The Benefits of Redressing Racism With Race-Neutral Remedies

Doing so needn't interfere with fully confronting crimes against black America.

My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates's cover story, "The Case for Reparations," has sparked an impressive amount of thought-provoking commentary. Reflecting on the subject this last week, I'm indebted to smart insights from Adam Serwer, Jamelle Bouie, Walter Olson, Noah Millman, David Frum, Sonia Sotomayor, James Fallows, Kevin Williamson, Jelani Cobb, Rachel Lu, Alexis Madrigal, Matt Steinglass, Damon Linker, Tyler Cowen, Freddie De Boer, John McWhorter, and Glenn Loury:

Coates has also responded to criticism of his story here, here, here, and here. I'll now inject myself into the conversation he so skillfully started.

Many observers avow that the strongest part of "The Case for Reparations" is its powerful description of housing discrimination as depraved, invidious theft that did much harm to black America long after Jim Crow policies were repealed. Even writers who oppose reparations have taken pains to acknowledge this significant, recent injustice done to blacks and to praise Coates for spreading knowledge of it. My take is similar. While I don't think that Coates offers a persuasive case for race-specific reparations, for reasons I'll explain below, I finished his article persuaded that relatively radical action ought to be taken to compensate victims of redlining and to address its most destructive, lasting consequences.

What do I recommend specifically? I'd need to study the issue and to ponder the possibility of unintended consequences before committing to a particular policy. I'll nevertheless offer a hypothetical response, because it will help to clarify why I believe that "let's acknowledge, study, and redress housing discrimination" is a more useful frame for progress than "let's study the possibility of reparations for blacks," even acknowledging that the latter makes for a more thought-provoking essay.

Imagine, for argument's sake, that an effort to redress redlining began by identifying all homeowners who were hurt by the practice and gradually compensating them for their lost property value by waiving their property taxes; say we compensated those wrongly denied home loans because of their race with cash; say federal grants were made available to formerly redlined neighborhoods to ensure efficient public transportation to a range of job opportunities; and say that students attending underperforming schools in redlined neighborhoods got a voucher to increase spending at whatever school they chose to attend. These specific proposals may be flawed or inadequate or too expensive, but I offer them to give a sense of the scale of redress I find appropriate and to raise this point: To tackle redlining and its legacy in this way, policymakers could make redress available to black people (however defined) hurt in these neighborhoods, citing the singular experience of blacks in America and Coates's reparations arguments.

Alternatively, one can imagine the same redress being made available to any individual injured by redlining and its legacy, in which case blacks would still benefit disproportionately; but non-blacks injured by the same policies would get justice too. Hispanics in America haven't faced historic group injustices equal to what blacks faced. I am still loath to examine the history of redlining in America, to address its victims and legacy, and to exclude Hispanics undeniably hurt by the very same policies when it is no harder to identify wronged individuals.

A race-neutral approach could still include a historic inquiry into the practice of redlining that would accurately highlight the disproportionate ways that it targeted and harmed blacks. Black victims of redlining would get their measure of justice and recompense as surely as they would under a race-specific policy. Yet when the chosen frame is "let's redress victims of insidious housing discrimination" instead of "let's study reparations," many widely held objections to Coates's essay fall away, as do the significant majorities preemptively opposed to reparations.

There is much less risk of pitting groups against one another in our increasingly diverse country. And some of the thorniest problems of implementation go away too.

A possible retort is that a race-neutral approach wouldn't offer the national reckoning on white supremacy that Coates cites as a benefit of a congressional study of reparations. "Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans," he writes. "But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world."

He later writes:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

This is the passage in the essay that least persuades me. In part, that's because my faith that Congress would sponsor a rigorous, non-politicized inquiry into reparations approaches zero. Nor do I think that a congressionally sponsored inquiry would confer any more popular legitimacy on the recommendations than a historian's book or a magazine writer's reported feature. There is, too, a hint of presumptuousness here: that if masses of America rigorously studied and fully confronted the history that Coates highlights so powerfully—as if that's going to happen—the result would be a transformation of how they view America. At the top of this article, I linked a number of thoughtful intellectuals who examined history exactly as Coates sees it and made good faith efforts to grapple with his insights and arguments. None of them had their consciousness "revolutionized" by the exercise.

That's not how people or ideas work.

The average American may be ignorant of redlining and its consequences, but they're well aware of slavery, blankets with smallpox given to Native Americans, and prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib. That knowledge has not been sufficient to end "scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage." Why would an official reparations inquiry change the national outlook?

America's heritage includes a series of unique injuries to black people as a group. But to return to our discussion of redlining, and my case that a race-neutral remedy is superior, consider the way in which a black-specific approach might permit us to pretend that while America has long mistreated black people, it has been, apart from that singular, horrific flaw, a basically just nation. Whereas a race-neutral approach that acknowledges the unique impact of (say) redlining on blacks, as well as its effects on non-blacks, would explode that self-serving myth.

