Tuesday, July 1, 2014

*The Case for Reparations* by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Part 2

In Part 1, I briefly summarized the argument Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his recent article "The Case for Reparations". I summarized my summary like so:

In essence, Coates sees white supremacy as one of the defining characteristics of America and the cause of the plunder of black people, which has resulted in a large wealth gap. Coates calls for reparations (broadly construed) as a practical and moral remedy. 

 It's worth reading that entry in full, though.

So what about his argument?

Does Coates Think White Supremacy is a current problem?

Probably the most vexing thing for me is figuring out whether Coates thinks that white supremacy currently is a fundamental force in America, or if he thinks that it used to be but is no longer. Whenever he describes it, he uses the present tense, but most of his examples are from times long ago. This is important, because 'reparations' without fixing white supremacy seems largely pointless, particularly from his point of view.

Coates believes that 'black poverty is not like white poverty' because of white supremacy, and so simply helping the poor isn't enough. According to Coates's view, without fixing the underlying white supremacy, cash payments or acknowledging the past can't be enough, because blacks will continue to face white supremacy in the future. If so, that'll only serve to further anger everyone: whites will feel like they've settled their debt, while blacks will not.

Since Coates uses the present tense and uses a few examples from the present (e.g. discrimination suits that banks paid for home loans made in the mid 2000s), I'm pretty sure he believes that white supremacy is currently a fundamental force in America.

That's a very strong claim: does Coates defend it? I don't think so. Maybe someone can point it out to me, but from what I'm reading, I see most of his argument centered on pre-civil rights era injustice. He provides one or two modern day examples, but since he spends such little time on the present, he doesn't have a chance to develop an argument that shows the extent and severity of white supremacy in modern times. And without that he can only assert that 'black poverty is not like white poverty' today.

Ok- but just because he didn't give a full argument doesn't mean it's false. Is his argument plausible? I don't know enough to say. But my guess is that he can't defend the full strength of his claim. I'm sure that racism in subtle ways (from all sides!) is still a factor in life. But claiming that 'white supremacy' is an obvious fundamental force in America today seems like very much a stretch. These days 'racist' is one of the most damaging labels that anyone can receive. Even a whiff of racism is enough to ruin someone's reputation and career. As a result, the racism of today seems incredibly mild in comparison to that of 50 or 100 years ago. It seems like it takes some serious watering-down of the idea of 'white supremacy' for it to fit in today's world.

Let's set that issue aside and turn to some others.

Have there been enough reparations already?

A common reply to Coates's argument brings up the multitude of post-civil rights era programs that have provided disproportionate benefit to blacks, exemplified by affirmative action. "Aren't the untold billions sunk into these programs reparations enough?" is the question typically asked. Coates clearly doesn't think so. For Coates, such programs are too quiet to count as reparations: he's looking for something beyond simple monetary transfers: basically, he wants white Americans to see blood on their hands and issue a collective public transfer in penitence.

Still, it's rather confusing that Coates simply dismisses these programs. He dismisses affirmative action because it has unclear goals. But so what? You can argue about the goals all you want- the effect was clear: de facto preference was given to blacks for over a generation.

As noted above, he similarly dismisses transfer payments that disproportionately helped blacks by claiming that 'black poverty is not white poverty'. But if that's the case, why should current transfer payments (reparations) do any more good? (Unless he believes that white supremacy isn't a problem anymore. See the previous question for discussion on that.) More importantly, Mr. Coates doesn't describe why or how racism prevented these transfer payments from being useful. Racism or no, having extra money should be beneficial. (Unless you believe transfer payments weaken incentives to work, but that's clearly not the argument Mr. Coates makes.)

I haven't added up the total benefits given to blacks in the post-civil rights era, and I don't know if anyone could accurately- any number will face endless argument about whether some particular benefit counts as 'reparations'. But much has been given over the past generation, and Coates's dismissal of that is very weak.

What does Coates mean by 'reparations'?

Coates is very vague and expansive with his definition of 'reparations', which he describes as "the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences".

It seems Coates wants it both ways: he wants the shock value and the moral crusade of arguing for monetary transfer payments but he wants to be able to retreat and avoid arguments over the specifics of monetary transfer payments.

