Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

  • How Racism Invented Race in America

    The case for reparations: a narrative bibliography

    Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

    As I've said before, the idea of reparations precedes this month's cover of The Atlantic, and the work around it—among scholars, activists, and writers—has been ongoing, even if the interest of the broader world is fickle. Following up on the autopsy of an idea, I thought I'd give some larger sense of how something like this came to be. My hope is to give people who are interested some entrée into further reading, and also to credit the antecedents to my own thinking. Perhaps most importantly, I wish to return to one of the original features of blogging—the documentation of public thinking. I would suggest that more writers, more academics, and more journalists do this, and do so honestly. It have come to believe that arguing with the self is as important as arguing with the broader world.

    Okay. On y va.

    Recently, a young woman told me that this generation of Americans was "the most diverse in American history." The assumption was that across the span of that history, there was some immutable group of racial categories whose numbers we could compare. I am not sure this holds up. Biracial is a new category for America, but it is not clear to me that today there are relatively more children of black and white unions than there were in the past. We certainly are more apt to acknowledge them as such, and that is a good thing. Nevertheless, the assumption of that "something new" is happening "racially," that these terms are somehow constant is one of the great, and underestimated, barriers to understanding the case for reparations.

    The myth of any such constant was exposed to me at Howard University. I was a history major—and yes, I am bragging about this, and not at all humbly. In all my history classes we were treated to the dizzying taxonomy of race—mulatto and Italian, creole and quadroon, Jew and mestizo. This terminology would change quickly, change back, and then change again. And borders would change with them. Not even continents were constant. "Africa begins at the Pyrenees," we read in The Races of Europe.

    No work more influenced my own thinking on this more than St. Clair Drake's two-volume work Black Folk Here and There. Drake is better known for his study of Chicago, Black Metropolis, a book that informed the profile I wrote of Michelle Obama and, to some extent, my work on reparations. But Black Folk was the first book that made the argument that sticks with me to this day—that there is nothing particularly "natural" about viewing people with darker skin and curlier hair as inferior. Drake surveys all perceptions of people with darker skin, curlier hair, or both across history. He finds very little consistency and concludes that racism, as we know it, is basically a product of the slave trade, which is to say the seizure of power.

    Other books confirmed Drake's basic insight to me—Allison Blakely's Blacks in the Dutch World, Nell Irvin Painter's The History of White People. If you can get your hands on it I also would recommend The Image of the Black in Western Art, which is both expensive and priceless. It's fascinating to see how black people were viewed before we decided that African ancestry made you, by God or science, property. For a energetic rebuttal (which I find ultimately unconvincing) see Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black.

    The import of this all came home for me many years later in Barbara and Karen Fields's Racecraft. The book is a collection of essay, and is sometimes hard to follow, but its basic insight is brilliant. Basically, Americans talk about "race" but not "racism," and in doing that they turn a series of "actions" into a "state." This is basically true of all our conversations of this sort, left and right. You can see this in all our terminology—racial justice, racial quotas, racial discrimination, etc. But this language is ahistorical, and it obscures the current conflict. Affirmative action, for instance, is not intended to remedy plunder (action) but to aid "women and people of color" (state) or produce "diversity" (another state). And the benefits of affirmative action are not people who have been plundered, but "the black race."

    But American notions of race are the product of racism, not the other way around. We know this because we can see the formation of "race" in American law and policy, and also see how formations differ across time and space. So what is "black" in the United States is not "black" in Brazil. More significantly the relevance and import of "blackness" is not constant across American history. Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom helped me a lot on this. At the start of the book the English are allying with the rebellious Cimarrons against the hated and demonic Spanish. By the end of the book the great-grandchildren of the English are convinced that blacks are a singular blight upon the Earth. The change is not mysterious. Morgan traces the nexus of law, policy, and financial interest to show how current notions of "blackness" and "whiteness" were formed.

    It is important to remember that American racism is a thing that was done, and a world where American racism is beaten back is not a world of "racial diversity" but a world without such terminology. Perhaps we can never actually get to that world. Perhaps we are just too far gone. But we should never forget that this world was "made." Whiteness and blackness are not a fact of providence, but of policy—of slave codes, black codes, Jim Crow, redlining, GI Bills, housing covenants, New Deals, and mass incarcerations.

    I did not understand it at the time, but this way of thinking pushed me toward reparations. In the popular mind, reparations is seen as a "race-based" scheme, i.e., giving money to people solely because they are black or have direct African ancestry. But if you understand racism as the headwaters of the problem, as injury, as plunder you can reorient and focus not on the ancestry but on the injury.

    For me it goes back to Black Folks Here and There. I came to St. Clair Drake feeling a deep need to prove that the Ancient Egyptians were "black." (The whole first volume is a consideration of "race" and Ancient Egypt.) I was dogged by Saul Bellow's challenge: "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" I left feeling like Ralph Wiley—Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus. Wiley's point was that the entire exercise of attempting to prove the worth of humans through monuments and walls was morally flawed. This was radicalizing. It warned me away from beginning an argument with racist reasoning, by accepting its premises. The argument for racism is corrupt at its root, and must be confronted there. You can understand how such thinking might inevitably lead you toward reparations.

    Over the next few days I'll write three more posts like this—covering enslavement, housing and domestic policy, and thinking around reparations. If I were starting out and trying to grapple the relationship between "race" and "racism," here is how I would proceed. It is not the only—and perhaps not even the best—path. It's simply the one I'd suggest.

    1.) American Slavery, American Freedom, by Edmund Morgan
    Essential to understanding your country and how it came to see "blacks" in one light and "whites" in another.

    2.) White Over Black, by Winthrop Jordan
    I don't agree with this book, but it's important to confront the counterargument—that Anglo-American culture is racist at its very root and predisposed toward hatred of black people.

