Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory “Case for Reparations”

840The June 2014 issue of The Atlantic devotes 20 black-bordered pages to “The Case for Reparations” as the lead and cover article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, its national correspondent.

This is a serious subject by an author who has been obtaining some prominence or notoriety this year occasioned by his best-selling book, “Between the World and Me,” which was discussed in a previous post.

Moreover, on September 28, 2015, the MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its prestigious Fellows or “genius” grants to Coates and asserted that he “brings personal reflection and historical scholarship to bear on America’s most contested issues . . . without shallow polemic and in a measured style.” In “The Case for Reparations,” according to the Foundation, “Coates grapples with the rationalizations for slavery and their persistence in twentieth-century policies like Jim Crow and redlining . . . [and] compellingly argues for remuneration for the economic impact on African Americans denied the ability to accumulate wealth or social status for generations. [The article is] deeply felt and intensely researched.”

I, therefore, was expecting a serious discussion of this important issue.

Instead, I was profoundly disappointed in the analysis as well as the quality of the research and writing of this article and strongly disagree with MacArthur’s glowing commentary on the article.

Coates’ Discussion of Reparations

Coates mentions that certain scholars have discussed how reparations might be implemented. One, he says, suggested multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference between white and black per capita income and then presumably paying that difference to each African American each year for a decade or two. Another, Coates reports, proposed a program of job training and public works for all poor people. (P. 69) But Coates does not endorse either one.

Instead Coates hides in generalizations. He says reparations means “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” and “a revolution of American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history” (p.70).

On the last page of the article (p. 71) Coates becomes more specific by advocating congressional adoption of a bill for a federal study of the issue of reparations that has been offered by Representative John Conyers (Dem., MI) for the last 25 years. Without examining the details of the bill or the arguments advanced for the bill by Conyers, Coates states, “No one can know what would come out of such a [study and] debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of back people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.”

This is not, as MacArthur suggests, a compelling argument “for remuneration for the economic impact on African Americans denied the ability to accumulate wealth or social status for generations.”

The Conyers’ Bill

An examination of the Conyers bill itself does not buttress the claimed genius of the Coates article. In the current session of Congress this bill is H.R.40: The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. A quick examination of the Library of Congress THOMAS website reveals that the bill (in sections 4, 5 and 7) would establish a commission of seven members (three to be appointed by the U.S. President, three by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and one by the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate) to hold hearings and issue a report of its findings and recommendations.

The key to the bill is section 2(a), which would make the following factual findings that Coates takes most of 20 pages to elucidate:

“(1) approximately 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and colonies that became the United States from 1619 to 1865;

(2) the institution of slavery was constitutionally and statutorily sanctioned by the Government of the United States from 1789 through 1865;

(3) the slavery that flourished in the United States constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans’ life, liberty, African citizenship rights, and cultural heritage, and denied them the fruits of their own labor; and

(4) sufficient inquiry has not been made into the effects of the institution of slavery on living African-Americans and society in the United States.”

Section 2(b) of the bill  then states the commission would examine and report on these factual predicates plus the “de facto discrimination against freed slaves and their descendants from the end of the Civil War to the present, including economic, political, and social discrimination.” With such factual determinations the commission would be charged to “recommend appropriate ways to educate the American public of the Commission’s findings” and “appropriate remedies.”

Representative Conyers’ website  contains a discussion of the bill that at least alludes to the following challenging sub-issues that would face such a commission and that are not examined by Coates: “whether an apology is owed, whether compensation is warranted and, if so, in what form and who should be eligible.”

Resolution for Rectification of Misdeeds Against African-Americans

More importantly, Coates’ article does not mention a resolution (H.Res.194) adopted in 2008 by the U.S. House of Representatives that has lengthy factual preambles about the evils of slavery and Jim Crow. [1] The House in H.Res.194 more importantly also:

  1. “acknowledges that slavery is incompatible with the basic founding principles recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal;”
  2. “acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;”
  3. “apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and  their ancestors who suffered under slavery and  Jim Crow; and”
  4. “expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.”

Yes, this is only a resolution by only one chamber of the Congress, but it is closer to the result apparently being advocated by Coates than the Conyers’ bill.

U.S. Presidential Statements About Slavery

H.Res.194 in a preamble asserts that “on July 8, 2003, during a trip to Goree Island, Senegal, a former slave port, President George W. Bush acknowledged slavery’s continuing legacy in American life and the need to confront that legacy when he stated that slavery `was . . . one of the greatest crimes of history . . . The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destiny is set: liberty and justice for all.”[2]

In another preamble H.Res.194 asserts, “President Bill Clinton also acknowledged the deep-seated problems caused by the continuing legacy of racism against African-Americans that began with slavery when he initiated a national dialogue about race.”

