Proposed U.S. Reparations for Slavery 

Ross Douthat, a self-described conservative columnist for the New York Times, has offered an interesting proposal for U.S. reparations for slavery.[1]

He starts with the assertion that the Democratic Party is “more attuned to racial injustice” while the Republicans have “ridden a white backlash against ethnic patronage” and as a result the two parties have vastly different attitudes toward reparations for slavery and more broadly toward racial policy. Nevertheless, he believes that it is possible to have such a policy that accepts elements of Democratic and Republican attitudes towards race. “It can be simultaneously true,” he says, “that slavery and Jim Crow robbed black Americans on a scale that still requires redress, and that offering redress through a haphazard system of minority preferences in hiring, contracting and higher education creates a new set of reasonable white grievances.”

Douthat, therefore, proposes the following: “Abolish racial preferences in college admissions, phase out preferences in government hiring and contracting, eliminate the disparate-impact standard in the private sector, and allow state-sanctioned discrimination only on the basis of socioeconomic status, if at all. Then at the same time, create a reparations program — the Frederick Douglass Fund, let’s call it — that pays out exclusively, directly and one time only to the proven descendants of American slaves.”

This proposed reparations program, he suggests, would provide “every single African-American [what happened to the proven descendants of American slaves limitation?] $10,000, perhaps in a specially-designed annuity, [that] would cost about $370 billion, modest relative to supply-side tax plans and single-payer schemes alike. The wealth of the median black household in the United States was $11,200 as of 2013; a $10,000 per-person annuity would more than double it.”

Although such a reparations program, he admits, “would hardly eliminate racial disadvantage, . . . [it would be] a meaningful response to an extraordinary injustice.”

Reactions

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the noted author, has published a lengthy case for reparations for slavery in The Atlantic Magazine, but as a prior post has pointed out, he does not propose a specific plan for such reparations. Instead, he merely calls for congressional authorization of a commission to study the reparations issue and to make recommendations.[2]

Douthat, on the other hand, does make a specific proposal for a $10,000 annuity for reparations to “proven descendants of American slaves.”

Such a proposal obviously is a starting point and raises many questions for more specifics. How does someone prove he or she is such a descendant? Would there be a statute of limitations bar on claims after a certain date? How would the program be financed? Would the annuity be limited to the lifetime of the original recipient? Or could it be inherited by the recipient’s descendants?

The annuity concept and Douthat’s discussion of median wealth of U.S. black households suggests that the $10,000 would not be accessible by the recipients, but instead would provide supplemental annual incomes. But in today’s low-interest rate environment, such as 1 APR available on savings accounts from some online banks,  only $100 of annual income would be produced. Thus, what would be the appropriate amount for such an annuity?

Moreover, any such reparations program, in this blogger’s opinion, would need to be accompanied by a national apology for slavery and a plea for forgiveness for this injustice along with, at a minimum, reforms of the criminal justice system, the voting system, racial gerrymandering of legislative districts and the public schools.

There also is work to be done by descendants of slave owners.

An excellent example of such an effort is Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University, which owned slaves and in 1838 sold 272 men, women and children slaves to plantations in the South with the sales proceeds being used to help the struggling University pay its bills.[3] In response to the recent revelation of this history, the University in the Fall of 2015 convened its Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to explore its historical involvement in slavery, to engage the community in dialogue and to prepare recommendations for future efforts.[4] In the Summer of 2016 this Group made the following recommendations:[5]

  • “The University should offer a formal apology for the ways it participated in and benefited from slavery, especially through the sale of enslaved people in the 1830’s.”
  • “The University should engage the descendants of the enslaved whose labor and value benefited the University,” including meeting with descendant communities, fostering genealogical research to help descendants explore their family histories, commissioning an oral history project with descendant communities, exploring the feasibility of admission and financial initiatives for the descendant community and holding public events to explore this history.
  • The University should end anonymity and neglect by erecting “a public memorial to the enslaved persons and families,” preserving the names of the enslaved people, guaranteeing the food upkeep of the Holy Road Cemetery, which is “the final resting place of many enslaved and free blacks of Georgetown.”
  • The University should create “an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies,” and “foster dialogue . . . to address contemporary issues related to the history of slavery.”
  • The University should “increase the diversity [of its students and] . . . ,expand opportunities . . . for the descendants of the Maryland Jesuit slaves.”

On September 1, 2016, Georgetown’s President, John J. DeGioia, releasing this report, announced that the University would “offer a Mass of Reconciliation in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Washington and the Society of Jesus in the U.S.;” engage the Georgetown community in a “Journey of Reconciliation; . . . engage descendants and members of our community in developing a shared understanding, determining priorities for our work going forward, and creating processes and structures to enable that work . . .; establish a living and evolving memorial to the enslaved people from whom Georgetown benefited; . . . [and] give descendants the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community in the admissions process.”[6]

As always I invite reasoned commentary on Douthat’s proposal, the Georgetown response to slavery and to the above reactions.

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[1] Douthat, A Different Bargain on Race, N.Y. Times (Mar. 4, 2017).

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory “Case for Reparations,” dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 18, 2015); Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 3, 2016).

[3] Swarns, 272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants? N.Y. Times (Apr. 16, 2016); Swarns, A Glimpse Into the Life of a Slave Sold to Save Georgetown, N.Y. Times (Mar. 12, 2017).

[4] Georgetown Univ, Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.

[5] Georgetown Univ., Report of Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation (Summer 2016).

[6] DeGioia, Next Steps on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation at Georgetown (Sept. 1, 2016).

Evaluating Ta-Neshi Coates Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard and Rutgers Universities Speeches

President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University was examined in a prior post. Key points in Obama’s speech for this purpose are the following:

  • “Be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.”
  • African Americans have a “particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. . . . We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”
  • “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . . [C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”

Now we evaluate a prominent contemporary African-American, Ta-Nehisi Coates, through the prism of that speech and of a related presidential speech at Rutgers University.

Although President Obama in his speech specifically commended Coates, a Howard alumnus who did not graduate, for writing “a book that wins the National Book Award” and “the new run of ‘Black Panther.’” Obama did not attempt to determine whether Coates satisfied the above charge to the class. If Obama had done so, I believe he would have concluded that Coates did not meet this version of the challenge.[1]

Coates’ major work to date, “Between the World and Me,” clearly demonstrates his confidence in his black heritage, his overwhelming awareness of injustice, unfairness and struggle and his passion for change. In this sense he meets at least this part of the Obama challenge.

However, Coates fails in this book to go beyond righteous anger. He does not have a strategy or program for change. In fact, his book eschews any such program as destined for failure. And when he addresses one possible program for change– reparations for past racial injustice in a separate Atlantic Magazine article–he fails, in my opinion, because he weakly concluded that Congress should adopt a bill to establish a commission to investigate the issue and because he apparently makes an erroneous assessment of a Chicago class action lawsuit involving contracts for deed. The more detailed basis for this negative assessment is set forth in an earlier post. [2]

In addition, Coates in an interview by Charlie Rose demonstrated a facile reading of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” According to Coates, this saying is a demonstrably false reading of history and a false prediction of the future and, therefore, meaningless. But the saying was never intended to be a history lesson or a future prediction. Instead, It was intended to be inspiration to continue the struggle for justice for those who were so engaged. Indeed, President Obama understood it correctly when in his speech at Rutgers University he said,

  • “But progress is bumpy.  It always has been.  But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.  I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ . . . I believe that.  But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own.  It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.” (Emphasis added.)

Perhaps Coates is off the hook with Obama’s concession that there is no one way to be black and there is no litmus test for black authenticity or as 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us, there are different gifts to different people for the common good (verses 4-11) and there are many parts to one body and all work together for the common good (verses 12-31). Thus, perhaps Coates’ gift is to express anger over racial injustice and to leave it to others to figure out what to do about that injustice and to work to overcome it.

Although Coates has said that his book was not written for “white” people, `I have to say that as a “white” septuagenarian, I initially and vigorously disagreed with Coates’ ranting that others and I “have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white,” that “’race’ [was] a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” and that “the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white [was achieved] through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of blacks; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you [Coates’ son] and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” (Pp. 7-8)

Yes, I always have regarded myself as white, checked the box “White” or “Caucasian” on many forms without a second thought and found myself identified as “white” on a 1940 U.S. Census form. But I never have done any of the awful things that Coates says were done to elevate my belief in being white.

Nevertheless, Coates’ rant has been nagging and causing me to conduct further research and reflection. I, therefore, now think that Coates is correct on this important point, which I will explore in subsequent posts. Thus, perhaps Coates is satisfying, in his own way, the Obama criteria for African-American men, and indeed for all of us, to be honorable citizens of this great country.

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[1] Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 13, 2015); Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 3, 2016).

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 18, 2015). See also Ta-Nehisi Coates Discusses the Age of Mass Incarceration, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 17, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book, “Between the World and Me,” and his 2014 article, ”The Case for Reparations,” continue to draw attention and criticism. This blog already has criticized both the book and the article.[1] Here are additional reflections on these writings.

“Between the World and Me”

In November 2015 the New York Times named the book as one of the 50 notable nonfiction books of 2015. A week later the editors of the Times Book Review proclaimed that it was one of the 10 best books of the year with these words: “Structured as a letter to his teenage son, this slender, urgent volume — a searching exploration of what it is to grow up black in a country built on slave labor and ‘the destruction of black bodies’ — rejects fanciful abstractions in favor of the irreducible and particular. Coates writes to his son with a clear eyed realism about the beautiful and terrible struggle that inheres in flesh and bone.”[2]

Also in November the book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for 2015. The citation stated the book is “a brutally honest portrayal of the plight of the African-American male in this country. Composed as a letter to his adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with chilling bleakness and precision about racism in America. This is no simple account of racism, but rather a concise attack on a system which has consistently rendered black lives worthless. Incorporating history and personal memoir, Coates has succeeded in creating an essential text for any thinking American today.”[3]

Coates dedicated this award to the memory of his friend, Prince Carmen Jones, a young black man who was killed by a policeman, saying, “I have waited 15 years for this moment. I’m a black man in America. I can’t punish that [policeman]. I can’t secure the safety of my son. I just don’t have that power. But what I do have the power to do is say, “You won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me part of it. We are not enrolled in a lie. We are not part of it.'”

In January 2016 the National Book Critics Circle made the book one of five nominees for its 2015 award for criticism. The actual awards will be announced on March 17, 2016. [4]

Jonathan Orbell, a self-described white evangelical Christian and graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, says the book “offers white evangelicals yet another opportunity to reflect on issues that have gone unaddressed in our congregations for far too long. . . black Americans’ subjugation to a regime of brutal and systematic racial injustice. “[5]

Not all comments about the book were laudatory. Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review and columnist, called the book “profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered.” Coates “has to reduce people to categories and actors in a pantomime of racial plunder to support his worldview. He must erase distinctions and reject complexity.” In his view, Coates “gives the impression of denying the moral agency of blacks, who are often portrayed as the products of forces beyond their control.” The book “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair and the call for perpetual struggle.”[6]

Another pointed criticism of Coates was leveled by a columnist for the New York Post, Kyle Smith, who accused Coates of “harboring . . . suspicion, fear, mistrust, distaste, and unease about [all] whites.” Yet “Coates has found himself crowned America’s leading civic thinker.”[7] Coates himself is baffled by this positive reaction by many white readers. He said, “I don’t know why white people read what I write. I didn’t set out to accumulate a mass of white fans.” Indeed, he said he did not want “the burden [of explaining the ills of black people to white people]—it alienated him. And so he writes with a tone that is blunt, authoritative and unapologetic” while harboring “no malice toward white people, and that he speaks to them from the heart.” [8]

An African-American writer living in Paris, Thomas Chatterton Williams, says Coates left out “an essential part of the story of black life today – the only black life I have ever known. . . . The capacity of humans to amount to more than the sum of a set of circumstances is ignored. The capacity to find gratification in making a choice – even if it’s the wrong one – is glossed over.” Williams concludes, “The crisis of the black intellectual now, if there is one, isn’t that he lacks the means or the platform to represent his people but that it is too easy to cleave to a sense of resentment and indignation – even now that he has found himself, after all these years and all this struggle, in a position of strength.”[9]

Coates has said that the book is a “complete rejection” of the notion that the   current plight of blacks in the U.S. “is not really tied to our long history . . . of policy directed toward African-Americans .. . [and that it] is our fault, or partly our fault. . . .[It] may well be our responsibility, but it certainly is not our fault.” The book, he said, reflects his “process of getting conscious . . . [which] was a very, very uncomfortable, disturbing and sometimes physically painful process.” Yet “black experience is big and it’s nuanced and it’s broad, and no one person should be the spokesperson for that experience, or no one person should be the oracle or be the articulator.”[10]

Darryl Pinckney, an African-American novelist, playwright and essayist, places Coates’ book into a broader perspective. Pinckney asserts, “The black struggle in the US has a dualist tradition. It expresses opposing visions of the social destiny of black people. Up, down, all or nothing, in or out, acceptance or repudiation.” According to Pinckney, Coates believes “it’s too late [for an end to America’s racial nightmare], given the larger picture. He speculates that now that the American Dreamers are plundering “not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself,” “something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.” Coates in this book refuses “to expect anything anymore, socially or politically. Coates is . . . fed up, but his disillusionment is a provocation: it’s all your fault, Whitey. This is a rhetorical strategy of the [black writer’s] tradition but to address an audience beyond black people is to be still attempting to communicate and enlighten.”[11]

“The Case for Reparations”[12]

My earlier post argued this Coates-article was not well written; that he hid in generalizations; that his discussion of black contract-for-deed discrimination was sloppy and perhaps erroneous; that he mentioned certain scholarly discussions of how reparations might be implemented without endorsing any of them; that he failed to mention U.S. presidential l and congressional statements about reparations as well as other countries’ approaches to reparations; and that his grand conclusion was the mere urging adoption of a bill for a federal study of the issue of reparations without examining the details of the bill or the arguments advanced for the bill by its author, Rep. John Conyers (Dem, MI).[13]

Immediately after the release of Coates’ article, David Frum, a neoconservative commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, pointed out that Coates “disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution he has in mind: How would it work?” In addition, Frum asserts, “Coates’s essay is built on an unstated assumption that America’s racial composition is essentially binary, a white majority that inflicts inequality; a black minority that suffers inequality.” Coates thereby ignores the probability of groups other than blacks’ making similar claims for reparations and of the many financial and political problems that would create.[14]

“Another huge problem with any reparations program [for Frum] would be who qualifies.” For example, would a mixed-race individual qualify? A new immigrant from Africa? And so on. In addition, any program would create side effects, anticipated and unanticipated.

