations of black cultural pathology.

As Judge Brown had asserted, legislation could do little to change what the divine had made manifest. Racial disparities could be explained not by centuries of terrorism, disenfranchisement and deprivation but inherited genetic differences. America had to respond to an epidemic of “superpredators,” while drugs created a “bio-underclass” in black America that would be consigned to “permanent inferiority.” At best, black poverty was explainable by cultural defects, most likely brought on by recent government efforts to alleviate povery–an affliction whites had somehow avoided despite two centuries of being elevated by an official doctrine of white supremacy. 

Though scientific racism has both its vocal and closeted adherents, culture is now by far the favored explanation for the persistence of black poverty. In the aftermath of the Civil War, white Americans wondered if the freedmen could learn the habits of honest labor, despite having known nothing but and being deprived of its fruits. Today, we hear the lament that a "tailspin of culture" has been brought on by an inability to learn "the cultural value of work."

The theme is the same, the assumptions only marginally more sophisticated, and the words but slightly changed. What are the chances, do you think, that this time they happen to be right?