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 Other Reparations Debate: Cuba

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:

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:

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.

A reader fears that would be the case:

Perhaps I am not familiar enough with the debate, but I rarely see anyone discuss what happens after reparations are made. Speaking as a white person, my experience tells me that, collectively, the quickest way for us to stop caring is to write a check. I don’t necessarily mean this literally, but simply the act of paying a price in exchange for something is a signal that it’s no longer an issue.

When it comes to issues of race, providing reparations would not and could not be the end of the discussion in this nation. Yet I strongly suspect that for the majority of the white population, the conversation would be over. When protests over some mistreatment were to occur post-reparations, it would not slowly win over voters, as is the case with Black Lives Matter. Instead, I think they would be met with unbridled rage. “We paid reparations! We did what you wanted, now any problems are your issue!”

Think about the Native Americans tribes of this country.

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:

On that question, Ta-Nehisi has written two pieces so far—here and here. A reader responds via hello@:

It is not necessary to debate the merits of reparations to know that black people in the U.S. will be the primary (statistically very over-represented) beneficiaries of any significant class-based redistribution of wealth and income, and therefore that their interests will be vastly better served by a Sanders victory than by that of any other presidential contender.

At this particular historical conjecture, one of the responsibilities of anti-racists is to make those facts known in black America so that black voters might be persuaded to switch their allegiance from Clinton (who offers no hope for a change in the status quo) to Sanders (who calls for a political revolution that will transfer wealth and power from those at the top to those at the bottom).

Unfortunately, Coates, in attacking Sanders, undermines that effort and thereby objectively works against the empowerment and enrichment of black Americans that would result from the political revolution for which Sanders is calling.

Another reader also thinks any talk of reparations from Sanders would be deeply counterproductive to his goals of social justice:

I really like Coates, and like many people, consider him an invaluable voice on race in America. I’m struggling with his views on Sanders, though.