SYNDICATED COLUMN: Reparations for Blacks? For an Exceptionally Vicious Nation, Just a Start


In the latest of periodic revivals of the argument that the United States ought to issue reparations to African-Americans as compensation for slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic: “Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

That discrimination, poverty and genocide are at the heart of the black American experience is not in doubt — at least not in the minds of people of moderate intelligence and good will. That tens of millions of blacks continue, “even” after the election of the first black president, to suffer systemic racism along with its attendant symptoms — schools starved of funding, grinding poverty, police brutality, a viciously skewed judiciary, bigotry in every aspect of life from the workplace to housing to romance — is obvious to all who care to open their eyes the slightest bit.

Reparations are obviously justified. Moreover, they are normative; in the United States, aggrieved parties routinely seek and receive compensation for their injuries and economic losses via class-action lawsuits and the occasional U.S. Treasury payout. During the 1990s, for example, Congress issued $20,000 reparations checks to 82,210 Japanese-Americans and their heirs in order to compensate them for shipping them to concentration camps during World War II (and, in many cases, stealing their homes and businesses).

Better ridiculously late than never; better insultingly small than nothing.

Other U.S. reparations precedents include North Carolina residents forcibly sterilized during the mid 20th century as part of a nationwide eugenics program targeted at minorities and the mentally disabled (they are receiving $50,000 each), victims of the infamous Tuskegee untreated-syphilis experiment ($24,000 to $178,000), and blacks killed in the 1923 mass lynching at Rosewood, Florida ($800,000 for those forced to flee).

Coates admits that complications arise from his proposal: “Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay?”

Should blacks who are not descendants of American slaves, like President Obama, receive reparations? What about wealthy blacks — should a wealthy black person receive a payout while members of other races go hungry? Should poor blacks get more than rich blacks? What about “mixed race” people — if your father was black and your mother was white, should you get half a check?

These are good questions, but as a white man (not descended from Americans who lived in the United States during slavery), I don’t enjoy the political standing to ponder them, much less answer them.

Whatever the details of a theoretical reparation scheme, my only objection to the idea overall would be that no amount of money would or could be enough. Reading through Coates’ survey of centuries of savage rape, abuse and degradation, one can’t help but ask, how could $100,000 make up for a single ancestor turned away from restaurants or rejected for promotions or unable to attend college due to the color of her skin? $1 million? $10 million?

Not that doing the right thing is going to happen any time soon. “For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for ‘appropriate remedies,’ Coates writes.

The bill “has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor,” he says, because “we are not interested.”

Well, I’m interested. And I’d be paying, not getting.

Coates is, if anything, too polite. Congress’ disinterest in trying to atone for America’s original sin of slavery, he says, “suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential.”

That existential something, of course, is that the United States and its economic infrastructure are the products of so much brutality, stealing, lying and exploitation, of so many hundreds of millions of people not only within “our” borders but — as the center of a vast economic and military empire — that it would not only be impossible to compensate all of its victims without going broke many times over, reparations would force American political leaders to concede that we are indeed an exceptional nation, if only in our violence and perfidy.

One place to start compiling lists of victims and heirs to consider for reparations would be Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.” All 49 states (except Hawaii) belonged to Native Americans; any fair assessment of compensation would give the total real estate value back to them, plus four centuries of interest and penalties for pain, suffering, and opportunity cost. Hawaii was stolen from native Hawaiians by an invasion force of U.S. Marines.

Chinese railroad workers were abused, discriminated against and in some cases murdered; America’s freight travels the rails they laid down. Except for slavery, Latinos too have suffered many of the same horrors, and still do, as Coates enumerates. There are the victims of America’s countless wars of colonial conquest in North America and around the world: Filipino patriots tortured to death in the early 20th century, two million Vietnamese, Koreans, Afghans, Iraqis and Yemenis — honestly, this is like one of those Oscar speeches where there isn’t enough time to thank everyone who made this “wonderful” exceptional country possible.