The devil is always in the details with this sort of thing: it seems he wants certain people to do things, and maybe some people to give things to other people. But who? and what? and to whom? Being specific forces you to ground your argument more carefully, because anyone can test how the reasons you give might apply in other situations. It's much easier to viscerally test the justice of a proposal by being able to look at the proposed outcomes. Who benefits? Who loses? Why? How could you apply that same reasoning elsewhere? Would that make sense? For example, why not reparations for Native Americans (who lost a continent) or the Chinese (who died building railroads) or the Jewish people (who faced enormous discrimination in the 1800s) or the....?

But Mr. Coates tries to avoid specifics and only speaks in generalities, wanting 'reparations' from 'the government' or 'Americans' for 'blacks'. I find it's always good to beware when people start talking about amorphous groups and not individuals. Reality is always much more complex; any group is always filled with a mix of vastly different people, some very good and some very bad.

Until he's more specific, he's not really arguing for anything.

And that's why some cynics have described it as more a piece crafted for an educated elite that allows them to nod their heads and feel sympathy for blacks, which makes them feel good and morally superior as they do nothing and return to their regularly scheduled programming. That's a very harsh assertion, but one which bears some resemblance to what happened. And it's also more in-line with Coates's stated goal of the piece: "More, I hope it mocks people who believe that a society can spend three-and-a-half centuries attempting to cripple a man, 50 years offering half-hearted aid, and then wonder why he walks with a limp." (Notice he's not hoping for a practical result; he's hoping to make his readers think a certain group of people are morally inferior.)  

Are reparations possible?

This is the discussion that Mr. Coates explicitly tries to avoid.

A short essay by David Frum in the Atlantic highlights some of the possible issues.

Mr. Coates has followed up with his own reply. In it, he mentions the reparations paid to Japanese who were interned during WWII. But this was a different sort of case. The Japanese Americans asked for explicit things from the people who did the wrong (the US government) to be given to explicit people (those who had been interned). This is in-line with how our criminal court would typically work: specific victims of crimes can get redress from their convicted perpetrators.

Very briefly at the end of that reply Mr. Coates gets specific in the case of blacks, and the things he names are far more modest than the grand reparations he discussed in his original article, things like identifying the victims of racist housing policies. Though again, a fair treatment would quickly get very complicated: the losers of that housing policy were the blacks who wanted to buy homes, and the whites who had homes and sold at a deep discount to fear-mongering speculators. The speculators were the people who benefitted. Are any still alive? If not, who do you go after? Reality is complicated.

And that shows why this question and the previous one are so important. If you want to make a serious proposal about what should be done, you should at a minimum provide guidelines for how to carry out that decision. They can then be tested to see if they are actually fair and actually possible. Because if your proposal isn't actually fair or isn't actually possible, then we shouldn't do it. So this question is unavoidable.


All-in-all, I find Mr. Coates's essay to be a great piece to read to better learn some American history that's probably unknown to many today. But the argument itself is quite weak. You could describe the argument as follows:

1. White supremacy is a fundamental force in America.
2. That white supremacy has had two results:
2a. A compounded harm against blacks that's best represented by the wealth gap
2b. And it has rendered ineffective any attempt to help the poor or blacks in the past 50 years
3. Therefore, we should come to "the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences" and attempt to close the wealth gap.

I haven't addressed (1) in a historical sense, but I've questioned the strength of Coates' argument for it being true today.

I haven't addressed (2a).

Coates's evidence and reasoning about (2b) is pretty weak.

And I've struggled to make sense of (3): what does it mean? Without being much more specific, it's almost impossible to evaluate the justice of it. A specific proposal would give something to explore.

And we need something to explore, because the general argument, "some people were harmed a long time ago; therefore, a group that includes descendants of those who did the harm should give cash payments to a group that includes the descendants of those who received the harm" is far from obviously true.

That general argument might be true in general, or it might be true in specific cases, but Coates didn't say why. Instead, he mostly relied on the sympathy of his reader to make the connection.

While manipulating people's sympathy is a too-common means to an end, it's a very weak reason for action.

And that's too bad, because it would have been interesting to read a thoughtful argument for reparations.

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