A race-neutral framework would not be a denial of our racist heritage. An approach that encompasses everyone, while highlighting the fact that some groups suffered orders of magnitude more than others, more fully confronts our heritage.

It is more true to our messy history. And knowing Coates's work, I am certain he would insist any inquiry into our past reveled in context, detail, and complication.

Another possible retort to my call for a race-neutral remedy to housing discrimination: Red-lining isn't the only post-slavery policy that disproportionately targeted and injured black Americans. True. That would be a powerful critique of my position if the remedies I favored ended with redlining and related policies.

But the same race-neutral framework I've urged—applied to other injurious policies past and present—can do more to remedy institutionalized injustice than reparations.

Bear with me here.

One interesting aspect of Coates's essay is the way that it complicates the progressive narrative of the federal government as a Champion of Civil Rights and right-leaning critics of the federal government as hopelessly naive ideologues whose originalist, states'-rights sympathies would everywhere do harm to blacks. I myself am frustrated by the antagonism, in some corners of the libertarian world, to the Civil Rights Act. I endorse Julian Sanchez's sharp take on the subject. I share the belief that it's naive to imagine ending Jim Crow without aggressive federal intervention. It is nevertheless hard to read Coates's essay without concluding that blacks would've been far better off had the federal bureaucracy stayed out of housing policy in particular, rather than aggressively entrenching racist policy. Had the Federal Housing Administration been struck down on 10th Amendment grounds in 1934 it's likely that blacks would be better off today. Sometimes reining in the feds would have prevented tyrannical excesses.

I'd like to see more libertarians acknowledge that some federal interventions advance liberty in indispensable ways, and to embrace a muscular federal role in protecting the civil rights of all Americans. State and local governments can be ruinous to liberty, especially for minorities. But I'd also like to see progressives acknowledge the degree to which overzealous federal policies with a disparate impact on blacks remain hugely destructive forces in U.S. life today. The War on Drugs is the most egregious example. Like redlining, its effects should be studied. Its racism should be fully understood. That reckoning would inevitably expose another example of the singular ways blacks have been harmed by public policy. And yet, as with redlining, drug reforms ought to be race neutral, for the War on Drugs victimizes people in all groups.

Ending prohibition isn't enough. Wiping clean the criminal records of blacks arrested for mere possession would help remedy the barriers to employment faced by a community punished for its drug use far more often than are white recreational users. The specific experience of blacks must be understood to see why justice requires that step. Yet important as it is to understand lopsided disparities faced by blacks and their far-reaching, often unintended effects, if we wipe clean records for mere possession, why not do it regardless of race? A race neutral approach to remedying wrongs addresses more injustice while causing less resentment.

Here's another radical policy suggestion. Blacks are disproportionately victimized by police abuses. To significantly reduce how often this occurs, mandate that every police department in America record all interrogations, and that officers wear lapel cameras that record all interactions with citizens. To hasten that universal standard, the federal government could buy the equipment for some jurisdictions. How to decide which ones? There's a strong case to be made that blacks suffer more from police abuses than any other race, historically and presently. Federal grants could therefore target the most demographically black cities; or cities where blacks most frequently file abuse reports; or use another race specific metric. Alternatively, a race-neutral standard could be adopted. Perhaps all abuse lawsuits could be tallied. As a result, the first round of funding might send one set of cameras to protect Latinos in Joe Arpaio's jurisdiction, along with cameras sent to help out blacks in Miami Gardens, Florida. And perhaps a town of whites with a terrible police force would get assistance too.

Despite reading Coates closely, I am not entirely sure what he'll make of my suggestions. He is very much advocating a race-specific reparations study and, if viable, a subsequent apportionment of reparations to one racial or ethnic group. But he simultaneously makes claims such as, "The point is not 'racial apportionment,' which is to say giving people things because they are black. It is injury apportionment, which is to say restoring things to people who have been plundered." The race-neutral framework I suggest in no way prevents the restoration of things to people who have been plundered. So does it count as "reparations"?

Coates declares two main goals: to fully confront America's racist history toward blacks and to redress its wrongs. He sees reparations as the best way to achieve both goals. I too want to confront racist history. I too want to redress wrongs. I don't want to do both with the same policy. Race specific policies and their consequences are an inescapable part of U.S. history. Racial context is indispensable for understanding the present. But redress for the wronged need not be race-specific. Better that government treat people as individuals at long last.

A race-neutral future is the right way forward.

A concluding example: The 14th Amendment was crafted by a Congress that fully confronted the reality of black-voter suppression in the South. It attempted to redress that wrong by restoring a right denied. But for the subjugation of blacks, the amendment never would have been considered. At the same time, it offers an unmistakably race-neutral remedy, "No State shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." No one would deny that slavery had a singular impact on blacks. No one would deny that Southern voter suppression targeted blacks as a group. No one would deny the need for a remedy to save blacks as a group from repression. Aren't you still glad that the 14th Amendment is written as it is?