The attention Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations has received is remarkable and welcome. But like most of the folks he’s directly appealing to—educated, mainstream liberals who read The Atlantic—I approached his essay skeptically, assuming reparations was an impractical, even irresponsible way to redress the crimes of slavery and the way its legacy, racism, continues to disadvantage all African Americans today. But by the end of it, I was convinced. A major reason why is because by reparations Coates, or at least the leading advocates for reparations he quotes in approval, aren’t arguing for simple payouts to African Americans. Coates knows too well that, lacking a more rigorous understanding of our nation’s history with slavery, and the continuing problems of institutionalized racism, cash payouts risk becoming little more than “hush-money.”
If there’s a problem with Coates’ argument, it’s that he avoids committing himself to any one form of reparations. Some kinds of reparations are helpful, and some kinds are not—and the differences matter profoundly for the legitimacy of the case. Indeed, conservative critics have already taken Coates to task by deploying the common understanding of reparations—cash payouts—as an argument against it. Would it entitle anyone who can prove even a trace of African ancestry to a pay check? In any event, would cash payment actually bring about the “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”—the broader point of Coates’ essay? If the narrowest definition of reparations, like cash payouts, is deemed legitimate, then its critics have many good points to make.
Yet if we take what the leading advocates for reparations actually do suggest, many of whom Coates cites approvingly, reparations becomes a far more palatable policy. Charles Ogletree, the leading American legal scholar in favor of reparations, has argued for a (perhaps too) broad definition that would focus around job training for poor African Americans and even all the nation’s indigent. Other possibilities include a massive investment into blighted black communities; school vouchers for black students in neighborhoods with failing schools; free pre-K and daycare for financially strapped black parents; a reinvigorated campaign for race-based affirmative action; federal laws criminalizing predatory home loan policies that disproportionately harm black citizens; restructuring our prison system to redress the blatant ways it criminalizes blackness.
If all these policies sound familiar, that’s the point. Activists fighting racial discrimination have been making these arguments for years, with only limited success. Reading Coates’ many critics, it became clear to me that he might be able to persuade a good portion of them if he would just commit to a stricter range of options. Skeptics like John McWhorter essentially back all these race-based reforms, but dismiss Coates’ argument based on the assumption that it means something like a cash payout.
At the most practical level, Coates isn’t actually making a case for reparations; he’s making a case for a national conversation about what reparations might mean. Most directly, he wants popular support for a bill to create a federal commission to study the issue. Such a bill already exists, he tells us: it’s called HR 40, is written by the Detroit Congressman John Conyers Jr., and has been rejected and laughed at each of the past 25 years Conyers has proposed it. Coates is absolutely right that HR 40 deserves our support, and yet after reading his essay, I felt like another blue-ribbon study was hardly enough. In any event, urban historians like N.D.B. Connolly, in response to Coates, have made powerful arguments for why these kinds of “national conversations” often do more harm than good. Coates even acknowledges that such a study might lead nowhere. “Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America,” he writes. “Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced.”
Unlike Coates, I think the specific answers matter. We need policies that target clear forms of institutionalized racism. Though I support Coates’ case for HR 40, I’m not sure how much it will actually provide the historical understanding Coates hopes for. Nonetheless, I do think Coates is at his most convincing—and offers me, a student of slavery, profound encouragement—when he argues for our collective need, as a society, to have a deeper appreciation for the centrality of slavery to our nation’s past, and our present. If there was ever a case for why history matters, Coates makes it.