    3.) The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter
    A deeply amusing book that finds great minds—chiefly Ralph Waldo Emerson—arguing that race explains why "Celts" are Catholic and "Saxons" Protestant. It also reveals how poorly racist thinking ages. The book is an eminently readable guide through the evolution and conception of white people. Again, nothing inevitable here.

    4.) Black Folks Here and There, by St. Clair Drake
    The source for me. This book changed my life. I've listed it so low because at the time I read it, I had nothing else to do, really. I didn't do much homework. I skipped a lot of class. I just soaked stuff like this up.

    5.) "On Being White ... and Other Lies," by James Baldwin
    No one is better on the idea of "race," and particularly whiteness, and its import than Baldwin: "No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations and a vast amount of coercion ..." In this essay, he brings together all the history and wastes no words dumbing down its likely import:

    ... in this debasement and definition of black people, they have debased and defined themselves. And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they dare not confront the ravage and lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers .... Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety.

    This, to me, is the deepest significance of reparations. People who think this is just a matter of giving black things vastly underestimate the challenge. Reparations may seem impractical. Living without history, I suspect, will—in the long term—prove to be suicidal.

     


    Editor's note: This is the first part in a four-part series on the works of history that informed the author's recent piece, "The Case for Reparations." Part two, on slavery, is here.

  • A Last Tango With Paris

    Why I'm spending the summer speaking nothing but French

    Forgive my absence these past few days. June's cover story has taken on a life of its own. But it's a life that I will soon be parting with. I am leaving you for awhile, a fact that saddens me because this space—more than any other resource—is responsible for so much of what I've learned over the past few years. That learning hasn't been limited to the comprehension of the force of racism in American history, or even American history at all.

    As some of you know, I've spent the past two years or so grappling with the French language. It has gotten the better of me, repeatedly, piling up the humiliations like lumber. But I suspect that there is no other real way to learn at my age, and possibly not at all. This summer I expect the humiliations to increase substantially as I head off for seven weeks of intense immersion. Je vais parler en français, écrire en français, lire en français, et finalment, penser et rêver en français. Alors, I can't really do this while being normal. So I won't be talking to, well, anyone in my life, except those few people who speak French. I think of this like living underwater for awhile, like exploring all the beautiful and weird things that live in the deep. 

    After next Thursday, you will not hear from me for awhile. I want to thank the Francophone Horde who've talked to me, and chatted with me en français as I have grappled with the language. My first French tutor rose up from the horde and, Kathleen, I am forever in your debt. I want to thank my editors James Bennet, Scott Stossel, John Gould, and Bob Cohn for supporting me in this. I have long believed that the best part of writing is not the communication of knowledge to other people, but the acquisition and synthesizing of knowledge for oneself. The best thing I can say about the reparations piece is that I now understand. I can not control what others do. But I can understand as much as possible in the short time I have with you. 

    Best,

    Ta-Nehisi

    P.S. Thank you for the shirt.

    P.P.S. Be sure to watch the video! It explains a lot!

  • The Radical Practicality of Reparations

    A reply to David Frum

    President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The Act granted reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library And Museum)

    David Frum has posted a rebuttal to my argument in favor of reparations. I appreciate David's engagement with the issue. I often miss the old days when The Atlantic's writers would engage each other in running debate, so I'm happy for the chance to get back into that kind of conversation here.

    On y va. 

    David grounds his rebuttal in The Philadelphia Plan, an affirmative action program that David believes qualifies as reparations. I disagree. The Philadelphia Plan was an attempt to end job discrimination among firms doing business with the federal government. Originally it was isolated to the building trades in Philadelphia. This was not a mistake. "The NAACP wanted a tougher require; the unions hated the whole thing," said White House aide John Ehrlichman. "Before long, the AFL-CIO and the NAACP were locked in combat over one of the passionate issues of the day and the Nixon administration was located in the sweet and reasonable middle."

    The Plan's proprietors showed little stomach for any kind of historical reckoning. President Richard Nixon's Assistant Secretary of Labor Arthur Fletcher, who helped create the Plan, targeted not just blacks, but "Orientals, American Indians and persons with Spanish surnames." 

    More importantly, The Philadelphia Plan was focused on ending present racist discrimination, not compensating for the past. In Philadelphia, a city that was 30 percent black, there were 12 minority unionized ironworkers and three black pipe-fitters. There was no black unionized work among the sheet metal trades, elevator constructors, or the stone-masons. From the perspective of reparations, one might calculate how much this discrimination had cost Philadelphia's black community and then attempt to compensate them. The Philadelphia Plan did not do this. Indeed Fletcher went so far as to declare himself neither interested in compensation nor "a fruitless debate about slavery and its debilitating legacy." The Philadelphia Plan was no more reparations than school busing was reparations.

    The White House's appetite for these "reparations" proved short lived. In 1970, Nixon took The Philadelphia Plan national, expanding beyond the trades. In 1972, he ran against his own plan. Fletcher was forced out. The Democrats were tarred as the "quota party." "The zip went out of that integration effort," said then aide William Safire, "after the hard hats marched in support of Nixon on the war." So much for "reparations."

    And so much for history. David goes on to assert that reparations for one group must necessarily lead to reparations for all groups

    With any program of reparations, likewise, other claimants will come forward. If African Americans are due payment for slavery and subjugation, what about Native Americans, who lost a whole continent? What about Mexican-Americans, who were deprived by the Mexican-American war of the right to migrate into half their former country? Japanese Americans, interned during World War II? Chinese Americans, the victims of coolie labor and the Oriental Exclusion Acts? Members of these groups may concede that they were not maltreated in the same way as African Americans—and may not be entitled to exactly the same consideration. But if black Americans are entitled to almost a trillion dollars in compensation (Coates suggests a figure of $34 billion a year “for a decade or two”) surely these other maltreated groups must be entitled at least to something?

