I ended my previous post with the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…..” Yet many of the same men who signed that document “owned” slaves.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a very long article for The Atlantic Magazine entitled The Case For Reparations. It begins thus: “And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.” Deuteronomy 15: 12–15.
It ends thus: “In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit. The following year, Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million. But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.”
So, he starts with a passage from the Old Testament that lays out some commandments from God to the people of Israel about how to treat a “brother” who is indentured to you. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from bondage, the Hebrew believer was to mimic that redemption in their behavior. Good, great even, that Mr. Coates has such respect for the Bible that he builds his case for reparations on it. Or does he? He starts with a biblical admonition and ends with an economic settlement statement. I am going to present quite a lot of his argument here, so this will be a very long post. Most of the word-count in his article is personal stories of enslaved, disenfranchised or cheated black Americans. That makes sense, because there is no better way to build a rapport between people than sharing individual stories. Individual stories are more likely to connect emotionally than statistics or polemics. I will come back to that point, but REMEMBER THAT AS YOU READ. My commentary comes after his quotes.
“The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of whites only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows—and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere. The income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, studied children born from 1955 through 1970 and found that 4 percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed. And whereas whites born into affluent neighborhoods tended to remain in affluent neighborhoods, blacks tended to fall out of them.
“This is not surprising. Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do. Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strike—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous.
“And just as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood. Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Sharkey’s research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. “Blacks and whites inhabit such different neighborhoods,” Sharkey writes, “that it is not possible to compare the economic outcomes of black and white children.”
“Even seeming evidence of progress withers under harsh light. In 2012, the Manhattan Institute cheerily noted that segregation had declined since the 1960s. And yet African Americans still remained—by far—the most segregated ethnic group in the country. With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage. An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin.
“One thread of thinking in the African American community holds that these depressing numbers partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior. (In 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, responding to violence among young black males, put the blame on the family: “Too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of, and then we end up dealing with your children.” Nutter turned to those presumably fatherless babies: “Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.”) The thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance.
“In 1783, the freedwoman Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations. Belinda had been born in modern-day Ghana. She was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. She endured the Middle Passage and 50 years of enslavement at the hands of Isaac Royall and his son. But the junior Royall, a British loyalist, fled the country during the Revolution. Belinda, now free after half a century of labor, beseeched the nascent Massachusetts legislature: Belinda Royall was granted a pension of 15 pounds and 12 shillings, to be paid out of the estate of Isaac Royall—one of the earliest successful attempts to petition for reparations. At the time, black people in America had endured more than 150 years of enslavement, and the idea that they might be owed something in return was, if not the national consensus, at least not outrageous.
“As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected. Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make “membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.” In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. “The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,” wrote Pleasants, “would be an acceptable offering to him who ‘Rules in the kingdom of men.’
“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.” A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.
“That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them. John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. 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. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
“Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.
“And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans. Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt. What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” My commentary now follows.
The two examples of reparations he provided in the article show how the actual injured party could be compensated by the person, or the estate of the person, who actually did the injuring. This is the biblical principle of restitution. Belinda Royall was granted her restitution from the estate of a person who was now an enemy of the administration, a far cry from the example set by Zaccheus in Luke 19:8, who voluntarily gave half his goods to the poor and offered to pay back four fold whatever he had stolen. Still, even forced restitution is not “reparations”, in the sense that the writer is arguing for. Now I cannot square the words of the Declaration of Independence with the actual treatment of slaves, or even with the concept of chattel slavery, and I agree that black Americans have been treated shabbily by all the institutions he mentions in the article (there were far more than I reprinted here), most of which were lending and real estate institutions. Doesn’t that sentence put me in favor of his concept of reparations?
No, because I would then have to agree with the principles he is espousing: Every aspect of American society “cooperated” in creating the “wealth gap” between black and white Americans (structural racism); The wealth gap is the statistic which best illustrates the “country’s” history of treating blacks as sub-human; Reparations would seek to close the gap; The wealth disparity between black and white Americans is evidence of “structural racism”, not the fruit of individual decisions; The best way to redress wrongs committed against a certain segment of the population—blacks—is seeking to take what never belonged to them in the first place from those who have not actually wronged them personally, directly, or otherwise, to begin with. What, then, is the difference between “reparations”, as he is calling for, and state-sponsored theft? The wealth gap is due to lots of factors, including defrauding, but will taking from one color and giving to another color, even assuming an equitable and valid method of taking could be thought of through HR 40 or it’s like, actually close the gap? We have to consider how a wealth gap actually comes to be. The wealthy strategically organize their money so that it will produce profit. Affluent people are more likely to allocate their money to financial assets such as stocks, bonds, and other investments which hold the possibility of capital appreciation. Those who are not wealthy are more likely to have their money in savings accounts and home ownership. This difference comprises the largest reason for the continuation of wealth inequality in America: the rich are accumulating more assets because they are investing in growth assets while the middle and working classes are just getting by. You might be tempted to say “if I was high income like the rich, I could afford to invest in growth assets too!”
I bought 100 shares of Amazon stock during 1997 for an average of $34/share, by allocating 10% of my paychecks. Amazon’s stock then split three times in quick succession, so my 100 shares would have grown to 1,200 shares. Had I not panicked about Y2K and sold my shares in 1999, my original investment would be worth about $2.3 million! Sad, for me, but true. My central objection to his arguments for reparations is simple: Only individuals can wrong other individuals, and therefore only individuals who did the wronging can make it right. He starts out with a biblical passage and ends with financial settlements. Both examples are restitution, in the biblical sense, and I agree with them, because in the Deuteronomy example, individual actions are involved, and in the bank settlements, individuals on the board of directors approved the fraudulent policies, and individuals had to approve the settlements. In the latter case, I don’t know who actually got the settlement money—it should have been those defrauded. Forced restitution can still be legitimate restitution. The Bible gives examples of criminals having to pay back victims, even from jail. The difference between what I call legitimate restitution and race reparations is that in the former, individuals or their estates are compensating those they defrauded or cheated, and the latter can’t even identify individuals on either side of the dishonest transactions!
My bottom line is this: Group guilt doesn’t exist. Any group, whether corporation, army or church, cannot do anything. The individuals within the group can. Guilt is not a feeling, it’s a judicial decision. You are guilty or are not, because you did something wrong or failed to do something right, not because of what you feel. Mr. Coates condemns “the country”, “white guilt”, “every aspect of American society”, even black politicians and economists who don’t agree with him. I am totally in favor of restitution and punishment for any white person who cheated a black person… or any person. The same for a black who cheated a black. Reparations, the way he sees them, represent the monetizing of guilty feelings, not of judicial guilt, because only individuals can be judicially guilty of a crime.