By all means, cut everyone a check, then close up shop.

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  • exkiodexian
    May 30, 2014 12:48 PM

    Coates is a fraud, and a dangerous one at that. Not dangerous to whites, but other blacks. He consistently refuses to allow any dissent on his opinion that the black population is responsible — at least in part — for their current predicament of continued poverty. His constant meme is to blame whites for everything, and that makes him dangerous. His switcheroo on reparations is merely another step in his ceaseless disempowerment campaign of the American black. For Coates, there is no other way but to tax whites. Blacks? They just can’t do it on their own according to Coates. Blacks? They need help, now in the form of reparations. Coates believes white supremacy is at the heart of ALL black problems, yet he doesn’t even state how reparations will change this assertion. What good are reparation if the root cause of black problems (white supremacy) remains? Coates doesn’t say. He doesn’t care. Another handout it all that matters says Coates, because according to him blacks just can’t do it on their own.

    If the Chinese were so abuses, why aren’t they asking for reparations?
    Where’s the Hawaiian campaign for reparations?
    Where’s the Native American reparations movement? Is there no Native American writer at the Atlantic that can tackle this issue?

    In fact — where’s my reparations from Saudi Arabia for 9-11? They can certainly afford to pay us New Yorkers that were so heinously attacked on that day. And the “blowback” argument doesn’t work here. Reparations are reparations. Brutality must be paid off at a later date, no matter the cause. So where’s mine? 9-11 causes pain, suffering, economic losses in the billions. The Saudis can pay that off with barely a hit to their oil revenue. Pay up. Now.

    Coates is a danger to blacks. He doesn’t allow dissent on the Atlantic blogs, and regularly blocks users that disagree with him. He has no email, no Twitter, nothing. Coates HATES responses that challenge him. That’s a pity, and it’s yet another reason he’s so dangerous to other blacks. Interestingly, they’re not his audience. Liberal whites are. Why am I not surprised?

  • exkiodexian
    May 30, 2014 12:58 PM

    I’ll also note that Coates is a first class race-baiter. Recall he recently stated that Melissa Harris-Perry is “the foremost intellectual in America today.” This, of course, set off a firestorm of criticism. How could an weekend host of a TV show on MSNBC be “the foremost intellectual in America today”? Yes, she has a PhD and is smart — but she was forced to leave Princeton because she could not even make it past Associate Professor to a full Professorship. She’s never written a single book of distinction, yet Coates made this reckless claim. Why? Because it was a classic piece of race-bating.

    Step 1: Make ridiculous claim about black person ABC, overstating their achievement.
    Step 2. Wait for the inevitable responses to come back, slamming such an absurd assertion.
    Step 3. Cry “racism” at full blast.
    Step 4. Kick back and watch the fun — like a good little race-baiting troll.

    It would be no different than if Keith Olberman on his ESPN show declared “Larry Bird is the single greatest basketball player the country has ever produced.”

    Does anything think that would be race-baiting? Of course it would be, and Olberman would be called out. Coates though? He only suffered criticism from conservatives. Liberals like Glenn Greenwald and David Sirota were curiously silent during that episode. Gee — I wonder why? Could it be they didn’t want to be accused of being racists? That the didn’t want to attack the liberal Coates, whom they normally agree with? All of the above?

    Yep. All of the above. Race-baiting liberals get a pass. All of us should be so lucky.

    • You are correct Ex,

      Referring to Melissa Harris-Perry as “the foremost intellectual in America today.” is an insult to intellectuals in general and an insult to black intellectuals by inferring she is the best that Blacks have to offer.

      Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report stands so high above her that she is a midget next to him and every member of BAR.

    • Of course, accusing another of race-baiting frequently amounts to nothing more than meta-race-baiting.

      For example: if a Semite (or Black, or German) commits an atrocity, one who calls the atrocity by its correct name will commonly be meta-race-baited in response.