    This argument carries the virus of its own destruction. In fact reparations paid to Japanese-Americans for internment has been American policy for over 20 years. No reparations for African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, or Chinese-Americans followed. Even German-Americans and Italian-Americans who were also interned received no reparations. 

    The Japanese-American struggle for reparations is significant and important, not just for our present discussion, but because it serves as useful corrective for hagiographers of war. And it is not an obscure episode. Indeed, Japanese-American reparations were in the news this week, with the death of activist Yuri Kochiyama, one of the principal advocates of the cause. David treats Japanese-American reparations as an open question or a thought experiment. But it isn't. It's American history—and people charged with analyzing America should know it.

    People who take up reparations arguments should especially know it because it presents us with some provocative questions. The collective ills of housing segregation—block-busting, redlining, segregated public-housing, the G.I. Bill, terrorism—continued long after Japanese-American internment. A serious interlocutor of reparations can not casually muster a melange of historical wrongs, but must directly explain why the Japanese-American case is compelling, but the more recent African-American case is not. 

    Slippery slopes will not do. The "If we give them one, they'll all have one" argument is demonstrably false. This is as it should be. The argument for black reparations is not simply "Hey guys, we did it for the Japanese-Americans so it must be right." A claim must stand on its arguments. Nothing would please me more than to read a 15,000 word "Case for Native American Reparations." I say this because we can't evaluate particular claims without understanding particular history. David, like many who believe reparations to be "impossible," is anxious to skip the history and leap to implementation. But the questions, themselves, prove that we are not prepared.

    "Does a mixed-raced person qualify?" David asks. Probably so, given that there are very few "pure raced" black people who were injured by racism. Indeed, the lack of "purity" is parcel to the injury. Perhaps David wants to ask "Do black people with direct 'white' ancestry qualify?" The correct reply to this is "Were black people with direct 'white' ancestry victims of racist housing policy?" The answer to that question is knowable. But it is not the question we ask. Instead we focus on the myth of "race," while ignoring the demonstrable fact of injury.

    This species of ignoranceof looking awayis old. In 1884, Harvard scientist Nathaniel Shaler assessed "The Negro Problem" in the pages of this very magazine. Shaler concluded that:

    It was their presence here that was the evil, and for this none of the men of our century are responsible ... The burden lies on the souls of our dull, greedy ancestors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who were too stupid to see or too careless to consider anything but immediate gain ...

    There can be no sort of doubt, that, judged by the light of all experience, these people are a danger to America greater and more insuperable than any of those that menace the other great civilized states of the world. The armies of the Old World, the inheritance of medievalism  in its governments, the chance evils of Ireland and Sicily, are all light burdens when compared with this load of African negro blood that an evil past has imposed upon us.

    At the very moment that Shaler was disowning American responsibility for enslavement, there were thousands, perhaps millions, of freedmen alive as well as their enslavers. It had barely been 20 years since enslavement was abolished. It had not been ten years since the rout of Reconstruction. In that time, sensible claims for reparations were being made. The black activist Callie House argued that pensions should be paid to freedmen and freedwomen for unpaid toil. The movement garnered Congressional support. But it failed, largely because, the country believed as Shaler did, that "none of the men of this century" were "responsible."

    A similar moment finds us now. Even if one feels that slavery was too far into the deep past (and I do not, because I view this as a continuum) the immediate past is with us. Identifying the victims of racist housing policy in this country is not hard. Again, we have the maps. We have the census. We could set up a claims system for black veterans who were frustrated in their attempt to use the G.I. Bill. We could then decide what remedy we might offer these people and their communities. And there is nothing "impractical" about this.

    The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history. A fear of ghosts has sometimes occupied the pages of the magazine for which David and I now write. In other times banishment has been our priority. The mature citizen, the hard student, is now called to choose between finding a reason to confront the past, or finding more reasons to hide from it. David thinks HR-40 commits us to a solution. He is correct. The solution is to study. I submit his own article as proof of why such study is so deeply needed. 

     


    * The following books were essential to this piece:

    • Terry Anderson's The Pursuit of Fairness is a thorough review of the history affirmative action, a policy that many people talk about but fail to understand. Quotes of Fletcher and Ehrlichman are taken from Anderson's book.
    • Mary Francis Berry's My Face Is Black Is True, is a chronicle of one of the earliest efforts, post-enslavement, for reparations led by the remarkable Callie House. 
    • Khalil Gibran Muhammad's The Condemnation of Blackness, is a useful corrective to the deceptive invocations of "black on black crime." Muhammad demonstrates that much of rhetoric around "black crime" is old and has its roots in our racist past.

     

  • The Case for American History

    A reply to National Review's Kevin D. Williamson

    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. 

    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.

  • On Whose Shoulders the Research Stands

    Over at Demos, there's an interview with Duke economist Sandy Darity, whose been researching and making the case for reparations long before I got the notion. Professor Darity is not alone in this. My argument for reparations stands on mountain of research produced by people whose labor does not always get the accolades it deserves. Frankly, it often gets ignored. I think there many reasons for that—JSTOR, the lack of incentive within the academy, the low level of curiosity among many journalists etc. 

    But whatever the reasons, there is something I must make absolutely clear: this piece would not exist without the work of economists like Professor Darity, of historians like Barbara Fields and Tony Judt, of sociologists like William Massey and Devah Pager, of law professors like Kim Forde-Mazrui and Eric J Miller. And so on. Without them, this blog, and all my writing, is significantly poorer. Without the academy, we are not talking right now.

    I have no desire to be anybody's Head Negro—that goes for reparations and beyond. I just hope to write hard. In my own blogging, I've worked to link back to books, papers and studies that have influenced my thinking. I've really, really hoped—perhaps naively—that people would not stop with a blog post, or magazine article, that they click through the hyperlinks, and then form questions of their own. 

    At my heart, I am a failed academic. I was a history major at Howard University, dreaming of becoming the next Basil Davidson. (Or the next Robert Hayden. Long story.) But as a young man, I did not have the discipline to see the dream through. I found another dream but part of me is still back there.  I have great respect and love for people who dig through the archives, who do the calculations, who do the case-studies, and perform the field research. As much as any of my ideas, I hope that love and respect passes on to some of you.

    If you stop here, you are fooling yourself. Don't stop here. Don't go down so easy.

  • The Case for Reparations: An Intellectual Autopsy

    Four years ago, I opposed reparations. Here's the story of how my thinking has evolved since then.

    In North Lawndale, the Chicago neighborhood featured in The Atlantic's June cover story on reparations, a church occupies a boarded-up storefront. (Carlos Javier Ortiz)

    The best thing about writing a blog is the presence of a live and dynamic journal of one's own thinking. Some portion of the reporter's notebook is out there for you to scrutinize and think about as the longer article develops. For me, this current articlean argument in support of reparationsbegan four years ago when I opposed reparationsA lot has happened since then. I've read a lot, talked to a lot of people, and spent a lot of time in Chicago where the history, somehow, feels especially present. I think I owe you a walk-through on how my thinking evolved. 

    When I wrote opposing reparations I was about halfway through my deep-dive into the Civil War. I roughly understood then that the Civil Warthe most lethal conflict in American historyboiled down to the right to raise an empire based on slaveholding and white supremacy. What had not yet clicked for me was precisely how essential enslavement was to America, that its foundational nature explained the Civil War's body count.  The sheer value of enslaved African-Americans is just astounding. And looking at this recent piece by Chris Hayes, I'm wondering if my numbers are short (emphasis added):

    In order to get a true sense of how much wealth the South held in bondage, it makes far more sense to look at slavery in terms of the percentage of total economic value it represented at the time. And by that metric, it was colossal. In 1860, slaves represented about 16 percent of the total household assets—that is, all the wealth—in the entire country, which in today’s terms is a stunning $10 trillion.

    Ten trillion dollars is already a number much too large to comprehend, but remember that wealth was intensely geographically focused. According to calculations made by economic historian Gavin Wright, slaves represented nearly half the total wealth of the South on the eve of secession. “In 1860, slaves as property were worth more than all the banks, factories and railroads in the country put together,” civil war historian Eric Foner tells me. “Think what would happen if you liquidated the banks, factories and railroads with no compensation.”

    As with any economic institution of that size, enslavement grew from simply a question of money to a question of societal, even theological, importance.

    I got that in 2011, from Jim McPherson (emphasis again added):

    "The conflict between slavery and non-slavery is a conflict for life and death," a South Carolina commissioner told Virginians in February 1861. "The South cannot exist without African slavery." Mississippi's commissioner to Maryland insisted that "slavery was ordained by God and sanctioned by humanity." If slave states remained in a Union ruled by Lincoln and his party, "the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone."

    If these warnings were not sufficient to frighten hesitating Southerners into secession, commissioners played the race card. A Mississippi commissioner told Georgians that Republicans intended not only to abolish slavery but also to "substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races." 

    Georgia's commissioner to Virginia dutifully assured his listeners that if Southern states stayed in the Union, "we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything." 

    An Alabamian born in Kentucky tried to persuade his native state to secede by portraying Lincoln's election as "nothing less than an open declaration of war" by Yankee fanatics who intended to force the "sons and daughters" of the South to associate "with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality," thus "consigning her [the South's] citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans..."

    This argument appealed as powerfully to nonslaveholders as to slaveholders. Whites of both classes considered the bondage of blacks to be the basis of liberty for whites. Slavery, they declared, elevated all whites to an equality of status by confining menial labor and caste subordination to blacks. "If slaves are freed," maintained proslavery spokesmen, whites "will become menials. We will lose every right and liberty which belongs to the name of freemen." 

    Enslavement is kind of a big dealso much so that it is impossible to imagine America without it. At the time I was reading this I was thinking about an essay (which I eventually wrote) arguing against the idea of the Civil War as tragedy. My argument was that the Civil War was basically the spectacular end of a much longer war extending back into the 17th centurya war against black people, their families, institutions and their labor. We call the war "slavery." John Locke helped me with that.

    This was all swirling in my head about the time I saw this article in the Times:

    On Saturday, more than 15,000 students are expected to file into classrooms to take a grueling 95-question test for admission to New York City’s elite public high schools. (The exam on Sunday, for about 14,000 students, was postponed until Nov. 18 because of Hurricane Sandy.)

    No one will be surprised if Asian students, who make up 14 percent of the city’s public school students, once again win most of the seats, and if black and Hispanic students win few. Last school year, of the 14,415 students enrolled in the eight specialized high schools that require a test for admissions, 8,549 were Asian.  

    Because of the disparity, some have begun calling for an end to the policy of using the test as the sole basis of admission to the schools, and last month, civil rights groups filed a complaint with the federal government, contending that the policy discriminated against students, many of whom are black or Hispanic, who cannot afford the score-raising tutoring that other students can. The Shis, like other Asian families who spoke about the exam in interviews in the past month, did not deny engaging in extensive test preparation. To the contrary, they seemed to discuss their efforts with pride.

    I was sort of horrified by this piece, because what the complaint seemed to be basically arguing for was punishing a group of people (Asian immigrants) who were working their asses off. It struck me that these were exactly the kind of people you want if you're building a country. Even though I am arguing for reparations, I actually believe in a playing field—a level playing field, no doubt—but one with actual competition. It struck me as wrong to punish people for working really hard to succeed in that competition.