Neither of these presidential statements is mentioned by Coates, both of which support his opinion favoring reparations.

Caribbean States’ Reparations Claims

Apparently at least 14 states in the Caribbean are preparing claims for reparations for slavery against their former colonial rulers: Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron recently rejected that reparations idea.[3]

Again there is no mention of these claims by Coates even though they lend credence to his advocacy of similar reparations in the U.S.[4]

Litigation Over Contracts for Deed

Coates leads the article with a lengthy discussion of problems faced by blacks on the west side of Chicago in the 1960’s in financing purchases of homes and as a result being forced to do so on contracts for deed with unscrupulous sellers (pp. 56-59). Coates then enthusiastically endorses these black purchasers’ bringing a federal lawsuit against the sellers for reparations (or money damages). On the next page (p.60), however, Coates tells the reader, without any citation of source, that in 1976 the black plaintiffs lost a jury trial supposedly due to anti-black prejudice of the jury and even later in the article (p.67) he says that as a result of the lawsuit some of the plaintiffs were allowed to own their homes outright while others obtained regular mortgages.

Coates, however, fails to mention that according to a secondary source from the University of Illinois-Chicago, the west-side case went to trial in the Spring of 1976, and in November 1979, the jury decided that the sellers had taken advantage of the buyers for higher profits, but that the sellers were so ruthless they would have cheated anyone, not only blacks, and, therefore, the jury rejected the racial discrimination claim, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers decided not to appeal this decision.

That same secondary source reports that a related case from the south side of Chicago went to trial in 1972 before a federal district judge with a jury. At the close of the evidence, the court directed a verdict against the plaintiffs saying that they had not proved a prima facie case of discrimination. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial. That new trial occurred in 1979, without a jury, before a district judge who decided in favor of the defendants, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Clyde Ross was prominently mentioned at the start of the Coates’ article about the housing discrimination that led to the above litigation, and after the publishing of the Coates article, Ross said in an interview, “I don’t know why we would even discuss [reparations] . . .when that would never happen. It involves taking money, property, from other people, from the people with power and wealth. How could that ever come to be? In theory, yes it is a good idea, but it’s better to be practical. I support equality under the law. I just want to be able to pay off a mortgage knowing that I am getting the same deal as the white guy. That’s all I ask.”

Coates also did not uncover in his research the successful Minnesota lawsuit in the 1920’s by a black couple against white landlords who after accepting contract-for-deed payments for 25 years denied the couple possession of the Minneapolis house on the false assertion that their payments were only rent. The couple’s attorney, by the way, was Lena Olive Smith, the state’s first black female lawyer who became the leader of the city’s NAACP branch in the 1930s.

Conclusion

I am not a scholar of race relations in the U.S. or of reparations generally or in the U.S. specifically. The above discussion of facts that apparently were not discovered by Coates was based upon this blogger’s perfunctory Internet searching.

The Coates article also is difficult to read because of the lack of an introduction and conclusion and of any headings or subdivisions amidst the parade of often densely packed paragraphs that do not follow in a logical order.[5]

This blogger as a retired lawyer might be seen as engaging in an inappropriate  lawyerly criticism of the Coates’ article. But Coates presumably is advocating for others to embrace the conclusion that reparations are a necessary response to a major societal problem. As an advocate, he should write to be more persuasive.

This blogger as a white American is supportive of civil and human rights generally and is willing to consider a well-written and documented case for U.S. reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. Unfortunately the Coates article does not do that. It needs additional research and a major rewrite. (As always, I invite others’ comments of agreement or disagreement.)

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[1] U.S. House of Reps., 110th Cong., 2nd Sess.,  H.Res.194 (July 29, 2008)..As February 23, 2007, was the bicentennial of the British Parliament’s abolition of slave trading, the 110th U.S. Congress (2007-2009) had 150 bills and resolutions that mentioned the word “slavery,” but this blog has not “drilled down” to determine their details.

[2] President Bush Speaks at Goree Island in Sengal (July 8, 2003)

[3] E.g., Search for “slavery,” Guardian; Bilefsky, David Cameron Grapples with Issue of Slavery Reparations in Jamaica, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cameron Provides Caribbean Aid, Rejects Slavery Reparations, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2015); Room for Debate: Are Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Reparations Due?, N.Y. Times (Oct. 8, 2015).

