Black Americans Are Owed National Reparations

Calling for a racial conciliation that has not yet happened in this land, Ta-Nehisi Coates is profoundly patriotic, truly American. What he wants is the United States to respect its own slogan, E Pluribus Unum. Income inequality is in the spotlight — better late than never, one could suppose — but rarely is the subject put in terms like this, at least not in the mainstream: “The income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970.” Even today, “Black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records” (the author’s emphasis). Housing was, and to a lesser extent is, fraught with prejudice:

As late as 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ code of ethics warned that “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property value.” A 1943 brochure specified that such potential undesirables might include madams, bootleggers, gangsters — and “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.”

Coates suggests that the Supreme Court “might well” take on the Federal Housing Act. His strong words are wholly warranted by the historical evidence, which backs up statements like this: “To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying.” As this becomes Memorial Day weekend, let us memorialize the following: “The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk [who launched a war against Mexico, annexing what we call the southwest and half of California] traded slaves from the Oval Office. The laments about ‘black pathology,’ the criticism of black family structures by pundits and intellectuals, ring hollow in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children.”

As with many American cities, non-white Americans did not get the same privileges as their citizen peers. (Map c. @BlackPastOnline)

As with many American cities, non-white Americans did not get the same privileges as their citizen peers. (Map c. @BlackPastOnline)

Coates does not define what he means by the term “reparations” until toward the end of the piece. There, he describes the idea as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences … the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.” Those last two words is where he loses me, because it is not white guilt per se, but the guilt borne by (conscious) white people that they have been privileged for being white, and hence a privilege guilt.

But that’s ultimately a minor point. He also cites Boris Bittker, a professor of law at Yale who, in 1973, estimated that “a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income,” and found it was $34 billion. In today’s dollars, that rounds out to $181.5 billion. Matthew Yglesias estimates the true cost as being more like $1.38 trillion. “We cannot escape our history,” Coates concludes. William Faulkner wrote much the same thing.

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