    This paragraph, in particular, got me:

    Others take issue with the exam on philosophical grounds. “You shouldn’t have to prep Sunday to Sunday, to get into a good high school,” said Melissa Santana, a legal secretary whose daughter Dejanellie Falette has been prepping this fall for the exam. “That’s extreme.”

    I was stewing reading this. It offended some of my latent nationalismthe basic sense that you want everyone on your "team" to go out there and fight. But as I thought about it I felt that there was something underneath the mother's point. In fact there are people who don't "have to prep Sunday to Sunday, to get into a good high school." But they tend to live in neighborhoods that have historically excluded children with names like Dejanellie. Why is that? Housing policy. What are the roots of our housing policy? White supremacy. What are the roots of white supremacy in America? Justification for enslavement.

     

    More »

  • How to Comment on Reparations

    An open comments section on "The Case for Reparations"

    Here is your uncurated space to talk about reparations. Later we will have a curated space according to the usual rules on my blog. Even though this is uncurated—it is still moderated. In other words, you still have to obey basic Atlantic rules of commenting.  No one will try to steer the conversation, but namecalling and blatant trolling will still bring the pain of banhmmer.

    Think of this as Hamsterdam. But what happens in Hamsterdam, must stay in Hamsterdam.

  • 'So That's Just One of My Losses'

    World War II veteran and Mississippi native Clyde Ross (Carlos Javier Ortiz)

    Last year, I went to visit the home of Clyde Ross in North Lawndale. I was there to research an argument for reparations. Ross had just turned 90. I asked him why he'd come from Mississippi to Chicago. He told me he came because he was seeking "the protection of the law." I didn't understand what he meant. He told me there were no black judges, no black police, no black prosecutors in his hometown of Clarksdale. For a black man living in that town it effectively meant that there was "no law."

    This was a particularly illustrative example of why it is always important to report. Talking to Ross clarified something I'd been thinking aboutspecifically that being black was not a matter of white people thinking you had cooties. It was something deeper and more mature. It was the branding of black people as outside of American society, outside of American law, and outside of the American social contract. And this branding was done even as black people pledged fealty to the state, paid taxes to the state, and died for the state. This was high-tech robbery, plunder at the systemic level. White supremacy was not about getting black and white people to sit at the same lunch table, it was about getting white people to stop stealing shit from black peoplelabor, bodies, children, taxes, lives. 

    Liberals, intellectuals, and pundits have spent the past few years dancing around this historically demonstrable fact. I rarely hope for my writing to have any effect. But I confess that I hope this piece makes people feel a certain kind of way. I hope it makes a certain specimen of intellectual cowardice and willful historical ignorance less acceptable. More, I hope it mocks people who believe that a society can spend three-and-a-half centuries attempting to cripple a man, 50 years offering half-hearted aid, and then wonder why he walks with a limp.

    For two years now people have asked me for an answer. You now have it. For that you should thank The Atlantic, for its largess. Specifically, you should thank Scott Stossel, Sam Price-Waldman, James Bennet, Ellie Smith, Billy Brennan, Joe Pinsker, Darhil Crooks, John Gould, Bob Cohn, Paul Rosenfeld, Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, Clare Sestanovich, Janice Cane, Karen Ostergren, Carlos Javier Ortiz, Corby Kummer, and many more.  

    I hope this is the start of a long conversation. I made my argument from the perspective of housing, but I strongly suspect that reparations arguments could be made from the perspective of criminal justice, education, health care, or from any number of angles. For writers out there interested in this I can only quote the words of a brave man: Drop it now. The people are ready.

  • The Case for Reparations
    Carlos Javier Ortiz
    Atlantic Features

    The Case for Reparations

    Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.

  • Coming Soon: Why Reparations Make Sense

    A preview of the June 2014 cover story

    Deuteronomy 15: 12-15:

    And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: Therefore I command thee this thing to day.
     

    John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government:

    Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation …

    Bailey Wyatt, freedman:

    We has a right to the land where we are located. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason we have a divine right to the land .… And then didn’t we clear the land, and raise the crops of corn, of cotton, of tobacco, of rice, of sugar, of everything. And then didn’t them large cities in the North grow up on the cotton and the sugars and the rice that we made? I say they has grown rich, and my people is poor.

    The Atlantic, next week:

  • When School Reform and Democracy Meet

    Three years ago Facebook's CEO pledged $100 million to improve Newark's schools. In this week's New Yorker, Dale Russakoff offers an enlightening and depressing portrait of how that money was spent and what it achieved. The story is a welcome corrective to the bromide that "government should be run like a business"—as though business is some unassailable fortress of morality. 

    School reformers promised to clean up a bloated and corrupt school administration. But what emerges in its place is a system in which various "consultants" are paid millions to deliver minimal results. And those results are meant to be delivered on a fast-food schedule:

    On a Saturday morning later that month, Booker and Cerf met privately on the Rutgers-Newark campus with twenty civic leaders who had hoped that the Zuckerberg gift would unite the city in the goal of improving the schools. Now they had serious doubts. “It’s as if you guys are going out of your way to foment the most opposition possible,” Richard Cammarieri, a former school-board member who worked for a community-development organization, told them.

    Booker acknowledged the missteps, but said that he had to move quickly. He and Christie could be out of office within three years. If a Democrat defeated Christie in 2013, he or she would have the backing of the teachers’ unions and might return the district to local control. “We want to do as much as possible right away,” Booker said. “Entrenched forces are very invested in resisting choices we’re making around a one-billion-dollar budget.” Participants in the meeting, who had worked for decades in Newark, were doubtful that reforms imposed over three years would be sustainable.

