The Conversation

Responses to our June cover story and more.


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

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

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

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

As I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s argument for reparations, I searched for a page or a few paragraphs that would equate the suffering and subjugation of African Americans with those of Native Americans. I found none. What I did find was a detailed description of German reparations to Israel after the Holocaust. It’s offered as a precedent for us to follow, but it is totally misplaced. Hundreds of tribes in the United States and Canada have for more than 200 years been attempting to get just compensation for the lands stolen from them through treaty violations and outright fraud.
In 2000, for instance, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York filed suit against Sherrill, New York, to stop the city from collecting property taxes on ancestral land the Oneidas had recently regained. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the Oneidas. A key statement in the decision read: “This Court has long recognized that the passage of time can preclude relief.” I suspect that Mr. Coates shied away from any mention of Indian reparations and went outside the country for this reason.
If active attempts are made at reparations to the black community, judicial actions will follow and the precedent decisions of the Supreme Court will make them moot. If the Court were to reverse itself, which is unlikely, then the tribes of the Native American community should certainly have first dibs on any and all reparations.
David Werdegar
Naperville, Ill.

Referring to a possible debate on Representative John Conyers Jr.’s bill to study reparations, HR 40, Coates states, “No one can know what would come out of such a debate.” But here’s what I fear: the debate is more likely to raise rancor than to generate honest introspection.
Few would deny that only some halting steps, albeit important ones, have been taken on the path to racial equality. However, the issues likely to be raised in the debate are sure to be intensely divisive. If the discussion is to be a purely academic one (with zero prospect of a heightened burden on taxpayers), millions of African Americans might rightfully feel cheated yet again: expectations raised and then dashed. If, on the other hand, the real prospect were to exist of some substantial payment to the African American population, the list of impossible questions would explode.
Why, for example, should a recent immigrant of another ethnicity, whose ancestors had nothing to do with the abomination of slavery, be forced to accept a penalty for a crime he did not commit? Correspondingly, why should a recent immigrant of Somalian extraction be a possible beneficiary of such a payment?
This all said, a somewhat stronger case might be made for targeted reparations. Take the example of Clyde Ross, referenced in the article. Clearly his is a family that has been damaged not merely by slavery but by all that Jim Crow could deliver. But again, who would pay? His native Mississippi, the most impoverished state in the nation? Illinois, where he lives now, arguably the state with the worst public finances? Perhaps the nation as a whole since the sin was a collective one? Yet why should the burden be forced on a Native American, or the descendants of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany?
The idea of debate as a means of clearing the air is a fine notion conceptually, but the practical effect could be profoundly corrosive.
Stephen Saker
Longwood, Fla.

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

This powerful essay explicitly disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution [Coates] has in mind: How would it work?
The affirmative action experience since 1969 offers some insights into what is likely to happen next: (1) The program will expand to additional groups. (2) The question of who qualifies will become ever more contested and embittered. (3) Side effects will be large and unexpected. (4) The program will work severe inequities. (5) The legitimacy of the project will rapidly fade.
Affirmative action ranks among the least popular things that U.S. governments do. When surveyed, white Americans crushingly reject race preferences, Hispanic Americans object by a margin of 2 to 1, and black Americans are almost evenly divided, with only the slightest plurality in favor.
Now imagine how Americans will feel when what is redistributed by racial calculus is not university admissions or workplace promotions but actual, foldable cash.
Ta-Nehisi Coates anticipates this trouble by suggesting that reparations might be paid not to individuals but collectively to African Americans as a group. He favorably cites the example of German reparations to the state of Israel after World War II.
But the state of Israel was a sovereign, elected by a democratic process. Few in the Jewish world doubted that Israel could and did act for the Jewish people as a whole. Black Americans, however, do not have a state of their own. If reparations are deemed some kind of collective debt to black Americans as a group, rather than to black Americans as individuals, then the question will arise: Who decides how this money will be distributed? Some kind of National Endowment for Black America? Chosen how? Accountable to whom?
Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree Jr. suggests widening the concept of reparations even further, into a national “program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.” In that case, reparations would cease to be a new program, but would become instead a new argument in favor of the preexisting policy preferences of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Earlier in his article, Coates quotes with seeming disdain the radio host Rush Limbaugh’s disparagement of the Affordable Care Act as a form of “reparations.” But aren’t Limbaugh and Ogletree more or less in agreement here?
Coates dismisses all these questions and so many others. He suggests the country first enact Representative John Conyers Jr.’s reparations bill and then open a discussion about how reparations would work. But committing yourself to a solution before you have any idea whether such a solution is workable—or, rather, in defiance of pretty strong reasons that your solution is utterly unworkable—is not a responsible reaction to America’s racial dilemmas.
Instead, we’ll be all too likely to repeat once more the sad pattern of so many civil-rights initiatives: the bold announcement, the raised hopes, the unexpected difficulties, the suppression of open discussion of those difficulties, the ossifying of the project into bureaucracy, the realization of failure, the discovery of the political impossibility of reforming or repairing the failure.
David Frum
Excerpt from a article