  • alex_the_tired
    May 30, 2014 2:28 PM


    Here’s a crazy idea. Instead of this circle jerk about whose ancestors suffered more, how about we all come together (no pun intended) and stick to one common refrain: “We are all being paid shit. We are ALL being taken advantage of. All the energy we’re wasting debating whether some black slave in 1835 had it harder than a Chinese laborer in San Francisco allows the Wall Street bankers to keep making money off all of us, the living.

    I’m sorry for everything that happened in the past, but: 1. i didn’t do it. I never owned a slave. I didn’t help round up the Jews in Berlin in 1938. I didn’t throw smallpox blankets at the Indians.

    But you know what I did do? Spent years working jobs where my salary didn’t keep up with inflation. Do I get to blame someone for that? Do I get reparations for toiling and toiling because the system was just as rigged against me as it was against a 19th century Choctaw or a slave in the belly of a ship?

  • The sad fact is, *everyone’s* ancestors have been oppressed. I’m mostly European, with little American Indian mixed in. Should I be compensated for the evils my White Man ancestors perpetrated upon my Native American ancestors? Should the white majority of my genes be billed to pay off the the minority of those genes?

    How about the centuries my ancestors labored as serfs – there is very little difference between that and slavery. Should I send a bill to Windsor Castle? Gosh, it’s possible that SOME of my ancestors were, themselves, nobility. Maybe I should take some money out of my right pocket and put it into my left and call it good.

    Hatfields vs. McCoys, Israelis vs. Palestinians, Capulets vs. Montigues, your great grandaddy insulted my great grandmommy and your neanderthal ancestor whacked my cro-magnon ancestor with an antelope’s thighbone … how far back do we want to trace it?

    Any decent psychologist will tell you that mulling over the past is a dead end. Instead of looking at our collectively-sordid past, I suggest we look at the here-and-now. Blacks have it bad … TODAY. Native Americans have it bad … TODAY. The 1% oppresses the 99% … TODAY.

    Let’s do what we can to fix that … TODAY.

    • To fix things today, we would have to give up on the sanctity of wealth. We would have to accept that human rights supersede property rights, a concept that American law has always opposed.

      I agree with you, but that is the sticking point. Reparations are a palliative that ease the pain ever so slightly and allow us to imagine that we are doing something to make things better. They also avoid facing the real injustices inherent in our society.

  • Anyone who was a slave, or whose father, grandfather or great grandfather (or mother, etc) was a slave is entitled to reparations for slavery. After that, the statute of limitations cuts off.

  • Tell you what, when Russia and Austria send me checks for the oppression my Jewish great-parents were forced to flee more than 100 years ago, I’ll pass that money along to some black people to pay for the guilt of the other 25% of my ancestry who were actually here in America when slavery existed. I may well have ancestors who owned slaves, I’d pay reparations with my sweet plantation inheritance money, but unfortunately my 91-year-old 12th-generation grandma (we’re supposedly related to Miles Standish) is actually pretty much broke and won’t be leaving behind much in the way of an estate. Ironically, my Jewish grandparents with the relatively recent history of ancestral oppression were better off financially.

    The problem with reparations is that the villains of slavery-era America are all long dead and their fortunes have been, for the most part, scattered to the wind (well, one that’s one problem with reparations, the other and more obvious problem being that reparations, for good or ill, will self-evidently never, ever happen, ever, in a trillion years, so it is pretty unproductive to spend a lot of time talking about it). Even if I do owe some kind of blood debt to American blacks for the crimes of my (possible, distant) ancestors, I don’t have the money to pay it. There was a time when reparations would’ve made perfect sense (force all the still-living, still-wealthy slave owners to spend their entire fortunes on reparations to their former slaves), but I fear we missed the boat 150 years ago.

  • PhilMarlowe
    May 31, 2014 2:06 AM

    Since you and Coates think reparations are a great idea, why don’t you write him a check and let the rest of us get on with our lives.

