In 1983, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech widely remembered for his description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” In addition to denouncing the Soviet system, Reagan praised the United States, as one might expect of a president who called this country a “shining city on a hill.”
Reagan argued “any objective observer must hold a positive view of American history, a history that has been the story of hopes fulfilled and dreams made into reality.” Yet he also said, “Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal.” That evil, he noted, was racism.
“There is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country,” Reagan declared, in a little-remembered passage of the speech.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a long cover story for the Atlantic arguing that there has been all too much room for racism in this country for most of its history. The piece—which opens in 1920s Mississippi, not the antebellum South—makes a powerful case that racism has been durable and its effects have lingered past the abolition of its most obvious manifestations, slavery and Jim Crow.
What Coates does not do, however, is make the case for reparations, as the title of his piece promises. He supplies some of the ample, irrefutable evidence that black Americans as a group faced systematic injustices; he also tells the stories of many individual blacks who were robbed.
But when it comes to what reparations would look like or how they would work, Coates has little to say beyond “we should support” John Conyers’ bill to study reparations. And while he insists the failure of this proposal to advance “suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential,” he doesn’t give us any reason to think he is talking about a workable policy that would tangibly improve people’s lives.
Coates waves away as irrelevant the most obvious questions: “Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay?” Many of us suspect these questions are ultimately unanswerable and would take an inquiry into reparations spearheaded by someone with Conyers’ politics as seriously as Coates would take a tea party investigation into Benghazi.
(Coates might reply that we got such an investigation into Benghazi, but if studying reparations is to have anything like the effect he hopes for, the results would have to be respected across the political spectrum to a far greater degree than the select committee Republicans’ Benghazi handiwork is likely to be.)
The closest Coates even comes to making a positive argument for reparations is in the context of West German reparations to Israel—paid in the lifetimes of Holocaust survivors and the leaders who victimized them, like U.S. reparations to the Japanese-American victims of internment.
“If you can’t answer the question of why a Vietnamese boat person has to pay reparations for the conduct of white plantation owners more than a century earlier, then you can’t make the argument,” writes William A. Jacobson of Cornell Law School. “If you can’t answer the question of why two successful black doctors living in a fashionable suburb should get reparations paid for by the white children of Appalachia, then you can’t make the argument.”
To say nothing of people of mixed race, of which President Barack Obama is the most prominent example. Coates implies throughout his piece that objections involving recent immigrant groups or affluent blacks are irrelevant, but never contends seriously with how these details would impact his reparations project.
Perhaps that’s why Coates frequently downplays reparations as a monetary concept—he on some level knows what he is asking for is impossible. “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts,” he writes. “What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”
How can white guilt be banished by proclaiming white supremacy is “a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it?”
“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe,” Coates continues. “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” How so? Coates doesn’t say.
“Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage,” Coates contends, “a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
That’s why I opened with the quotes from Reagan. He may have disagreed with Coates in believing that “the long struggle of minority citizens…for equal rights” was largely over, save for “the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice,” a struggle he said was “once a source of disunity and civil war is now a point of pride for all Americans.”
But even Reagan, who wished every day was the Fourth of July and believed in America as the great democratizer as much as any recent national leader, a man who would be reelected to the presidency in a 49-state landslide despite receiving single-digit black support, acknowledged that the country’s history was tainted by the sin of racism.
If it is a sin that can never be expiated, what good can reparations possibly do?
“The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago,” Coates acknowledges. He gives the American system little credit for this progress, and where it has stalled he assigns the liberals running many predominantly black areas—many of them black themselves, most of them sympathetic to Coates’ narrative about race relations—little of the blame. The main exception is when they, like Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, identify something other than racism as a source of problems in the black community.
Progressives are criticized for their political alliance with segregationist Democrats during the New Deal era and for being too timid or color-blind today, but on housing policy to Medicaid expansion Coates just takes the rightness of their policy prescriptions for granted.
“In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won,” Coates writes. “But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much.” Let’s unpack that. The Obamas are bright people who went to good schools. Obama was right about the Iraq war when Hillary Clinton and John McCain were wrong; he wrote popular books.
These are worthy accomplishments. But Obama was also a state senator four years before he was elected president. He may have had to overcome more than George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton, whose surnames made their presidential campaigns possible. But was his career in government or the private sector really twice as good as that of George H.W. Bush, who came from a privileged background, or Bill Clinton, who did not? Twice as good as Lyndon Johnson’s or Richard Nixon’s?
Obama’s heritage made Dreams of My Father, written before he won his first election, a national bestseller. (It was, after all, a book about his heritage–”A Story of Race and Inheritance.”) His heritage played a role in the resounding success of his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he spoke of racial and political reconciliation.
It would have been difficult for a similarly situated white liberal to assemble the diverse coalition necessary to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. None had been able to generate the black voter turnout that helped Obama beat back Mitt Romney in 2012.
Each of these factors was more decisive in the outcome of the past two presidential elections than kooks obsessed with Obama’s birth certificate or angry white voters who backed Hillary in the West Virginia primary (ex-Klansman Robert Byrd not among them).
In his quest to prosecute a “crime that implicates the entire American people,” Coates must thus diminish individual and even some collective accomplishments. We all play our assigned roles as villain or victims based on our color or who are parents were. The dreams of our fathers are replaced by the sins of our fathers.
In his 1976 essay “Patterns of Black Excellence,” Thomas Sowell wrote, “The history of the advancement of black Americans is almost a laboratory study of human achievement, for it extends back to slavery and was accomplished in the face of the strongest opposition confronting any racial or ethnic group.”
Racism didn’t die with Ben Tillman, Bull Connor or George Wallace; it lives on in forms more relevant than David Duke. Coates is indisputably right that countries are made up of fallible people with flawed histories. The unfairness that inevitably results can be mitigated, but it can never be eliminated as long as we are human.
In the end, the disconnect between the palpable history Coates describes and the entirely abstract solutions he proposes makes one thing clear: Some injustices cannot be remedied by debits and credits, they cannot be wiped clean by any single act or financial transaction. They can only be transcended, defeated and hopefully overcome.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.