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Revisiting the Case for Reparations

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There’s a really great, important interview of Ta-Nehisi Coates by Eric Levitz up today over at the New York Magazine website. The headline is pretty silly, but the piece itself is a thoughtful conversation between Levitz and Coates revisiting Coates’ classic article “The Case for Reparations,” meditating on reparations as a moral and political project, and debating theories of change, among other things.

[Levitz]: On that point, Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro has come out in support of reparations, and promised to empanel a commission to study the best means of executing it. Other candidates have evinced vague support for the policy, while attempting to recast race-neutral redistributive programs that disproportionately benefit African-Americans, as reparations. Many progressive reporters and commentators have insisted that the latter proposals do not count as reparations.

And yet your landmark Atlanticessay suggests that they might. In “The Case for Reparations,” you cite Charles Ogletree’s proposal for “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races” as one hypothetical form reparations could take. And that form is a race-neutral program enacted in the name of compensating African-Americans for the state’s historic crimes against them. Meanwhile, the most explicit definition of reparations that your piece offers is “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences,” which suggests that a mere public accounting of those crimes might qualify. So I’m wondering what you see as the minimum requirements for a policy that claims the mantle of reparations, and which Democratic candidates, if any, are meeting those minimum requirements, in your estimation?

[Coates]: When I say I am for reparations, I’m saying that I am for the idea that this country and its major institutions has had an extractive relationship with black people for much of our history; that this fact explains basically all of the socioeconomic gap between black and white America, and thus, the way to close that gap is to pay it back. In terms of political candidates, and how this should be talked about, and how this should be dealt with, it seems like it would be a very easy solution. It’s actually the policy recommendation that I gave in the piece, and that is to support HR 40. That’s the bill that says you form a commission. You study what damage was done from slavery, and the legacy of slavery, and then you try to figure out the best ways to remedy it. It’s pretty simple. I think that’s Nancy Pelosi’s position at this point.

There’s a whole line of thinking that says the recommendation for a study is somehow like a cop-out or weak. I don’t really understand why that would be the case. Look, if you have a sickness, you have an illness, you probably start with diagnosis. The first step is to get some idea of what actually happened. We’ve never really done that. You’re talking about an epic crime that literally has its origins before there was a United States of America, and carries all the way up to this very day.

White supremacy is a suite of harms, operating on multiple levels across the board. In “The Case for Reparations,” I was dealing with redlining. Criminal-justice questions come to mind. There are education questions, there are university culpability questions. A state like North Carolina, where people were forcing black women to be sterilized. In Virginia, where they responded to Brown v. Board by basically shutting down public education in whole swaths of the state. You have this suite of damages. What we don’t need is for one person to sit up and try to design a program to undo 400 years of damage. We didn’t just say to AOC, “Hey, you sit over there, and you come up with a Green New Deal.” You need time. You need people to actually put some resources behind an actual study.

And there are small-d democratic reasons for why you should be starting with a study instead of a plan. Have you talked to the community? Has the community thought much about it? Has there been much interaction with the community about how they would like to be paid back? I think there are actually great, morally important reasons for not sketching out a plan right now. But you should support HR 40. It boggles my mind why we can’t behind that.

Highly recommend the whole.

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