The conversation Coates has restarted is not really about reparations. It is, more fundamentally, about acknowledging the bastard history that would warrant reparations in the first place.
The unspoken divide be-tween black people and white people—whether over reparations, affirmative action, or the question of paying NCAA athletes—comes down to a question of history. In one version, that history appears as an incremental movement toward equality after a long night of discrimination; in the other, history looks like a balance sheet, and the cumulative debits of sanctioned theft, enforced poverty, and scant opportunity far outweigh the inconsistent credits of goodwill …
Absent an understanding of this past, it’s possible—even entirely reasonable—to conclude that affirmative action represents a full recompense for the social engineering that produced a disproportionately black underclass in the United States. To the extent that the history remains obscured, the narrative looks like a lineage of failed handouts to a feckless and troublesome population, never quite capable of pulling themselves up, and mired in their own self-defeating ways …
In 2005, the United States Senate offered an apology for the decades during which it did nothing to halt the tide of lynchings that claimed the lives of nearly thirty-four hundred black people between 1880 and 1920. Yet that apology—which was tied directly to government inaction that facilitated terrorism directed at a subject population—was not accompanied by any order for compensation to the descendants of those victims. Once again, the point was not contrition, merely the appearance of it.
We are discussing reparations at this moment because in two years Barack Obama will leave the White House, having repaired the economic collapse that greeted his inauguration, but with African Americans still unemployed at a rate twice that of whites, and struggling to see how this world differs from the status quo ante. Those who saw Obama’s election as redemption for slavery were off by fourteen decades: his election was supposed to expiate sins much closer to the surface, and therefore far more difficult, and far too expensive, to confront.
The point of Coates’s essay—and, ultimately, the point of this conversation, despite the political impossibility of enacting reparations—is a broader understanding of black poverty as the product of public policy and private theft facilitated by racism. The belief that blacks have been given too much is made possible by the refusal to countenance how much was actually taken away in the first place.
Jelani Cobb
Excerpt from a New Yorker blog post

Our legal system allows for compensatory damages plus “pain and suffering” in all manner of negligence cases, many of which involve no actual physical injury, just very speculative future-wage-loss claims. The damage inflicted by redlining is far more quantifiable than the types of damages allowed daily by courts in many types of personal-injury cases. Some reasonable dollar amount can be established for those who have been deprived of wealth accumulation through home-price appreciation available to others.
California law, for example, allows a child who contemporaneously perceives a personal injury to a parent to recover damages for emotional distress, even when the child is not physically harmed. In addition, statutes of limitations can be extended by legislation (as in molestation cases against priests) or suspended during periods of “legal disability,” as in the case of minors or insane persons. Thus, there is no jurisprudential reason (and certainly no constitutional reason) black Americans—not directly affected by slavery, but legally disabled by Jim Crow until very recently—cannot proceed with the types of damages claims suggested by the article.
Clyde Ross cannot now directly sue the men who took his horse. However, he and others might be compensated through a progressive tax on wealth, given that many current accumulations of wealth are greater than they otherwise would be without the past taking of black property and labor. This may not be entirely fair to a self-made new immigrant, but even he is now living in the house that slavery built. And it would be far fairer than many of the tort damage awards regularly made across the country, the cost of which we all bear through insurance and taxes.
Bill Friedman
Studio City, Calif.