[4] Coates does mention Massachusetts’ granting a 1783 petition for reparations by a black freewoman; 17th and 18th century Quakers’ granting reparations; the 1987 formation of a National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America; the 1993 NAACP’s endorsement of reparations; a lawsuit for reparations brought by Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, Jr. (without mentioning its details or outcome); and Germany’s reparations to Israel for the Holocaust (pp. 61, 70-71).

[5] The online version of the article added headings I through X, but most of them are quotations from sources in the sections, requiring the reader to dive into the sections to discover their significance. Another post discusses Coates’ “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic (Oct. 2015), which also has chapter headings, most of which do not help the reader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More about Coates:

 

Brooks: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/opinion/david-brookss-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates-about-race.html

 

Ltrs re column: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/opinion/david-brookss-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates-about-race.html

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/07/17/david_brooks_scolds_ta_nehisi_coates_i_think_you_distort_history/

 

http://crooksandliars.com/2015/07/dont-be-fooled-all-forelock-tugging-david

 

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/david-brooks-nyt-ta-nehisi-coates

 

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/ta-nehisi-coates-david-brooks-american-dream

 

http://jezebel.com/listening-to-ta-nehisi-coates-whilst-snuggled-deep-with-1718506352

 

http://www.alternet.org/media/david-brooks-relies-ignorant-white-privilege-attack-ta-nehisi-coates-new-book

 

http://townhall.com/columnists/marknuckols/2015/07/17/tanehisi-coates-cheers-deaths-of-911-rescuers-david-brooks-apologizes-for-being-white-n2026881

 

http://aaihs.org/ta-nehisi-coates-david-brooks-and-the-master-narrative-of-american-history/

 

http://www.citypaper.com/arts/books/bcp-072915-books-coates-gunnery-20150724-story.html

 

https://www.thewrap.com/new-york-times-columnist-david-brooks-blasted-for-white-privilege-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates/

 

http://flavorwire.com/528823/the-american-dream-david-brooks-loves-so-much-is-rich-white-americas-greatest-tool-of-social-control

 

An 1842 Journey from New York to the Iowa Territory

In May 1842 Rev. Charles Edwin Brown and his wife, Frances Lyon Brown, both 29 years old, and their two young sons (Benjamin Perry Brown, almost three years old, and Charles Perry Brown, one and a half years old) left their home in the small village of Warren in the central part of the State of New York to go on a Baptist missionary trip of roughly 1,500 miles to another small village, Maquoketa, in the eastern part of the Iowa Territory.

At the time Rev. Brown was the Pastor of the Baptist Church in Warren. Previously he had submitted an application for appointment as a missionary “in the distant West” with a preference for the Iowa Territory, and his application had been endorsed by the New York State Missionary Convention. Later the American Baptist Home Missionary Society appointed him to be a missionary to the forks of the Maquoketa River in Iowa at an annual salary of $100 plus $75 for travel expenses.

The Browns could not economically ship all of their household goods to Iowa so they sold everything except clothing, bedding, a table, a stand, a rocking chair and a small cook stove. These remnants weighed approximately 1,600 pounds.

This would not be an easy journey.  Of course, there were no airplanes or automobiles on Interstate highways to take them there. Nor were there any cross-country railroads. An account of the journey that is set forth in the memoirs of Rev. Brown, my maternal great-great grandfather (2nd great-grandfather in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s parlance), provides a window into what life and transportation were like in the U.S. of 1842 when approximately 17 million people lived in the 26 states of the Union. (Four years later, in 1846, Iowa became the 29th state in the Union.)

The First Stage: Warren to Utica, New York

Utica, NY, 1855

The initial stage of their trip for six or seven days, from Warren to Little Falls and Utica, New York, of approximately 130 miles presumably was by horse-drawn wagon. Utica, then a town with a population of approximately 13,000, was a terminus on the 17-year old Erie Canal that had been built to connect New York City’s harbor with Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes and thereby improve transportation into, and from, the interior of the U.S. This stage cost the family $15.00.

The Second Stage: Utica to Buffalo, New York

Erie Canal
Erie Canal Packet Boat

On Monday, May 2nd, at Utica the Browns boarded the Little Western, a passenger packet or Line boat on the Erie Canal for the second stage of their journey. They had a comfortable cabin in the bow. The kitchen and dining cabin were in the stern with freight and baggage amidships. “With good company, clean wholesome food, a sober and accommodating master and crew, the two hundred mile trip from Utica to Buffalo was comfortable and pleasant.”  As the boat did not run on Sunday, it was tied up for the day in Tonawanda, New York. This gave the family the opportunity to attend a Methodist Church worship service in the morning and for Rev. Brown to preach in the afternoon. On Monday (May 9th), they arrived in Buffalo, then a town of 18,000 people. The family’s total fare at 2 cents per mile for each adult was $8.00.

