The Case for American History

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

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. 

There seems to be great confusion on this point. The governments of the United States of America—local, state and federal—are deeply implicated in enslavement, Jim Crow, redlining, New Deal racism, terrorism, ghettoization, housing segregation. The fact that one's ancestors were not slave-traders or that one arrived here in 1980 is irrelevant. I did not live in New York when the city railroaded the Central Park Five. But my tax dollars will pay for the settlement. That is because a state is more than the natural lives, or occupancy, of its citizens. People who object to reparations for African-Americans because they, individually, did nothing should also object to reparations to Japanese-Americans, but they should not stop there. They should object to the Fourth of July, since they, individually, did nothing to aid the American Revolution. They should object to the payment of pensions for the Spanish-American War, a war fought before they were alive. Indeed they should object to government and society itself, because its existence depends on outliving its individual citizens.

sovereignty that dies with every generation is a failed state. The United States, whatever its problems, is not in that league. The United States' success as a state extends out from several factors, some of them good and others not so much. The mature citizen understands this. The immature citizen claims credit for all national accolades, while disavowing responsibility for all demerits. This specimen of patriotism is at the core of many (not all) arguments against reparations. Everyone claims to love their country, but considerably fewer know their country. This is true even among those charged with analyzing it:

Even assuming that invidious racism were an entirely negligible factor, it is likely that economic development will tend to proceed along broad racial channels if, for example, people of various ethnicities tend to largely marry within their ethnic group, live in neighborhoods largely populated by co-ethnics, and engage in other social-sorting behavior that is racial at its root but not really what we mean by the word “racism.” If that is the case — and it seems that it is — then initial conditions will be very important for a very long period of time.

This works if you believe in history as creationism. It does not work if you value research and evidence. Even at a time when people believed in separate European races, intermarriage rates among European ethnic groups were quite high. It's tough to assess intermarriage rates among blacks and whites in early America, partially because the very racial terms Williamson embrace did not have the same connotation. Nevertheless, the historian Ira Berlin notes that:

On the Eastern shore of Virginia, at least one man from every leading black familythe Johnsons, Paynes, and Drigguses—married a white woman. There seems to have been little stigma attached to such unions: after Francis Payne's death, his white widow remarried, this time to a white man.  In like fashion, free black women joined together with white men. William Greensted, a white attorney who represented Elizabeth Key, a woman of color, in her successful suit for freedom, later married her. In 1691 when the Virginia General Assembly ruled against such relationships, some propertied white Virginians found the legislation novel and obnoxious enough to muster a protest have researched the history of American ethnicity. 

What we term as "interracial" marriage did not just exist among the "propertied" but among the workers. In her book Sex Among The Rabble, the historian Clare Lyons quotes a Philadelphia minister denouncing "these frequent mixtures." The minister feared that "a particoloured race will soon make a great portion of the population of Philadelphia." The "particoloured race" did indeed come to be. It is us—black people. That unions between blacks and whites in America have historically been driven into the shadows is not a matter of "social sorting that is racial," "primitivism," nor "tribalism." It is a matter of Thomas Jefferson, in 1769, seeking to pass a law banishing any white woman from Virginia who had a child by black man. In short, it is a matter of racist policy pushed by intelligent, and otherwise, sage men.

And racist policy is at the heart of our beloved country. Ignoring this leaves us intellectually poor, and finds us devolving into bizarre thought experiments:

Imagine, for example, that rather than having been brought to the colonies as slaves, the first Africans to arrive in the New World had come as penniless immigrants in 1900.

Williamson then posits that black people would still be poor because they'd be far behind the native white population. Williamson never considers that the two groups might intermarrybecause he believes in "race," which is to say creationism. For that same reason he ignores the fact there was no "New World" with "native whites" to come to without the labor of African-Americans. Europeans did not purchase enslaved Africans because they disliked the cut of their jib. They did it because they had taken a great deal of land and needed bonded labor to extract resources from it. Africansaliens to society, existing beyond the protections of the crownfit the bill. 

"The people to whom reparations were owed," Williamson concludes. "Are long dead." Only because we need them to be. Mr. Clyde Ross is very much aliveas are many of the victims of redlining. And it is not hard to identify them. We know where redlining took place and where it didn't. We have the maps. We know who lived there and who didn't.

This was American policy. We have never accounted for it, and it is unlikely that we ever will. That is not because of any African-American's life-span but because of a powerful desire to run out the clock. Reparations claims were made within the natural lifetimes of emancipated African-Americans. They were unsuccessful. They were not unsuccessful because they lacked merit. They were unsuccessful because their country lacked the courage to dispense with creationism. 

So it goes.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-american-history/371723/