Now that Coates has reignited this debate, it’s worth considering the practical implications. How much money, for instance, is due to black America? …
Larry Neal, an economist at the University of Illinois, calculated … the wages that slaves would have received from 1620 to 1840, minus estimated maintenance costs spent by slave owners, and reached a total of $1.4 trillion in 1983 dollars. At an annual rate of interest of 5 percent, that’s more than $6.5 trillion in 2014—just in lost wages. In a separate estimate in 1983, James Marketti calculated it at $2.1 trillion, equal to $10 trillion today. In 1989, economists Bernadette Chachere and Gerald Udinsky estimated that labor-market discrimination between 1929 and 1969 cost black Americans $1.6 trillion.
These estimates don’t include the physical harms of slavery, lost educational and wealth-building opportunities, or the cost of the discrimination that persists today. But it’s clear the magnitude of reparations would be in the trillions of dollars. For perspective, the federal government last year spent $3.5 trillion and GDP was $16.6 trillion.
Danny Vinik
Excerpt from a New Republic blog post

Attempting to reckon with vast historical crimes played out over multiple centuries is hard. It’s better to start at the end—with a desirable outcome. What would it take to close the gap in wealth between black and white households?
Unfortunately for the cause of precision, in the United States wealth is measured at the household level while race is a property of individuals. But roughly speaking, the average American household has 2.55 people so closing the $85,000 household wealth gap would require a transfer of approximately $33,300 to each African American individual. There are about 41.4 million black people in America, so we’re talking about approximately $1.38 trillion.
Isn’t that an awful lot of money? It is. But it’s a tiny fraction of what was actually stolen.
In his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty shows that in the decade before the Civil War, the total value of black people held in bondage was about 100 percent of national income. Indeed, with the application of considerations related to compound interest it is possible to derive figures into the quadrillions as the appropriate recompense. And that’s just slavery. As Coates shows, the economic damage of white supremacy continued unabated well into the second half of the 20th century.
By contrast, national income in 2013 was $16.8 trillion so the idea of transferring $1.38 trillion to black Americans to close the racial wealth gap is far from crazy relative to the magnitude of the crime …
It is obviously not practical to collect $1.38 trillion from individual white households. But more broadly, the issue is not individual acts of wrongdoing but a collective American legacy. The appropriate payor is the United States government, which, conveniently, has the ability to print United States dollars in unlimited quantities.
The Federal Reserve Act would not, as written, allow the Fed to print $1.38 trillion and transfer it to individual African Americans. But a reparations initiative could direct them to do so.
Wouldn’t that destroy the economy? Probably not. Right now the Federal Reserve is engaging in $45 billion per month of quantitative easing, printing money and using the proceeds to buy U.S. government debt and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds. Before May, they were doing $55 billion per month.
At the $55 billion per month pace, it would take 25 months—just over two years—to transfer the full $1.38 trillion to black America. Any potentially inflationary impact of the money-printing could be offset by halting quantitative easing immediately.
Matthew Yglesias
Excerpt from a Vox article

[Clyde] Ross is a historical figure with a compelling story, but for the most part, Chicago media took a pass on his tale. In fact, in what I consider an act of journalistic malfeasance, Chicago media seem to have passed up the entire reparations story. A serious examination of Coates's well-researched essay would have obliged city leaders at least to engage his provocative, persuasive argument: the poverty of the black community is the product of specific, race-based policies and could best be remedied by race-based repair.

Salim Muwakkil
Excerpt from a Chicago Tribune op-ed

Should the country formally confront the effects of centuries of repression of its African-American citizens, from slavery well into the 20th Century? Would it help our nation to have a karmic accounting of the history we live with to this day?

There has been vigorous debate in the days since The Atlantic ran a 16,000-word cover story by star essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates on how a discussion of reparations could enlighten us all to the economic costs borne by the country's lowest caste and the damage to the country as it systematically held down its own citizens.

On one level, it's a modest proposal that Congress pass a bill, HR 40, introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan every year for the past 25 years, calling for a study of slavery and the issue of reparations. On another, it is a deeper, more painful call to confront how our country came to be and who we are as a nation …

Here's a frequently cited excerpt from The Warmth of Other Suns, a quote from the 1922 Chicago Race Commission: "The past is of value only as it aids in understanding the present; and an understanding of the facts of the problem—a magnanimous understanding by both races—is the first step toward its solution."

Isabel Wilkerson
Author, The Warmth of Other Sons
Excerpt from a Facebook post

Mr. Coates's article didn't change my opinion on the subject. About 20 to 25 years ago, when I first became aware of the issue of reparation payments, I thought, No way. Why should I have to pay for something in which I never participated? I never had slaves, and all my family had come to America in the early 20th century, 50 years after the matter of slavery had been settled. Over the years, I thought about reparations payment from time to time. About four or five years ago, a little to my surprise, my opinion seemed to change, in that I could see why some payment of reparations could be right. It had dawned on me that there were no African American families or institutions of huge wealth in America that I knew of, who got their start earlier in U.S. history. No black counterparts to the Mellons, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Stanfords, the Fords, the DuPonts, the Reynolds, the Roosevelts, or even the Kennedys. There are a few primarily African American universities, but certainly not on the scale of the abundantly numbered and endowed ones established by Caucasians.

Large corporations and privately endowed public institutions in America founded by African Americans? I was unaware of any. Virtually none of the well-known elite American neighborhoods, such as Scarsdale, Beverly Hills, Newport, Sausalito, Winnetka, Deerborn, Beacon Hill, Palm Beach, Scottsdale, River Oaks, etc., were of Africa American provenance. Exclusivity of wealth seemed conspicuous and pervasive. Never mind the absence of a very wealthy class of African Americans; even from  a significant middle class, indeed, African Americans seemed to be  excluded. There has been a dearth of opportunity for black people from early on in U.S. history as a result of slavery and the ensuing attitudes and policies, such that they have never been able to recoup the lost opportunities of the past. Sadly, the fabric of American society has been woven, historically, largely without threads of color.

Mr. Coates’s article was extremely informative in showing just how pernicious and subtle, chronic and creative, and ultimately how very damaging the financial prejudice has been toward African Americans. I do agree with him on the payment of reparations. I don't know exactly how it would be done, but once started, in my own experience, it usually is a great feeling to payoff a debt, and I think the entire country would be the better for it.

Bart Spleed
Salt Lake City, Utah

"The Case for Reparations" is a cogent, vivid argument for the economic injustice suffered by black Americans for centuries and the logical and ethical case for reparations. But to what end?

Does Coates really believe black Americans will receive reparations?  And if not, what is the point of the article? Cogent as it is, it cannot surpass in brevity, power, or moral suasion the words Abraham Lincoln uttered 150 years ago in his second inaugural:

“Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

For all his brooding, Lincoln was enough of an optimist to believe the Union could be saved. Today, confronted by a nation that refuses to pay for wars, allows its military veterans to suffer neglect, and ignores our crumbling infrastructure while privileging the top 1 percent of wage earners, I don't think even Lincoln could conceive of reparations.

Larry Kilbourne
Potomac Falls, Va.

Even if “no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America,” there’s still value in imagining a concrete scheme for reparations, if only to have a sense of the bills we owe. And so, how would we accomplish the task? …

There’s a lot to recommend when it comes to cash benefits. For starters, it empowers individuals, families, and communities. They know what they need, and we should trust them to figure out their own interests over the long term. Yes, a cash scheme could never be fully fair, but that’s not the point; what we want is to heal injury and balance accounts, and on that score, it could work …

On the other end is the policy approach. Instead of cash, the federal government would implement an agenda to tackle racial inequality at its roots. This agenda would focus on major areas of concern: housing, criminal justice, education, and income inequality. As for the policies themselves, they don’t require a ton of imagination. To break the ghettos and reduce the hyper-segregation of black life, the federal government would aggressively enforce the Fair Housing Act, with attacks on housing and lending discrimination, and punishment for communities that exclude low-income residents with exclusionary zoning.

What’s more, it would provide vouchers for those who want to move, subsidized mortgages for those who want to own, and huge investments in transportation infrastructure, to break urban and rural isolation and connect low-income blacks to jobs in wealthier, whiter areas.

On the education front, state governments could end education budgets based on local property taxes—which disadvantage poor communities and disproportionately hurt blacks—and the federal government could invest in school reconstruction, modernization, and vouchers—for parents who want their children in private schools—in addition to higher education subsidies for black Americans. These “in-kind” benefits have the virtue of freeing up disposable income, thus acting as de facto cash payments.