    The "going out of your way to foment opposition" critique sounds really familiar. As does the anti-democratic streak which seems to haunt "reformers" and classical progressives of every age. One strategy Booker might have embraced was committing to making the case for school reform to Newark voters, and voters in New Jersey at large—be that as mayor or governor—over the long term. (Newark's schools are under the control of the state.) Instead, Booker chose another strategy—one that assumes an inability to convince the people whom Booker was charged with serving. 

    In any political fight worth having, one will likely tangle with "entrenched forces." The beauty of democracy is the right (and I'd say obligation) to convince a critical mass of voters that those forces are acting counter to the public interest. And if you can't do that, then it's worth examining both your cause and your approach. This is especially true of parents who have a direct interest in the education of their children. If you begin from the premise that you can not convince parents, then I doubt the wisdom of your entire plan for their children.

    I say that as someone who is unconvinced that teachers should be tenured. I say that as someone who thinks Booker makes a good point about seniority. I say that as someone who thinks making teaching a lucrative profession for those who excel at it is a good idea. I wish he'd spent more time trying to convince the people of Newark of this. If the interests really are as mighty as you claim, expecting to neutralize them in three years is not very serious. 

  • The Inhumanity of the Death Penalty

    In America, the history of the criminal justice—and of executions—is inseparable from white supremacy.

    George Stinney, 14, the youngest American ever subjected to the death penalty (S.C. Department of Archives and History via Reuters)

    Fifteen years ago, Clayton Lockett shot Stephanie Neiman twice, then watched as his friends buried her alive. Last week, Lockett was tortured to death by the state of Oklahoma. The torture was not so much the result of intention as neglect. The state knew that its chosen methods—a triple-drug cocktail—could result in a painful death. (An inmate executed earlier this year by the method was heard to say, "I feel my whole body burning.") Oklahoma couldn't care less. It executed Lockett anyway.

    Over at Bloomberg View, Ramesh Ponnuru has taken the occasion to pen a column ostensibly arguing against the death penalty. But Ponnuru, evidently embarrassed to find himself in liberal company, spends most of the column dismissing the arguments of soft-headed bedfellows:

    On the core issue—yes or no on capital punishment—I'm with the opponents. Better to err on the side of not taking life. The teaching of the Catholic Church, to which I belong, seems right to me: The state has the legitimate authority to execute criminals, but it should refrain if it has other means of protecting people from them. Our government almost always does.

    Still, when I hear about an especially gruesome crime, like the one the Oklahoma killer committed, I can't help rooting for the death penalty. And a lot of the arguments its opponents make are unconvincing.

    Take the claims of racial bias—that we execute black killers, or the killers of white victims, at disproportionate rates. Even if those disputed claims are true, they don't point toward abolition of the death penalty. Executing more white killers, or killers of black victims, would reduce any disparity just as well.

    Indeed it would. But the reason we don't do this is contained within Ponnuru's inquiry: bias. When Ponnuru suggests that the way to correct for the death penalty's disproportionate use is to execute more white people, he is presenting a world in which the death penalty has neither history nor context. One merely flips the "Hey Guys, Let's Not Be Racist" switch and then the magic happens.

    Those of us who cite the disproportionate application of the death penalty as a reason for outlawing it do so because we believe that a criminal-justice system is not an abstraction but a real thing, existing in a real context, with a real history. In America, the history of the criminal justice—and the death penalty—is utterly inseparable from white supremacy. During the Civil War, black soldiers were significantly more likely to be court-martialed and executed than their white counterparts. This practice continued into World War II. "African-Americans comprised 10 percent of the armed forces but accounted for almost 80 percent of the soldiers executed during the war," writes law professor Elizabeth Lutes Hillman.

    In American imagination, the lynching era is generally seen as separate from capital punishment. But virtually no one was ever charged for lynching. The country refused to outlaw it. And sitting U.S. senators such as Ben Tillman and Theodore Bilbo openly called for lynching for crimes as grave as rape and as dubious as voting. Well into the 20th century, capital punishment was, as John Locke would say, lynching "coloured with the name, pretences, or forms of law."

    The youngest American ever subjected to the death penalty was George Junius Stinney. It is very hard to distinguish his case from an actual lynching. At age 14, Stinney, a black boy, walked to the execution chamber

    with a Bible under his arm, which he later used as a booster seat in the electric chair. Standing 5 foot 2 inches (157 cm) tall and weighing just over 90 pounds (40 kg), his size (relative to the fully grown prisoners) presented difficulties in securing him to the frame holding the electrodes. Nor did the state's adult-sized face-mask fit him; as he was hit with the first 2,400 V surge of electricity, the mask covering his face slipped off, “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth ... After two more jolts of electricity, the boy was dead."

    Living with racism in America means tolerating a level of violence inflicted on the black body that we would not upon the white body. This deviation is not a random fact, but the price of living in a society with a lengthy history of considering black people as a lesser strain of humanity. When you live in such a society, the prospect of incarcerating, disenfranchising, and ultimately executing white humans at the same rate as black humans makes makes very little sense. Disproportion is the point.

    The "Hey Guys, Let's Not Be Racist" switch is really "Hey Guys, Let's Pretend We Aren't American" switch or a "Hey Guys, Let's Pretend We Aren't Human Beings" switch. The death penalty—like all state actions—exists within a context constructed by humans, not gods. Humans tend to have biases, and the systems we construct often reflect those biases. Understanding this, it is worth asking whether our legal system should be in the business of doling out an ultimate punishment, one for which there can never be any correction. Citing racism in our justice system isn't mere shaming, it's a call for a humility and self-awareness, which presently evades us.

    I was sad to see Ponnuru's formulation, because it so echoed the unfortunate thoughts of William F. Buckley. In 1965, Buckley debated James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union Society. That was the year John Lewis was beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and Viola Liuzzo was shot down just outside of Selma, Alabama. In that same campaign, Martin Luther King gave, arguably, his greatest speech. ("How Long? Not long. Truth forever on the scaffold. Wrong forever on the throne.")  In whole swaths of the country, black people lacked the basic rights of citizenship—central among them, the right to vote. Buckley spent much of his time sneering at complaints of American racism. When the issue of the vote was raised Buckley responded by saying that the problem with Mississippi wasn't that "not enough Negroes have the vote but that too many white people are voting."

