Reporter's Notebook

Reparations in 2016
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Readers of Ta-Nehisi (specifically his pieces here, here, and here) and Conor (here) discuss the relevance of slavery reparations during the Democratic primaries—as well as that controversial issue more generally.

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The Segregation of Reservations

Women work on the Cheyenne reservation at Lame Deer, Montana, on Jan. 24, 1945. (AP)

A reader, Sorn Jessen, responds to an earlier one who invoked Native Americans in his concern about the “very real possibility that white America would simply turn its back” on African Americans if reparations were enacted:

As someone who was raised on two different reservations, who joined the military out of high school, went to college afterward and even got a graduate degree before moving back, I must say I am tired of hearing Native Americans invoked as political footballs in the debate over reparations.

Seriously, I am absolutely tired of this. People mention indigenous poverty on the reservation as if somehow that means that social justice is a zero sum game. It’s not and it never has been. To most Americans, indigenous people are an abstraction, reservations are places they go to gamble, and unless they have a piece of frybread at the American Indian Museum, they wouldn’t ever think of indigenous folks as actual political actors. All of this makes me rather sad. The folks I know, love and care about are actual people. They have voices, they can speak for themselves, and they are still around to tell you about their stories of segregation and civil rights.

Look, for a long time I was rather angry at that line in “The Case for Reparations” where Ta-Nehisi says: “African Americans still remained—by far—the most segregated ethnic group in the country,” when he’s never been to a reservation in his life.

That’s a tricky question, and it was prompted by this reader:

I wanted to chime in on the spat between Bernie Sanders and Ta-Nehisi Coates regarding Bernie’s rejection of reparations. TNC deeply feels that the economic system America has today was deliberately built not just on the backs of slaves, but also on the backs of African-Americans who lived in the days of Jim Crow laws and even since the major civil rights victories of the ‘60s. I find it hard to disagree with this thesis based on the comprehensive evidence he marshaled in his landmark article making the case for reparations.

Who else agreed with TNC that the U.S. economy was engineered for the benefit of rich white people at the expense of African-Americans? A couple of years ago, TNC shared a video [embedded above] where Martin Luther King, Jr. fiercely critiqued the government for rejecting grants of land to African-Americans while officially opening up land in the Midwest to white farmers, funding land grant colleges for their education, and providing subsidies and other funding to prop up their farms. It’s difficult to argue that MLK didn’t believe African-Americans deserved reparations regardless of whether they were the descendants of slaves.

But MLK wasn’t necessarily just in favor of race-based reparations. In his 1967 book Where We Go From Here, MLK focused on poverty and explicitly argued against focusing on the plight of African-Americans to the expense of others in poverty:

A reader writes:

My father is Cuban. He was born very very rich. Fidel Castro took over, and as a result, my father became very poor. One of the reasons we no longer trade with Cuba is because Cuba nationalized property belonging to Americans. My father’s family businesses and properties were seized while my father was still alive. If this were not the case, today I would be a very rich man, being that my father is the eldest male child. Instead, I grew up poor and eligible for food stamps.

Now that our relationship with Cuba is thawing, this nationalization issue has returned. People in Cuba are hurt by our trade embargo, and beginning trade would really help the average Cuban citizen. One of the biggest sticking points is reparations for seized property.

Here’s a brief overview of that issue: