How to Steal Things, Exploit People, and Avoid All Responsibility

The case for reparations: a narrative bibliography

I started this narrative bibliography for "The Case for Reparations" back in June, but, regrettably, I didn't finish the final section before I left for the summer. Some time has passed but I think it is very important that, as much as possible, I complete this public acknowledgement of all the previous work that contributed to my own.

As I've written, the process began with the understanding that racism was a "done thing" and not an irrepressible clash between people of different hues. Another way of putting this is to say white supremacy is not an invention of white people; white people are an invention of white supremacy. The second step was understanding that the most flagrant demonstration of white supremacy, enslavement, is not ancillary to American history but at its very roots. The enslavement of Africans is foundational to the United States, and it is tough to imagine this country without it. The third step was understanding that the legacy of that enslavement gave us a suite of policies that injured—and continues to injure—people who are alive and well and living in North Lawndale.

Knowing those three things, the way forward became clear to me.

I first seriously grappled with the concept reparations in my early 20s, in the form Randall Robinson's moving argument in The Debt. A taut and beautifully rendered book, The Debt mostly focuses on enslavement. But I remember sitting with Robinson some years ago—he was the subject of my first big profile for a national magazine—and hearing him almost off-handedly note that housing discrimination alone is estimated to have cost black people billions. And I recall dimly thinking, "Some of those people are alive."

One critique made by those who oppose reparations holds that the claim is null because it was made so long after the actual injury, when all members of the injured class were dead. But this is not true of a claim rooted in housing discrimination. Maps show who lived where. Records of the policies are clear. Histories have been written outlining the execution of these policies and their effects. Indeed, a paper trail probably exists for those who'd been directly refused loans. I knew a reparations claim could be made by living victims.

But was that actually something "new?" And was the "Everybody who was enslaved is dead" argument really an argument, or a component of some larger device? In this pursuit, the historian Roy E. Finkenbine was indispensable in shaping my thinking. His article on Belinda Royall's petition and her early claims of redress for enslavement established that reparations was not an "after-the-fact" claim; in fact blacks and whites had made the claim long before enslavement ended. For many of the same reasons, historian Mary Frances Berry's biography of reparations activist Callie House—My Face Is Black Is True—was equally important. Callie House argued for "pensions" for enslaved black people. Again, this was a claim made while the direct victims were alive.

Finally, I came upon this issue of the Journal of African-American History, totally devoted to reparations. The issue is indispensable for understanding the history of the reparations movement. I am specifically indebted to anthropologist James M. Davidson for his article, "Encountering the Ex-Slave Reparations Movement From the Grave." Taken together I understood that the claim for reparations was—at the very least—as old as the United States of America itself. The claim for reparations did not begin a century after the crime, but was made at the time of the crime and immediately after.

Now I began to see the entire device—a method by which you exploit a people and then clean yourself of all responsibility. An act is committed—enslavement, for instance. The victims make a credible claim. The claim is disputed with poor logic. (“They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.”) The people making the claim eventually die. At that point the claim is acknowledged as having been credible, but because the claimants are dead, nothing can be done.

The counter-strategy to reparations has always been to run out the clock. It was true in the time of Callie House. It is true today. The vast majority of the responses to "The Case for Reparations" are not so much responses, but evasions. The respondents prefer to ignore the details of the claim ("The people to whom reparations were owed are long dead."), to ignore the facts of history ("What about...Japanese Americans, interned during World War II?") or to to simply flail around like a six-year-old ("OK. Whatever. Reparations scholarships to Middlebury for all!")

Understanding that those who could make a reparations claim were very much alive, I wanted to understand who the claim was being made against. One popular response to reparations is to say "I didn't own any slaves, so I can't be held responsible." Other versions of this include "My ancestors came over in 1920, I can't be held responsible." Or, "My great-great grandmother was half-black, I should not have to pay." The first flaw in this logic is to believe that the reparations claim is rooted in the allegedly distant past. I now knew that it wasn't. But the second flaw is to conceive of reparations as a claim made against individual white people, as opposed to American society itself.

Kim Forde-Mazrui's scholarly article "Taking Conservatives Seriously: A Moral Justification for Affirmative Action and Reparations" was crucial in understanding this question. The article notes that the state, necessarily, outlives its individual citizens. Americans pay for things, all the time, that they are not individually responsible for. If the "I didn't do it" argument was followed to its logical end, the state would effectively dissolve.

At that point I then felt I had argument. The rest was left to the team here at The Atlantic—the awesome editors, fact-checkers, and copy-editors—as well as number of scholars and writers who served as my readers. This is not a completely thorough list of all my readings, but it does capture the highlights. It also is not a thorough list of all the great scholarship out there on reparations. (The work of economist William "Sandy" Darity Jr., for instance, merits mention here.) I would encourage people who enjoyed my article to continue to explore this scholarship themselves. With the new-fangled Internet, much of it is widely available.

On y va.

Editor's note: This is the final part in a four-part series on the works of history that informed the author's recent piece, "The Case for Reparations." Part one, on race and racism, is available here; part two, on slavery, is here; part three on housing policy is here.