The Agenda

The Missing Case Against Reparations

I must admit that when I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece on reparations, I expected to read a defense of reparations. Reparations, for the uninitiated, are payments made to compensate black Americans for slavery and related crimes. West Germany paid some form of reparations to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and Coates wants America to implement something similar today.

Yet Coates scarcely reaches the question of reparations in his long, emotionally harrowing essay. His piece is less an affirmative case for a single policy than it is a survey of American racism. There’s talk of slavery and Jim Crow, of semi-recent policies that forced people into ghettos, and of very recent predatory lending practices. There’s no talk, however, of what to do now, how reparations would help, or why we ought to focus on settling an old score instead of charting a new course. Read his essay, and your heart will certainly break for the victims of our nation’s greatest sins. But it must be said: breaking hearts is far easier than healing them.

Part of the problem is that Coates cherry-picks data to score emotional points instead of carefully building an argument for reparations. Take his discussion of the importance of slave labor to the American economy. Here, Coates emphasizes that our national wealth was built on the backs of slaves: Cotton was the nation’s biggest export, he writes, and slaves—worth more than $3 billion—were the wealthy’s most valuable capital good. Coates’s numbers aren’t exactly wrong (though the $3 billion figure is certainly controversial), but their selective use obscures the very complicated role of slavery in the American economy. Yes, cotton was America’s primary export before the Civil War, but America wasn’t an export-driven economy in the mid-nineteenth century—it was an industrialization-driven economy. Last year, “automotive vehicles, parts, and engines” was the largest category of American exports, yet I’m sure this hardly consoles the good people of Detroit. Now, as in 1850, America’s largest export says little about the industries that drive its economy. This is why macroeconomists focus so much on GDP: it’s actually useful.

The truth is considerably more complicated than Coates is willing to acknowledge. He makes no mention of the 75 percent of the southern white population that didn’t own slaves, their wages so depressed by slave labor that they lived in arguably the most unequal society in world history—with slave owners earning a median of $23,000 per year while other whites fetched about $1,500. Nor does he cite the North’s two-to-one advantage in per capita income, evidence of its superiority in every economic pursuit that didn’t require enslaved workers. There’s no mention of the literature showing that slave labor sustained the Southern economy but also retarded it. How can we decide whether reparations are due, or which portion of American society should pay them, without untangling this economic story?

Yet there’s a bigger problem here than selective use of data: Coates’s economic point, even if rock-solid, doesn’t actually advance his thesis. If reparations must be paid, the imperative to do so changes little if slaves contributed a little less (or more) to GDP. Coates’s one-sided foray into economic history accomplishes nothing save, perhaps, inducing an emotional response: slavery was even worse than the reader thought.

His last paragraph makes the same move. After considering the victims of predatory lending (people who, by the way, later won a lawsuit), Coates notes that of all the recently vacant houses in Baltimore, 71 percent are in majority-black neighborhoods. The implication here is that banks unfairly targeted black people for foreclosure. Baltimore is 63 percent black, though. So this is largely demographics, not racism, at work. Coates again scores an emotional point. But if his goal is to show America owes reparations, then barely disproportionate vacancy statistics and a successful multimillion-dollar lawsuit by black homeowners don’t support his argument.

The great tragedy here is that Coates has no apparent interest in discussing what black America needs most—a next step. Coates passes on the difficult practical questions: “But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution.” Pushing reparations without considering logistics is a bit like pushing space flight without considering engineering, but even if you allow Coates this evasion on the specifics, he leaves you grasping: what might actually help people?

When the piece does venture in this direction, the analysis falters. Coates considers the possibility that culture might play some role only to dismiss it out of hand: “[this] thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong.” Never mind that Nigerian-Americans consistently outperform both non-immigrant blacks and whites on a host of measures; racism is the only thing that matters. Then Coates assails “the myth … that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people.” Few think that fatherhood is a panacea, but the objective evidence tells us that it certainly helps. Instead of engaging this evidence, Coates retreats to more anecdotes.

His essay, of course, still has value as a reminder of the lingering effects of discrimination. For instance, given what we know about concentrated poverty—that it breeds hopelessness and isolation—the existence of state-sanctioned ghettos should inspire new ways of thinking about integrating America’s inner-cities. Perhaps we could limit the number of Section 8 vouchers awarded for a given geographic region to ensure that the urban poor don’t cluster, or perhaps we should think even more seriously about the relocation voucher, a brainchild of Michael Strain. And since we’re living in a world where fatherhood does matter, perhaps it’s time for conservatives to get serious about the fact that black fathers are more likely than white ones to be ripped from their families for marijuana possession.

I don’t think I’d call these measures reparations. They’re just good ideas—ideas that might promote the equal opportunity that forms the bedrock of our social contract. I could go for a lot more of those ideas. Maybe the next essay I read about reparations will have them.

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