    There's something revealed in the logic—in both Ponnuru and Buckley's case—that we should fix disproportion by making more white people into niggers. It is the same logic of voter-ID laws, which will surely disenfranchise huge swaths of white voters, for the goal of disenfranchising proportionally more black voters. I'm not sure what all that means—it's the shadow of something I haven't worked out. 

  • Bill Clinton Was Racialized, Too

    The 42nd president's whiteness didn't shield him from old attacks.

    Associated Press

    My colleague Peter Beinart rebukes Representative Bennie Thompson's claim that Clarence Thomas is an "Uncle Tom." He then goes on to challenge the explanatory power of racism in understanding some of President Obama's more unhinged foes:

    Conservatives may never have questioned Bill Clinton’s Christianity or his claim to being born in the United States. But they challenged his legitimacy just as aggressively as they’ve challenged Obama’s.

    In May 1993, speaking before hundreds of servicemen at a military banquet, Major General Harold Campbell used the phrases “dope smoking, skirt chasing, draft dodging” to describe his commander-in-chief. The following May, Rush Limbaugh accused the Clintons of having ordered the murder of White House lawyer Vince Foster. That November, Senator Jesse Helms said, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here [to North Carolina]. He'd better have a bodyguard.” On his television show, Jerry Falwell hawked videos purporting to prove that as governor of Arkansas, Clinton had overseen a massive drug-running scheme. Eighteen House Republicans introduced legislation to impeach Clinton in November 1997, months before America learned the name “Monica Lewinsky.” 

    It's certainly true that white politicians are not immune to campaigns of delegitimization. Obama has made the same point as Beinart. But I think this view deserves more scrutiny.

    As Beinart notes, the anti-Obama paranoia focuses on his citizenship—both broad and narrow. This is not just another means of delegitimization, but a specific specimen with racist roots. In the broadest sense, the idea that black people are not quite Americans but an alien presence unworthy of citizenship did not begin with Barack Obama. It's all very nice that Martin Luther King is now hailed as the quintessential American. In his day, he was regarded by forces high in the American government as an agent of foreign powers. Slaveholding moderates dreamed of shipping blacks back to their "native land" of Africa—despite the fact that Africans had arrived in the "New World" before most of the families of the slaveholders. In the mid-19th century, states like Illinois sought to expel the black alien presence.

    For Obama, the delegitimizing does not even end with his citizenship but with his very person. This attack has a history. The claim that Obama didn't actually write Dreams From My Father, for instance, echoes earlier claims that lodged against another prominent biracial African American:

    About eight years ago I knew this recreant slave, Frederick Bailey, (instead of Douglass.) He then lived with Edward Covy, and was an unlearned, and rather an ordinary Negro, and I am confident he was not capable of writing the Narrative alluded to; for none but an educated man, and one who had some knowledge of the rules of grammar, could write so correctly.

    African Americans of some accomplishment have a deep acquaintance with this kind of white incredulity. Yesterday it was cries of unlearned, ordinary Negro. Today it is cries of affirmative action. (Even when you went to a black school.) Or it's Donald Trump demanding Barack Obama's college transcriptsThe spectacle of a black man forced to present his papers to white people is not some new incomprehensible response to our first Hawaiian president. It is an old and predictable response to black achievement. It may well be true that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have endured the same amount of disrespect. But the nature of that disrespect matters. It matters that Rush Limbaugh did not refer to healthcare in the Clinton era as reparations. All kinds of crazy are not equal, and in America, racist crazy has a special history worthy of highlighting.

    Even Bill Clinton did not exist in a bubble of neutralized racism. He was a product of American politics in the post-civil-rights era, and thus had to cope with all the requisite forces. Racism does not merely concern itself with individual enmity, but with group interests. The men who killed Andrew Goodman did not merely hate him individually, they hated what he represented. By the time Bill Clinton came to prominence, his party was closely associated with black interests. This was problem. And Clinton knew it

    "The day he told that fucking Jackson off," a white electrician told a pollster, "is the day he got my vote."

    It's worth considering this attack on Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Douglas during their famed debates:

    I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship? ("No, no.") Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, ("never,") and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, ("no, no,") in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? ("Never," "no.")

    If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro. ("Never, never.") For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. (Cheers.)

    I believe this Government was made on the white basis. ("Good.") I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races. ("Good for you." "Douglas forever.")

    Abraham Lincoln's light skin did not save him from a racist political attack, anymore than it saved him from a racist assassination plot. Indeed it is eerie to see how much the words of Stephen Douglas ("I believe this government was made on the white basis") were echoed by John Wilkes Booth ("This country was formed for the white, not for the black man"). American politics cannot escape the winds of white supremacy.

    White supremacy birthed American politics. In the 1990s, as today, the Democratic Party was perceived by many as the party of black interests. It's not incidental that many of Clinton's most crazed critics (Jesse Helms, for example) and violent critics (the militia movement) were no strangers to white supremacy. That the black Democratic Party is now actually headed by a black man is bound to cause some portion of America to feel a certain way. 

    Beinart concludes by arguing:

    To believe that the right’s hostility to Obama stems mostly from his race is actually comforting, since it suggests that the next Democratic president won’t have it nearly as bad. If you believe that, Hillary Clinton has a bridge she’d like to sell you.

    The hostility does not stem "from his race" but from racism. (And "mostly" is beside the point. Any amount of racism must be intolerable.) Racism—and sexism and homophobia—are about organizing power, not merely disliking the cut of one's jib. And if Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will have to cope with being perceived as a woman representing the interests of black people and women of all ethnicities. Sexism will never be off the stage. Nor will racism.