The Dart Grain Elevator, Buffalo, NY, 1842

With the Erie Canal, Buffalo became a key junction for the shipment of western grain to the east coast and beyond as the Great Lakes ships were too big to go on the Erie Canal. Until 1842 loose grain on the ships had to be manually scooped into baskets and transferred to the wharves by block and tackle while sacks, barrels and casks of grain and flour had be to manually hauled to the wharves and then loaded onto the canal boats, oftentimes with an in-between hauling into and out of warehouses. In late 1842, however, this changed with the invention by Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar of a grain elevator with a steam-powered conveyor belt and buckets for the direct transfer of grain from the ships to grain elevators on the land.

The Third Stage: Buffalo, New York to Chicago, Illinois

Great Western Steamer

 On May 9th, the family boarded the Great Western, a Great Lakes steamer, for the third stage of their journey. The four-year old, 185-foot Great Western was one of the largest and finest of the day and was the first to have a spacious upper cabin for its nearly 400 passengers. The entire hull was occupied by the boilers with holds for freight and wood.

Great Lakes Map

Prior to completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, shipping on the Great Lakes was primarily on sailing craft as traffic was not sufficient to make the more-expensive steamers profitable to operate. The Erie Canal, however, expanded Lakes traffic so that steamers increasingly became the preferred mode of transportation as they offered fast, efficient and predictable delivery of passengers and freight.

The Great Lakes voyage on the Great Western steamer took six days before arrival on Sunday, May 15th, in the village of Chicago, population of approximately 5,000. Other than a storm the first night out, the trip was pleasant with short stops in Cleveland (population of 6,000) and Detroit (population of 9,000). Mrs. Brown commented that on the way they had seen the “pleasant villages” of Milwaukee, Racine and Southport, Wisconsin. The total fare for the family was $48.00.

The Fourth Stage: Chicago to Savanna, Illinois

After an overnight stay at the New York House, a two-story hotel in Chicago, Rev. Brown hired a man with horses and lumber wagon to take the family and their possessions the additional 200 miles to Savanna, Illinois on the Mississippi River. Their rocking chair and a small chair were put on top of the boxes for Mrs. Brown and the older son to sit on during the ride.

On Monday, May 16th, the fourth stage of the journey began in the lumber wagon. After two over-night stops, they arrived in the town of Rockford, Illinois, the home of the wagon owner. Unfortunately the owner had to testify in a trial, and the family was forced to stay there until the following Monday. The delay, however, gave Rev. Brown the opportunity to preach that Sunday in Rockford’s Baptist Church, his “first sermon in the west.”

On the following Monday after a day’s ride, near Crane’s Grove, Illinois, they asked Mrs. Crane, “middle aged and stout” with a pail of milk, if they could stay there that night. She replied, “Oh, I reckon, though I am mighty tired. The old cow gives a right smart of milk, well on to half a bushel.”

The next morning, the owner of the lumber wagon discovered that he had overfed his horses and one had died. Mr. Crane was then enlisted to take the Browns, again by horse-drawn wagon, the next 18 miles to Cherry Grove, Illinois, where the next day (May 24th) another man, Mr. Gardner, took the family to Savanna, Illinois on the Mississippi River. This was the Brown family’s first view “of the mighty river, its volume then being much greater than in later years.”

The Fifth Stage: Savanna, Illinois to Charleston, Iowa

Mississippi River,    Savanna, Illinois

The fifth stage of the journey on the evening of the 24th was a ferry across the Mississippi River from Savanna to Charleston (later Sabula), Iowa where they stayed the night in the local tavern. Perhaps the ferry looked like the one pictured at the right.

The Sixth Stage: Charleston to Maquoketa, Iowa

The next morning, May 25th, Rev. Brown hired yet another man and team to take them the final 25 to 30 miles to Maquoketa, Iowa. Around midnight they arrived at their destination, Mr. C. W. Doolittle’s cabin. “With cordial frontier hospitality . . . Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle turned out and welcomed us, prepared supper and then gave us their bed, while they found lodging for themselves and family in the cabin loft. Tired and worn by the long and tedious last day’s drive we slept sweetly and soundly, four in the bed, myself, wife and two children.”

Conclusion

This six-stage journey took a month: 6 or 7 days from Warren to Utica plus 24 days from Utica to Maquoketa.

Rev. Brown served as a Baptist missionary in Iowa for most of the following 36 years, a subject that will be examined in a subsequent post.