A few readers have already voiced criticism over Ta-Nehisi’s take on Bernie and reparations, and there’s more to come. But first, Conor’s contribution to the debate is countered here by Jim Elliott, a long-time reader:
I found Mr. Friedersdorf’s piece disappointing. He, like so many of Coates’s critics, proceeds from what I see as a false premise. I think Coates is being deliberately—and usefully!—provocative in using the term “reparations” because he knows that would-be naysayers will automatically assume this means payment to black folks—a concept so morally, economically, logistically, and demographically fraught that it provokes all kinds of emotional—and therefore honest, reactions.
Ever since first reading “The Case for Reparations,” though, I immediately grokked what I think is a much more interesting, and even more difficult, argument from Coates:
Reparations—except for those for whom specific monetary harm can be identified, such as through redlining—are not an exchange of silver for our collective moral penitence. Reparations, as Coates reads to me, are a moral, intellectual, and historical exercise. The closest analogy I can think of is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
This would be a monumental undertaking. It would be immensely painful, because it would involve going to war against our national hagiography, our very own sense of self as Americans and the intrinsic, inherent virtues we attribute to our Founding and the ideals that led to it. Worse, it would demonstrate to us that those still living and we ourselves continue to fail to live up to those ideals.
This is part of what Coates is doing when he repeats, with frequency, that ours is a nation founded upon white supremacy. It slashes through all the meat of our Constitution, of our sense of the United States as the harbinger of liberal democracy and equality, straight to the bone. All of our growth and success hinges upon what came before, the bedrock that was laid by the forced labor of natives, of blacks, of indentured servants, through rape and plunder, through lash and club. Realization of that moral monstrosity, its sheer weight and importance to everything we do and have done that is good—that this moral dichotomy exists in fore-bearers and grandparents that we revere—imperils our sense of self as a people.
Ultimately, this painful process would demonstrate a need for national action on the forces slavery, white supremacy, and westward expansion put in motion and still affect our communities today. And, I think, it would force all Americans to realize that which those of us who do not believe in a redeemer of sins already know: There is no such thing as absolution for what has gone before, only atonement to rectify its effects—and the work of atonement may never be complete.
Elliott made a much shorter version of that argument in the comments section, claiming that Conor is “conflating ‘payment’ with Coates’s concept of reparations.” Conor replied:
I discuss payment here, rather than the call for study and unspecified further steps in his 2014 article, because when Bernie Sanders was asked about reparations, the answer he gave––and that Ta-Nehisi critiqued––was presumably aimed at the common understanding of the policy, not the uncommon definition published in one magazine two years ago.
Here’s Ta-Nehisi blogging two years ago about the evolution of his thinking on that reparations essay. (A video that accompanied the essay is embedded above.) After reading the longer, emailed version of Elliott’s criticism, Conor adds:
I want to emphasize that I share Ta-Nehisi’s enthusiasm for the “moral, intellectual, and historical exercise” of grappling with America’s treatment of blacks. I think that his reparations article is justly celebrated as an exceptional instance of doing so. I haven’t seen a single persuasive critique of its informative look at housing discrimination.
And I share Jim Elliott’s notion that it is important to challenge “our national hagiography, our very own sense of self as Americans and the intrinsic, inherent virtues we attribute to our Founding.” There is no greater fan of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, or the Madisonian system of checks and balances than me. But perverted notions of American exceptionalism and delusions of inherent virtue help to explain the inability or unwillingness of so many in this country to fully confront the most immoral U.S. policies, or the amount of damage America inflicted during the Iraq War, at Abu Ghraib, in our drone campaign over Yemen, and elsewhere through our foreign policy.
There are lots of people working to puncture pretty lies about America’s past, to bring more accurate, unvarnished history to the masses. These efforts can be found in bestselling books, blockbuster movies, and platinum albums. It can be found in university classes, the speeches of politicians, and House resolutions like this one. And there are plenty of people writing against racism, civil liberties abuses, and other injustices today. I regard those projects as vital. I try to participate in them.
In my view, scholars, filmmakers, journalists, and other private citizens are far better suited to rigorously examining the past and present and conveying the truth to the masses than the United States Congress. And I’m baffled by the notion that a Congressional inquiry into reparations would produce better, more legitimate, or more persuasive history. It is a political body with incentives to do what is expedient and popular, not to declare what is rigorous and true, and even when its investigations set forth grave sins, as did the torture report, the substance of the inquiry does not appreciably affect public opinion.
In the last part of Elliott’s comment, he writes that “this painful process would demonstrate a need for national action on the forces slavery, white supremacy, and westward expansion put in motion and still affect our communities today. And, I think, it would force all Americans to realize that which those of us who do not believe in a redeemer of sins already know: There is no such thing as absolution for what has gone before, only atonement to rectify its effects—and the work of atonement may never be complete.” But this is wildly implausible.
The notion that “all Americans” will be “forced” to share Jim Elliott’s ideas about our past and what it means for us in the present imagines a degree of consensus that will obviously never exist; and if we excuse it as hyperbole, it nevertheless presumes that differences of opinion on these matters are rooted in historical ignorance or a refusal to face hard truths.
In reality, there are lots of justice-loving people who’ve studied the past more deeply than Conor Friedersdorf or Jim Elliott or Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’ve faced hard truths as fully as we have, and nevertheless come to different conclusions than any of us on matters less complicated than this. Americans will never agree on an ur-theory of race in this country. But lots of Americans with different ur-theories have, I think, at least enough in common to fight lots of injustices together.
In keeping with that analysis: a race-neutral inquiry into housing discrimination would, I think, produce a lot less heat and a lot more light than an inquiry into reparations for African Americans by a body elected to represent a country that opposes reparations by huge margins.
Update from Jim Elliott:
Thank you very much for both including my message in the discussion and for forwarding it on to Mr. Friedersdorf. If you could, please be so kind as to extend my thanks to him for a thoughtful reply. In it, he demonstrates perfectly why that while I frequently disagree with him, I should never stop reading him: He is thoughtful and moves discussions forward on important issues.
It is an odd feeling to be taking the position of hope in this case, when I’m so much more comfortable in the role of curmudgeon, and to be doing so against Mr. Friedersdorf’s cynicism when I typically equate him with a much more idealistic point of view.
Mr. Friedersdorf dismisses a commission as a Congressional inquiry, though this is not the correct interpretation of what a “truth and reconciliation” commission would look like. He should look to something more like the 9/11 Commission, rather than, say, the Benghazi committee, as his model. The 9/11 Commission actually performed its duties quite admirably.
Perhaps I have—ironically!—too much faith in intellectual honesty. I think that facts, once given the weight of transparent and rigorous inquiry, gather enough mass and velocity as to become an irresistible force; their arrival and impact can only be delayed. Even were Mr. Friedersdorf correct, would not the process of identifying the effects of those historical forces lead, rather inevitably, to, as Mr. Friedersdorf puts it, identifying common injustices that need remedy?
I agree with many of Mr. Coates’s critics that dismissing Senator Sanders’s approach because it is class-based would be foolhardy, because the practical effects would be worthwhile for addressing some of the ills and injustices that exist today, whatever their root causes (many diseases have similar symptoms, and similar cures, to use an imprecise analogy).
By the way, Elliott informs me that he and other members of Ta-Nehisi’s old commenting community are “resurrecting the mini-Horde” via Disqus’s discussion channels—for example, this one addressing TNC’s latest post, “Hillary Clinton Goes Back to the Dunning School.” Check it out if you’re interested in a taste of what his comment section used to be like, before it closed last fall.