  • This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist

    It's easy for polite American society to condemn Cliven Bundy and banish Donald Sterling while turning away from the elegant, monstrous racism that remains.

    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    The question Cliven Bundy put to his audience last week—Was the black family better off as property?—is as immoral as it unoriginal. As both Adam Serwer and Jamelle Bouie point out, the roster of conservative theorists who imply that black people were better off being whipped, worked, and raped are legion. Their ranks include economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, former congressman Allen West, sitting Representative Trent Franks, singer Ted Nugent, and presidential aspirants Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.

    A fair-minded reader will note that each of these conservatives is careful to not praise slavery and to note his or her disgust at the practice. This is neither distinction nor difference. Cliven Bundy's disquisition begins with a similar hedge: "We've progressed quite a bit from that day until now and we sure don't want to go back." With so little substantive difference between Bundy and other conservatives, it becomes tough to understand last week's backpedaling in any intellectually coherent way.

    But style is the hero. Cliven Bundy is old, white, and male. He likes to wave an American flag while spurning the American government and pals around with the militia movement. He does not so much use the word "Negro"—which would be bad enough—but "nigra," in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill. In short, Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be.

    The problem with Cliven Bundy isn't that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state's rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond's singularly segregationist candidacy.

    Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

    "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," John Roberts elegantly wrote. Liberals have yet to come up with a credible retort. That is because the theories of John Roberts are prettier than the theories of most liberals. But more, it is because liberals do not understand that America has never discriminated on the basis of race (which does not exist) but on the basis of racism (which most certainly does.)

    Ideologies of hatred have never required coherent definitions of the hated. Islamophobes kill Sikhs as easily as they kill Muslims. Stalin needed no consistent definition of "Kulaks" to launch a war of Dekulakization"I decide who is a Jew," Karl Lueger saidSlaveholders decided who was a nigger and who wasn't. The decision was arbitrary. The effects are not. Ahistorical liberals—like most Americans—still believe that race invented racism, when in fact the reverse is true. The hallmark of elegant racism is the acceptance of mainstream consensus, and exploitation of all its intellectual fault lines. 

    Here is a lovely illustration of elegant racism:

    This graph is from Robert J. Sampson's essential 2011 profile of Chicago, Great American City. Sampson's data depicts incarceration rates in the early to mid-'90s in Chicago among black (black dots) and white neighborhoods (white dots.) Increasingly, sociologists like Sampson are showing us how our brute and strained vocabulary fails to articulate the problem of racism. Conservatives and liberals frequently wonder how it could be that unequal outcomes endure for blacks and whites, even after controlling for income or "class." That is because conservatives and liberals underestimate the achievements of white supremacy and still believe that comparisons between a "black middle class" and a "white middle class" have actual meaning. In fact, black and white people—of any class—live in wholly different worlds.

    A phrase like "mass incarceration" obviates the fact that "mass incarceration" is mostly localized in black neighborhoods. In Chicago during the '90s, there was no overlap between the incarceration rates of black and white neighborhoods. The most incarcerated white neighborhoods in Chicago are still better off than the least incarcerated black neighborhoods. The most incarcerated black neighborhood in Chicago is 40 times worse than the most incarcerated white neighborhood.

    Perhaps black people are for reasons of culture or genetics 40 times more criminal than white people. Or perhaps there is something more elegant at work:

    The Justice Department announced today the largest monetary payment ever obtained by the department in the settlement of a case alleging housing discrimination in the rental of apartments. Los Angeles apartment owner Donald T. Sterling has agreed to pay $2.725 million to settle allegations that he discriminated against African-Americans, Hispanics and families with children at apartment buildings he controls in Los Angeles.

    Throughout the 20th century—and perhaps even in the 21st—there was no more practiced advocate of housing segregation than the city of Chicago. Its mayors and aldermen razed neighborhoods and segregated public housing. Its businessmen lobbied for racial zoning. Its realtors block-busted whole neighborhoods, flipping them from black to white and then pocketing the profit. Its white citizens embraced racial covenants—in the '50s, no city had more covenants in place than Chicago.

    If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn't need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise. The historic fumbling of such a formidable weapon could only ever be accomplished by a graceless halfwit—such as the present owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

    As Bomani Jones noted back in 2006, Donald Sterling has long been a practitioner of racism and the NBA could not have cared less. Jones is rightfully apoplectic at the present response. That is because he understands that the NBA, its players and its fans, don't so much object to Donald Sterling's racism—they object to his want of elegance.

    Like Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling confirms our comfortable view of racists. Donald Sterling is a "bad person." He's mean to women. He carouses with prostitutes. He uses the word "nigger." He fits our idea of what an actual racist must look like: snarling, villainous, immoral, ignorant, gauche.  The actual racism that Sterling long practiced, that this society has long practiced (and is still practicing) must attract significantly less note. That is because to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.

    How can it be that in a "black league," as Charles Barkley calls the NBA, an on-the-record structural racist like Donald Sterling was allowed to thrive? Everyone now wants to speak to Elgin Baylor. Where were all these people before? Where was Kevin Johnson? Where was the Los Angeles NAACP? When Donald Sterling was driving black tenants out of his buildings, where was David Stern?

    Far better to implicate Donald Sterling and be done with the whole business. Far better to banish Cliven Bundy and table the uncomfortable reality of our political system. A racism that invites the bipartisan condemnation of Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell must necessarily be minor. A racism that invites the condemnation of Sean Hannity can't be much of a threat. But a racism, condemnable by all civilized people, must make itself manifest now and again so that we may celebrate how far we have come. Meanwhile racism, elegant, lovely, monstrous, carries on.

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author