The next day, Coates responded to Frum’s criticism by arguing that reparations for African-Americans would not expand to other groups because the actual reparations for Japanese-Americans who had been interred in World War II did not expand to other groups. Coates concludes his response with these words:

  • “The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history. . . . In other times banishment has been our priority. The mature citizen, the hard student, is now called to choose between finding a reason to confront the past, or finding more reasons to hide from it. [Frum] thinks [the congressional bill to create a study commission] … commits us to a solution. He is correct. The solution is to study. I submit his own article as proof of why such study is so deeply needed.”[15]

Rich Lowry in his previously mentioned article also has harsh words for Coates’ opinion on reparations. Lowry asks the rhetorical question of whether any recipient of “a modest, roughly $1 trillion program of reparations, which would be more than $20,000 for every black person in the country, regardless of his or her family’s personal history or current financial circumstances” would be transformed. Lowry’s answer to this question is a resounding “No.” Instead, Lowery says, “For poor blacks to escape poverty, it would still require all the personal attributes that contribute to success. So Coates is selling snake oil. Even if he got his fantastical reparations that he has poured such literary energy into advocating, real improvement in the condition of black people would still require the moral effort that he won’t advocate for.”

Coates responded to these criticisms by meekly saying he was offering a “case” for reparations, not a “plan” for such a program and that he had mentioned–without endorsement–several plans proposed by academics. Now he points to what he calls an “excellent paper” on the subject by Sandy Darity, a Duke economist and “tireless reparations proponent.” [16]

Last month the issue of reparations resurfaced with Bernie Sanders’ comment that he did not favor reparations for slavery because there was a nil chance of congressional approval and because it would be “very divisive.” [17]

Coates responded by saying that all of Sanders’ own proposals for economic and financial reform had a nil chance of congressional approval. Moreover, “[o]ne of the great functions of radical candidates [like Sanders] is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.”

Conclusion

I do not find Coates’ responses to these criticisms convincing. I still am uninspired with his writings and arguments. I do not think his many awards are justified.

In contrast, I applaud the amazing work for social and racial justice being waged by Bryan Stevenson, an African-American attorney and advocate. As discussed in an earlier post, Stevenson has obtained release from prison and death row for African-Americans who had been unjustly convicted. He also is creating various ways to remember and honor victims of lynchings and other crimes and to inspire others to join the effort for social and racial justice.

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[1] Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” (Aug. 13, 2015); Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015).

[2] 100 Notable Books of 2015, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Nov. 27, 2015); The 10 Best Books of the Year, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Dec. 3, 2015.

[3] Nat’l Book Foundation, 2015 National Book Award Nonfiction; Alter, Ta-Nehisi Coates Wins National Book Award, N.Y. Times (Nov. 18, 2015); Dwyer, Adam Johnson, Ta-Nehisi Coates Win National Book Awards, NPR (Nov. 19, 2015).

[4] National Book Critics Circle, National Book Critics Circle Announces Its Finalists for Publishing Year 2015 (Jan. 18, 2016); Manly, National Book Critics Circle Announces Award Nominees, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2016).

[5] Orbell, Why Christians Need Coates, Sojourners (July 29, 2015).

[6] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015).

[7] Smith, The Hard Untruths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Commentary (Oct. 1, 2015),

[8] Coates, Ta-Nahisi Coates On Why Whites Like His Writing, Daily Beast (Oct. 25, 2015).

[9] Williams, Loaded Dice, London Rev. of Books (Dec. 3, 2015).

[10] Ta-Nehisi Coates On His Work And The Painful Process Of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[11] Pinckney, The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates, N.Y. Rev. of Books (Feb. 11, 2016).

[12] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015); Martin, Ta-Nehisi Coates on His Work and the Painful Process of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[13] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015). Kevin Drum, a liberal American blogger and columnist, was similarly unimpressed with Coates’ mere calling for a study of the issue of reparations. Drum, Should Bernie Sanders Support Reparations? Mother Jones (Jan. 19, 2016).

[14] Frum, The Impossibility of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 3, 2014).

[15] Coates, The Radical Practicality of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 4, 2014).

[16] Coates, The Case for Considering Reparations, The Atlantic (Jan. 27, 2016).

[17] Coates, Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations? The Atlantic (Jan. 19, 2016).

 

 

 

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