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The Benefits of Redressing Racism With Race-Neutral Remedies

Doing so needn't interfere with fully confronting crimes against black America.
Redlining in Chicago (Map development by Frankie Dintino)

My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates's cover story, "The Case for Reparations," has sparked an impressive amount of thought-provoking commentary. Reflecting on the subject this last week, I'm indebted to smart insights from Adam Serwer, Jamelle Bouie, Walter Olson, Noah Millman, David Frum, Sonia Sotomayor, James Fallows, Kevin Williamson, Jelani Cobb, Rachel Lu, Alexis Madrigal, Matt Steinglass, Damon Linker, Tyler Cowen, Freddie De Boer, John McWhorter, and Glenn Loury:

Coates has also responded to criticism of his story here, here, here, and here. I'll now inject myself into the conversation he so skillfully started.

Many observers avow that the strongest part of "The Case for Reparations" is its powerful description of housing discrimination as depraved, invidious theft that did much harm to black America long after Jim Crow policies were repealed. Even writers who oppose reparations have taken pains to acknowledge this significant, recent injustice done to blacks and to praise Coates for spreading knowledge of it. My take is similar. While I don't think that Coates offers a persuasive case for race-specific reparations, for reasons I'll explain below, I finished his article persuaded that relatively radical action ought to be taken to compensate victims of redlining and to address its most destructive, lasting consequences.

What do I recommend specifically? I'd need to study the issue and to ponder the possibility of unintended consequences before committing to a particular policy. I'll nevertheless offer a hypothetical response, because it will help to clarify why I believe that "let's acknowledge, study, and redress housing discrimination" is a more useful frame for progress than "let's study the possibility of reparations for blacks," even acknowledging that the latter makes for a more thought-provoking essay.

Imagine, for argument's sake, that an effort to redress redlining began by identifying all homeowners who were hurt by the practice and gradually compensating them for their lost property value by waiving their property taxes; say we compensated those wrongly denied home loans because of their race with cash; say federal grants were made available to formerly redlined neighborhoods to ensure efficient public transportation to a range of job opportunities; and say that students attending underperforming schools in redlined neighborhoods got a voucher to increase spending at whatever school they chose to attend. These specific proposals may be flawed or inadequate or too expensive, but I offer them to give a sense of the scale of redress I find appropriate and to raise this point: To tackle redlining and its legacy in this way, policymakers could make redress available to black people (however defined) hurt in these neighborhoods, citing the singular experience of blacks in America and Coates's reparations arguments.

Alternatively, one can imagine the same redress being made available to any individual injured by redlining and its legacy, in which case blacks would still benefit disproportionately; but non-blacks injured by the same policies would get justice too. Hispanics in America haven't faced historic group injustices equal to what blacks faced. I am still loath to examine the history of redlining in America, to address its victims and legacy, and to exclude Hispanics undeniably hurt by the very same policies when it is no harder to identify wronged individuals.

A race-neutral approach could still include a historic inquiry into the practice of redlining that would accurately highlight the disproportionate ways that it targeted and harmed blacks. Black victims of redlining would get their measure of justice and recompense as surely as they would under a race-specific policy. Yet when the chosen frame is "let's redress victims of insidious housing discrimination" instead of "let's study reparations," many widely held objections to Coates's essay fall away, as do the significant majorities preemptively opposed to reparations.

There is much less risk of pitting groups against one another in our increasingly diverse country. And some of the thorniest problems of implementation go away too.

A possible retort is that a race-neutral approach wouldn't offer the national reckoning on white supremacy that Coates cites as a benefit of a congressional study of reparations. "Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans," he writes. "But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world."

He later writes:

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. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

This is the passage in the essay that least persuades me. In part, that's because my faith that Congress would sponsor a rigorous, non-politicized inquiry into reparations approaches zero. Nor do I think that a congressionally sponsored inquiry would confer any more popular legitimacy on the recommendations than a historian's book or a magazine writer's reported feature. There is, too, a hint of presumptuousness here: that if masses of America rigorously studied and fully confronted the history that Coates highlights so powerfully—as if that's going to happen—the result would be a transformation of how they view America. At the top of this article, I linked a number of thoughtful intellectuals who examined history exactly as Coates sees it and made good faith efforts to grapple with his insights and arguments. None of them had their consciousness "revolutionized" by the exercise.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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