The Case for American History

A reply to National Review's Kevin D. Williamson
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A 1939 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “Residential Security Map” of Chicago shows discrimination against low-income and minority neighborhoods. The residents of the areas marked in red were denied FHA-backed mortgages. (Frankie Dintino)

I wanted to take moment to reply to Kevin Williamson's Case Against Reparations. I wanted to do that, primarily, because his piece covers many of the most common objections to my piece, but also because I've always been an admirer of Williamson's writing, if not his ideas. Among those ideas is a kind of historical creationism which holds that "race" is a fixed thing. The problems with this approach are many, and duly apparent from the outset.

Williamson says he is opposed to "converting the liberal Anglo-American tradition of justice into a system of racial apportionment." He then observes that, in fact, that tradition, itself, has always been deeply concerned with "racial apportionment." Thus within the second paragraph, Williamson is undermining his own thesis—if the Anglo-American tradition is what he concedes it to be, no "converting" is required. We reverse polarity for a time, and then we all live happily ever after.

Or probably not. That is because Williamson's entire framing is wrong. Reparations are not due because black people are black, but because black people have been injured. And the Anglo-American tradition has never been a system of "racial apportionment," but of racist apportionment. Like most writers and public intellectuals (liberal and conservative) Williamson's reply is rooted in the idea of "race" as constanti.e. there is a "black race" that can be traced back to Africa, and a "white race" that can be traced back to Europe. There certainly is such a thing as African and European ancestry, and that ancestry is not entirely irrelevant to our world. But ancestry is tangential, and sometimes wholly unrelated, to racism, injury, and reparations.

We know this because there is no constant idea of "black" or "white" across time or space. We know this because Charlie Patton fathered the blues, and Alessandro de Medici ruled in Venice. Black in America is not black in Brazil, and black in modern America is not even black in 18th-century Louisiana. Nor are people we consider "white" today any sort of constant. Throughout American history it has been common to speak of an "Italian race," an "Irish race," a "Frankish race," a "Jewish race" even a "Southern race." One might take a hard look at Williamson's agreeable portrait, for instance, and note the problem of assigning anyone to a race. "Race," writes the imminent historian Nell Irvin Painter, "is an idea, not a fact."

In this country, at this moment, "African-Americans" are an ethnic group comprised of individuals of varying degrees of direct African ancestry. Nothing about this fact necessitated plunder or injury, and it is the injury—through red-lining, black codes, slaves codes, lynching, ghettoization, fraud, rape, and murderwith which reparations concerns itself. The point is not "racial apportionment," which is to say giving people things because they are black. It is injury apportionment, which is to say restoring things to people who have been plundered. 

Racism, and its progeny white supremacy, is concerned with dividing human beings, on the basis of ancestry (which is very real) and slotting them into a hierarchy (which is an invention). "Race" is that hierarchyand any study of the word across history bears out its relationship to assigning value and scale across humanity. In polite society we've moved past overtly hierarchal ideas about "race," but the problem of imprecise naming remains with us. Let us bypass that imprecisionthe Anglo-American tradition which Williamson extolls has, as he concedes, sought to erect and uphold a racist hierarchy. Reparations seeks its total and complete destruction. 

Williamson believes that reparations must either boil down to a "symbolic political process"  or a series of polices that helps America's poor and disproportionately aids African-Americans. How, Williamson asks, can one make a claim on behalf of Sasha and Malia Obama, in a world of poor whites? In much the same way that a factory which pumps toxins into a poor neighborhood is not indemnified because a plaintiff rises to become a millionaire. Taking Williamson's argument to its logical conclusion, a businessman brutalized by the police should never sue the city because, well, homelessness. 

People who are injured sometimes achieve great thingsthis does not obviate the fact of their injury, nor their claim to recompense. Warren Moon achieved more than the vast majority of white quarterbacks. Had racism not forced him into the CFL for the first five crucial years of his career, he might have had more success than any quarterback to ever play the game. Satchel Paige enjoys an honor which the vast majority of white baseball players shall never glimpseinduction in the Hall of Fame. What might Paige achieved had he not been injured by white supremacy for the vast majority of his career? Mr. Clyde Ross is a homeowner, and considerably better off than many of his North Lawndale neighbors. To achieve this he worked three jobs and lost time that he should have been able to invest in his children. What might Mr. Ross have been had he not endured racist plunder from Clarksdale to Chicago? 

The problem of racism is not synonymous with the problem of the poverty line. Indeed, it is often in the fate of the most conventionally successful African-Americans that we see the full horror of a corrupt social contract.  The injury of racism means many things, virtually all of them bad. It means making $100,000 a year but living in neighborhoods equivalent to white people who make $30,000 a year. It means belonging to a class whose men comprise some eight percent of the world's entire prison population. It means, if you do go to college, still enjoying lesser employment prospects than white college graduates. It means living in a family with roughly a 20th of the wealth of those who do not suffer your particular ailment. In short, it means quite a bitand these effects do not merely haunt the poor. My heart bleeds for the white child injured by the departure of parents. But God forbid the injury of racism be added to the burden.

The pervasive effects of the injury should not surprise—the injuring and exploitation of black people regardless of economic class has been one of the dominant themes of American history. It is only the obviation, or ignorance, of history that allows us to escape this. The result must be an especially tortured specimen of reasoning:

Some blacks are born into college-educated, well-off households, and some whites are born to heroin-addicted single mothers, and even the totality of racial crimes throughout American history does not mean that one of these things matters and one does not. Once that fact is acknowledged, then the case for reparations is only moral primitivism.

Williamson's "fact" can not be acknowledged because, even by Williamson's crude measures, it is artifice. There are—at most—1.5 million people who use heroin in this country. The ranks of the African-American poor are roughly eight times that. More importantly, the claim of reparations does not hinge on every individual white person everywhere being wealthy. That is because reparations is not a claim against white Americans, anymore than reparations paid to interned Japanese-Americans was a claim against non-Japanese-Americans. The claim was brought before the multi-ethnic United States of America. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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