  • Is suffering abuse a hereditary characteristic, passed from generation to generation? If so, then by all means let’s offer reparations.

    • hmmm, now that’s an interesting take on it. The problems blacks face in America today most certainly are passed from generation to generation – by whites and blacks both. But then no one alive today is responsible for creating those problems: we inherited them ourselves.

      “… visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation…” Exodus 20:5

  • The United States is the richest country in the world, by any estimate. I have read that we are anywhere from 25-33% of the entire world economy. I have always been in favor of reparations for slavery and say let’s start immediately. The arguments that we can’t afford it I don’t think are true. We can hop into a war and spend a billion dollars a day without blinking: we can do it, and it’s the right thing.

  • Reparations is a good idea, but I would settle for reparations due for the last few criminal bailouts of the ruling criminal class, whose finance crimes have set Black wealth back decades.

    The biggest losers in this ruling class scam were Blacks but there would also be owed something to all lesser victims of exploitation.

    Of course, this accomplishment would amount to a revolution, and if people are so beaten down, diverted by circuses, and unable to realize what has happened and who is responsible the chances for this approach zero.

    • It’s easy to ask the dead guys for a refund because they can’t push back, but they don’t have any money.

      The guys who do have the money they stole from most everyone else (the 99%) are alive but will push back with a taxpayer-funded FBI-operated Red Squad attack.

      That’s right, they’ll use your own money to beat you over the head until the idea goes away.

      It’s so much safer to attack dead guys, so that must be all the people are up for.

  • I’d personally never heard of a movement for reparations for Native Americans, and I am one. That’s how popular it is.

    There are two main arguments I’d take against reparations, for AAs, NAs, etc, is that it would come from the central government, which means all taxpayers would be footing the bill. Why should I cut Coates a check, given that my ancestors, far from sippin Mint Juleps on the cotton plantation, were instead busy being nearly wiped from the face of the Earth? No matter how the matter is spun, it will eventually boil down to people that are getting checks and everyone else that’s paying them. (Weirdly, when I ask people that support reparations that question, the answer is always along the lines of how it’s totally cool that we’d have to pay too, because we got those sweet reservations and casinos.)
    There are plenty of races that didn’t benefit from slavery a bit, and will greatly resent being told they have to pay for it.

    The second argument deals with the backlash. You think racism is bad now? Wait until someone can’t get his or her kid’s rotten tooth fixed after they had to pay into reparations. It won’t take much prodding to convince them their kid is in pain *because* they had to pay. We’ll essentially end up with a party of African Americans with the leftiest of leftists (Which includes me.), and The American Golden Dawn, with the AGD winning most elections, because the Asian Americans and Hispanic voters will either side with them or won’t give a damn. The AGD might not like non-African American non-whites, but they’ll use them to their ends and the white supremacists will decide either Asians or Latinos are white enough to pass. They used to not care much for Irish people or Catholics, now the screamer in chief on Fox is a Catholic named O’Reilly.

    While both scenarios will provide ample fodder for Coates to write about, it wouldn’t be much good for those of us that would be nailed to burning crosses and paraded through the streets.

  • Reparations are absolutely called for, but simple monetary compensation has even more problems than you say. For one thing, it carries the implication that the matter is settled; that, after taking incalculable wealth from someone, you hand them five bucks if they’ll just sign the paper forfeiting all future claims.

    We need full reparations for everyone. We need a full on Jubilee: cancel all debts and zero out all abstract forms of wealth. The Money Game has gone too far off the rails for anything less to amount to more than a sick joke.

    This is not to say that African Americans don’t deserve special reparations. They need special reparations, and we as a society desperately need to grant those special reparations, but this is about class, not money.

    America has a class system. We pretend that we don’t, that it’s all just money, but the class structure is tangible, and its main foundational principle is the inferior status of black people. It has been this way for 350 years, and we need to face that ugly truth and destroy it. All the reforms we implement, big and small, no matter how just or overdue, will only amount to polishing a turd until we do so.