It almost goes without saying that this move for policy reparations would include an end to the war on drugs, an end to mass incarceration, and a national re-evaluation of police procedures to reduce racial profiling. And, looking forward, it could include progressive “baby bonds”—federally managed investment accounts with modest annual growth rates. At $60 billion a year, according to one proposal, this would help ameliorate wealth inequality for future generations.

Jamelle Bouie
Excerpt from a Slate article

The article details remarkable cases of black people (and others) working with tools of due process, activism, and advocacy to change the facts of oppression. The changes are hard-won and too-long in coming, but they’re powerful changes nonetheless. It seems evident those changes are stronger, more permanent and substantive because of the tools and the people who made them happen.

Wouldn’t reparations take away those realities, by attempting to force change through taxation and subsidy, instead of encouraging change through individual and collective action? Mr. Coates claims that “in the contest of upward mobility Barack and Michelle Obama have won . . . whatever the Obama children achieve, it will be evidence of their family’s singular perseverance, not of broad equality.” Exactly. May singular perseverance always triumph.

America at its best is a nation of start where you are, and improve your own situation. We limit ourselves with the approach of look at your disadvantages, and insist you cannot overcome them. Mr. Coates asserts that the “essence of American racism is disrespect.” But respect entails the belief and trust that someone has the wherewithal to lift him or herself.

Clyde Ross did that, even in a society somewhat less than free. He served, he moved, he held a job, he had a family, he brought suit against a terrible organization, he exposed that organization on a national stage, and he is still advocating, through venues like Mr. Coates’s article and a national platform. Through his efforts, he made our society more free. Reparations did not help him do that; persisting and pushing the boundaries of opportunity did. I respect black Americans enough to believe they can and do and will continue to transcend the awful legacy of American oppression—and through those efforts, they will continue to earn the respect of a grateful and progressive nation.

Heidi Naylor
Boise, Idaho

Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a persuasive case for reparations, but history suggests it will be a difficult fight.

There is a perverse quality to reparations, in that the very persistence of mistreatment tends to make such payments less likely. Successful reparations claims—the Holocaust, Japanese Americans, etc.—tend to involve cases where the behavior in question has ended and there is a more or less definable number of victims. By contrast, discrimination against African Americans is a continuing problem, which makes calculations more difficult and —more to the point—more politically painful for the majority to admit its liability.

Michael A. Livingston
Professor, Rutgers Law School
Camden, N.J.

Coates argues that we need this as “the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.” The writing is resonant, but must America “see itself” so squarely in this particular regard? Why, exactly, must history, in this instance, be stage-managed so closely? It would seem that what black America needs is not for white and other people to “understand” us or our past, but for us to be assisted in making our future brighter than our present …

The War on Drugs must end, since with its demise, acrimonious and often lethal interactions between the police and young black men would cease as a foundational experience of being black. In schools, few are aware of how magical the effect would be of reading programs that actually work for poor kids … We must utilize the reality of Obamacare to bring black America into a new relationship with the health-care system. Efforts to coach poor black parents on child care … should be taken to scale.

All of those things can happen—and in fact, are happening—without the profound national transformation in thought that writers like Coates seek.

John McWhorter
Excerpt from a Daily Beast article

Imagine we have decided yes, as a society we must pay a price for these injustices, and it must be large. Those payments could well constitute the stimulus that the U.S. economy needs to take it into the next century.

To the economy, stimulus is stimulus, as long as it’s done right. Whether it is paid to a group of people based on where they live, their ethnicity or their religion might matter to politics, but to the economy, it doesn’t matter—as long as the money is put to work through either consumption or investment …

Reparations would affect 44.5 million Americans, most of whom are in a position, or could eventually be in a position, to do far more than spend. The stimulus would lead to both entrepreneurship and investment and potential direct poverty alleviation for 3.2 percent of the total population, assuming that cash-based reparations payments would be large enough to lift even the poorest recipient above the poverty line. This would affect the roughly 27 percent of African-Americans who were below the poverty line in 2012.

Michael Maiello
Excerpt from a Reuters blog post


Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates has done something extraordinary. “Must read” is nowhere near strong enough. —@aoscott

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a powerful game-changer in latest @TheAtlantic —@guyraz

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” is one of the most important essays on race you’ll read. —@stevesilberman

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