The Conversation

Responses and reverberations


Ta-Nehisi Coates’s June cover story, which argued that America must pay reparations for centuries of government-sanctioned discrimination against African Americans, drew overwhelming attention. The article received more online visitors in a single day than any previous Atlantic magazine story. Coates has appeared on dozens of television and radio shows and spoken in multiple forums. An expanded sample of the many letters, articles, and blog posts responding to “The Case for Reparations” is presented here. 

The essay is as precise and blazing and undeniable from every angle as a giant diamond under a spotlight; it should be bound as a textbook and given out as required reading in every high-school history class for the rest of all time, which it won’t, and Coates should win a Pulitzer, which he’s got to.

Jia Tolentino
Excerpt from a Hairpin post

Gay marriage went from inconceivable to laughable to an existential threat to obviously just in a few short decades. I expect that reparations for slavery (and Jim Crow and redlining) will do the same—and I expect that we will one day look back at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 piece in The Atlantic the same way we look back at Andrew Sullivan’s 1989 piece in The New Republic (“Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage”). This is an essay that could jump-start a movement.

Dan Savage
Excerpt from a Stranger blog post

Coates documents a shameful list of discrimination against African Americans, and concludes that reparations are necessary to go forward. I agree that the treatment of many minorities has often been immoral, but respectfully disagree that reparations are an essential part of the solution. All of the events Coates documents are illegal under today’s laws. Efforts to keep laws focused on reducing discrimination and demanding that those laws are enforced would bring us closer to equality than would opening a discussion on reparations that is guaranteed to further divide the country.

Jerry Rainville
Annapolis, Md.

As I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s argument for reparations, I searched for a page or a few paragraphs that would equate the suffering and subjugation of African Americans with those of Native Americans. I found none. What I did find was a detailed description of German reparations to Israel after the Holocaust. It’s offered as a precedent for us to follow, but it is totally misplaced. Hundreds of tribes in the United States and Canada have for more than 200 years been attempting to get just compensation for the lands stolen from them through treaty violations and outright fraud.

In 2000, for instance, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York filed suit against Sherrill, New York, to stop the city from collecting property taxes on ancestral land the Oneidas had recently regained. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the Oneidas. A key statement in the decision read: “This Court has long recognized that the passage of time can preclude relief.” I suspect that Mr. Coates shied away from any mention of Indian reparations and went outside the country for this reason.

If active attempts are made at reparations to the black community, judicial actions will follow and the precedent decisions of the Supreme Court will make them moot. If the Court were to reverse itself, which is unlikely, then the tribes of the Native American community should certainly have first dibs on any and all reparations.

David Werdegar
Naperville, Ill.

Referring to a possible debate on Representative John Conyers Jr.’s bill to study reparations, HR 40, Coates states, “No one can know what would come out of such a debate.” But here’s what I fear: the debate is more likely to raise rancor than to generate honest introspection.

Few would deny that only some halting steps, albeit important ones, have been taken on the path to racial equality. However, the issues likely to be raised in the debate are sure to be intensely divisive. If the discussion is to be a purely academic one (with zero prospect of a heightened burden on taxpayers), millions of African Americans might rightfully feel cheated yet again: expectations raised and then dashed. If, on the other hand, the real prospect were to exist of some substantial payment to the African American population, the list of impossible questions would explode.

Why, for example, should a recent immigrant of another ethnicity, whose ancestors had nothing to do with the abomination of slavery, be forced to accept a penalty for a crime he did not commit? Correspondingly, why should a recent immigrant of Somalian extraction be a possible beneficiary of such a payment?

This all said, a somewhat stronger case might be made for targeted reparations. Take the example of Clyde Ross, referenced in the article. Clearly his is a family that has been damaged not merely by slavery but by all that Jim Crow could deliver. But again, who would pay? His native Mississippi, the most impoverished state in the nation? Illinois, where he lives now, arguably the state with the worst public finances? Perhaps the nation as a whole since the sin was a collective one? Yet why should the burden be forced on a Native American, or the descendants of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany?

The idea of debate as a means of clearing the air is a fine notion conceptually, but the practical effect could be profoundly corrosive.

Stephen Saker
Longwood, Fla.

Can you imagine if slavery reparations were ever brought into being? Martin Luther King Jr. said his dream was that people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” To pay these reparations, don’t you have to judge everyone by skin color? And can you imagine how racist organizations could use resentment over reparations to swell their ranks and influence?

Matt Eggleston
Chester, Va.

This powerful essay explicitly disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution [Coates] has in mind: How would it work?

The affirmative action experience since 1969 offers some insights into what is likely to happen next: (1) The program will expand to additional groups. (2) The question of who qualifies will become ever more contested and embittered. (3) Side effects will be large and unexpected. (4) The program will work severe inequities. (5) The legitimacy of the project will rapidly fade.

Affirmative action ranks among the least popular things that U.S. governments do. When surveyed, white Americans crushingly reject race preferences, Hispanic Americans object by a margin of 2 to 1, and black Americans are almost evenly divided, with only the slightest plurality in favor.

Now imagine how Americans will feel when what is redistributed by racial calculus is not university admissions or workplace promotions but actual, foldable cash.

Ta-Nehisi Coates anticipates this trouble by suggesting that reparations might be paid not to individuals but collectively to African Americans as a group. He favorably cites the example of German reparations to the state of Israel after World War II.

But the state of Israel was a sovereign, elected by a democratic process. Few in the Jewish world doubted that Israel could and did act for the Jewish people as a whole. Black Americans, however, do not have a state of their own. If reparations are deemed some kind of collective debt to black Americans as a group, rather than to black Americans as individuals, then the question will arise: Who decides how this money will be distributed? Some kind of National Endowment for Black America? Chosen how? Accountable to whom?

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