Kevin Drum offers an interesting, and familiar, rebuttal to the reparations argument:
A couple of years ago Coates famously wrote an Atlantic article titled “The Case for Reparations,” and after reading it I concluded that he was reticent about reparations too. He certainly made the case that black labor and wealth had been plundered by whites for centuries—something that few people deny anymore—but when it came time to talk about concrete restitution for this, he tap danced gingerly.
Drum believes that I was “reticent” about reparations because I did not talk about “concrete restitution” in the article. Of course, the article was not a plan for reparations. It was a case for reparations. That was the headline. Even so, I did offer some details on the proposals which have been put forth by scholars over the years:
In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.
With that said, I concluded that the next-best step was to back John Conyers’s H.R. 40 bill, which proposed to study slavery and its legacy, and to determine whether reparations were feasible. This seemed intelligent, given that is the exact same path taken by one of the more successful reparations efforts—those awarded to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. It was also actionable—a bill in Congress that could serve as a rallying point—as opposed to merely rhetorical. Finally, although studies certainly end up in the dust-bin of history all the time, without some sort of official document tallying up the specific costs of some three centuries of injury, it seems relatively useless to argue for a plan for payment.
This did not stop people from demanding specifics. These demands always struck me as akin to demanding a payment plan for something one has neither decided one needs nor is willing to purchase. Nevertheless, after my colleague David Frum wrote a piece making the same argument as Drum, I offered the following response:
Even if one feels that slavery was too far into the deep past (and I do not, because I view this as a continuum) the immediate past is with us. Identifying the victims of racist housing policy in this country is not hard. Again, we have the maps. We have the census. We could set up a claims system for black veterans who were frustrated in their attempt to use the G.I. Bill. We could then decide what remedy we might offer these people and their communities. And there is nothing “impractical” about this.
The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.
My case for reparations was not centered on long-dead enslaved black people, but actual living African Americans who’d been wronged, well within living memory. The wrong was massive and perpetrated in virtually every major city in the country. My proposal addressed the thrust of my article—housing discrimination and red-lining. There is nothing dodgy, canny, or hard to understand about it. I made that argument it in 2014. I have made it several times in interviews since. This has not stopped people from asking for something even more specific. I have, with some regularity, pointed them to this excellent paper from the Duke economist, and tireless reparations proponent, Sandy Darity, which discusses “the size of a reparations payment and how the way which it is financed and distributed effects the income of blacks and nonblacks.”