Friday, May 23, 2014

Two questions about reparations that no one will answer, or The Case against Reparations

If you don't know much about racism in America, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations. It's written by a man who doesn't see the irony in comparing Barack Obama with Malcolm X (see notes below), and who won't tell you that even slaves looked down on "white trash" or that Mississippi's poll tax law reduced the number of qualified white voters from 130,000 to 68,000, but it's well-written and well-researched. Yet, despite the title, Coates doesn't address the two most important questions:

1. How do you institute reparations for slavery in the 21st century? Coates mentions Conyers' bill, HR 40, that calls for studying how to institute reparations, but neither he nor Conyers actually have a suggestion. I suspect the reason is in the answer to the next question:

2. How do you justify instituting reparations for generational black poverty while excluding the descendants of indentured servants, the American Indians and Mexican-Americans whose land was taken from them, the Japanese-American, German-American, and Italian-Americans who were put in concentration camps when the US fought the countries they came from, and the working class people of all hues who have been exploited by the rich for as long as this country has existed?

Jamelle Bouie tried to answer the first question in Reparations should be paid to black Americans: Here is how America should pay. I commented there:
One question is whether the descendants of black slaveowners, from Anthony Johnson, the first black slaveowner in English-speaking North America, to William Ellison, who may have been the richest at the time the Civil War began, should be rewarded for owning slaves.

The problem with using the census for reparations is that it's self-reporting. For example, "An estimated net 1.2 million Americans of the 35 million Americans identified in 2000 as of “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin,” as the census form puts it, changed their race from “some other race” to “white” between the 2000 and 2010 censuses." If there are reparations available for being black, an awful lot of us who've been "white" will happily correct our forms to show we're "black".
Henry Louis Gates Jr. did a fine rebuttal of the rationale for reparations in How to End the Slavery Blame-Game (
While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today’s Congo, among several others.

For centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast. Exploration of the interior, home to the bulk of Africans sold into bondage at the height of the slave trade, came only during the colonial conquests, which is why Henry Morton Stanley’s pursuit of Dr. David Livingstone in 1871 made for such compelling press: he was going where no (white) man had gone before.

How did slaves make it to these coastal forts? The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.

Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade, choosing to believe the romanticized version that our ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men, like Kunta Kinte was in “Roots.” The truth, however, is much more complex: slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike.
As historian Eric Williams noted, “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” So the real question is not whether there should be reparations for slavery. It's whether there should be reparations for capitalism. I say yes, and I agree with Martin Luther King. The only viable reparation is Basic Income for everyone.


1. Coates says in the essay, "In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much." But neither Obama's academic or political record suggests he was twice as good or endured twice as much as his rivals, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

2. Neo-liberal identitarians like Coates tend to ignore the man Malcolm X became after he left the Nation of Islam. I would love to see Coates address Malcolm's rejection of capitalism:
Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries and the last bulwark of capitalism today is America and it’s impossible for a white person today to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find a person without racism and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.
And of identitarianism:
I believe that there will be ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don't think it will be based on the color of the skin...