The Argument for Reparations, and the Question of Justice

j r, 

Show me a way to transfer productive assets to the poor and working class that is sustainable and that achieves measurable and successful outcomes and I will likely support it. Show me that reparations fits into that mold and I’ll likely support them, but we are not there yet. And it seems a bit disingenuous of TNC to put the onus on other people to develop his idea and to gig them for not.

I agree with “j r” that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ criticism of Bernie Sanders at least borders on disingenuousness, but, before I say any more, first I need to confess that I cheated when selecting the passage by Coates for the “Linkage” item that j r is discussing. ((…and thanks, by the way, to those of you who have been playing along with the new Linkage feature.)) In short, it includes a sequence of sentences that I was eager to critique.

In my own defense, I’ll say that, as an item selected for timeliness in relation to the ongoing election campaign, it does seem to me to sum up Coates’ most pointed criticism of Sanders himself: as someone who does not “actually understand the [reparations] argument.” In terms of intra-left faction fighting, the criticism, it seems to me, aims to pressure if not to disqualify Sanders in the eyes of a vocal left-racialist faction. Coates’ intervention is in this sense an intellectual’s version of the incidents from earlier in the campaign when Black Lives Matter activists literally took over Sanders’ podium. The political statement seems to be that Sanders cannot be accepted as a valid further-left choice until and unless he puts a racism item or legacy of racism item nearer the top of his agenda, preferably at its very top. Though “the argument” would, I think, likely only be one sub-item among others under racism, both the argument itself and Coates argument about the argument still serve as something of a microcosm for “race politics” on the Liberal-Left today.

OT commenters including j r have already examined it capably from several different viewpoints, but, for me, at least as problematic as any inconsistency or possible disingenuousness in Coates’ criticism of Sanders, and also at least as problematic as other implications of Coates’ attempt to assume and retain possession of the issue on his terms only, is the underlying incoherence of his thinking in relation to ideas of justice.


The problem surfaces in that sequence of sentences I mentioned.

The entire passage consists of Coates “briefly re-stat[-ing]” the argument, or its predicate, for those of us who, like Sanders, seem to Coates somehow to have failed to absorb or process it:

[F]rom 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and governments—federal, state, and local—repeatedly plundered black communities. Their methods included everything from land-theft, to red-lining, to disenfranchisement, to convict-lease labor, to lynching, to enslavement, to the vending of children. So large was this plunder that America, as we know it today, is simply unimaginable without it. Its great universities were founded on it. Its early economy was built by it. Its suburbs were financed by it.Its deadliest war was the result of it.

Each of these last four sentences is linked to an external source: an article at the NPR web-site, two posts by Coates, and a Wikipedia entry.The sentence that links to the Wikipedia entry, on Civil War casualties, is different from the others, and not just because the content is simply informational rather than polemical. Obviously, or at least obviously to me, the founding of great universities, the building of an economy, and the development of residential areas are all rather different matters than fighting a war.

Warfare, civil war especially, is, of course, not conventionally considered a positive achievement or a common or public good, but rather as the worst of public ills. In this context, for those who believe that pursuing military victory over the secessionist states was worthwhile and necessary, one might speak of the public good of raising and sustaining an army, or possibly the public good of victory. More to the main question, in the classic moral economy of American history, that “deadliest war” was not merely a “result” of slavery, but was itself a kind of accounting and sacrifice, or, in the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, a divine retribution, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash… paid by another drawn with the sword.” To put the idea in Coatesian terms, the war would on this view amount to the sacrificial offering of millions of “white bodies,” including the deaths of hundreds of thousands, to be put against the maltreatment of millions of “black bodies.”

At the behest of Lincoln, in the spirit of “Union,” we are to think of the Civil War as punishment from God, the real trampling out of the wrathful vintages, the prophetic fulfillment of the nightmare that left Jefferson trembling in fear for the nation. In the quoted passage, Coates fails to accept that putative sacrifice as meaningfully a sacrifice at all. In this instance, perhaps emblematically for much of the rest of his work or for his theory of American history, he does not merely discount the notion, but entirely overlooks it except by converting it into its opposite.

For Coates or for his argument, it seems, to do anything else than treat the war as the opposite of sacrificial is to acknowledge another set of typical problems for reparations, problems for the argument that arise as soon as we descend, even by a short step, from the general idea to matters of implementation. Those problem are often put as questions: How is it just for a descendant to pay for the crimes of a remote ancestor? How is it just for those whose parents or who themselves immigrated long after the end of slavery to pay the bill, if a bill is to be paid, at the same rate as those being held responsible for the sins of their actual fathers? Why should a “mixed race’ renter in California, both of whose parents immigrated after World War II, owe compensation even indirectly to the descendants of those denied housing in preferred areas outside of Chicago? Or is there going to be some kind of sliding scale based on imputed ancestral racial proximity to sites and causes of injustice – a kind of left-liberal regime of mass-societal wergild?

In the matter of the moral economy of the Civil War, taken as a War “about slavery,” if my ancestors risked or gave their lives on behalf of the cause of the Union, or suffered death or dislocation and deprivation while fighting on the losing side or merely while happening to reside in the affected states, according to what theory of justice is that form of payment for or expiation of the crime of slavery to be voided? If it is it not to be voided, then how is it to be incorporated into the accounting? At what point are personal or ancestral services to the state, or specifically to the designated injured parties or their designated heirs, to be considered? At what point and to what extent do the benefits of American citizenship accrued to the descendants of Africans figure? If not at all, why not? At what point in an actuarial analysis encompassing all of American and perhaps of world history do the claims of other groups, large and small, perhaps foremost those of Native Americans, receive their due?


Coates and those who affirm that they have been persuaded by his “case” diminish such questions as questions by those who, like Sanders, “do not understand,” but these questions do not arise merely because, for example, we are practical people inclined to examine the practical side of political propositions. The practical difficulties correspond to conceptual deficits, which in this case are moral deficits, and which are just as problematic in relation to Coates seemingly undiminishable support for a congressional study of reparations. In short, whether we are planning a massive or somewhat massive transfer of wealth from one very sizeable segment of a mass society to another, or are merely discussing the possibility of a discussion, what are the implications of adoption of a doctrine of racial or racialized guilt, the inevitable counterpart of a doctrine of racial or racialized justice? At what point in the process are alternative theories of justice to be considered? Can we even imagine a political process that justly considers its own justice or justifiability?

I believe the answer to the last question properly understood must be no, we cannot, and that the attempt would point to disaster, as would and must any attempt to realize Coates’ self-contradictory and ill-conceived theories of justice as policy – or, in Sanders case if Coates and others were to have their way, as politics. Coates may dispute the classic political-theological accounting, or may consider it obviously inadequate to all questions relating to race in American and to African-Americans in particular, but, if he is seeking to overturn the moral economy of sacrifice and just punishment, completely, if he is, in effect, insisting that we declare the Union cause an un-redeemed failure, and if he is doing so without proposing a coherent or even sensible alternative, then what is he really offering other than an open-ended accumulation of evils, of responses whose sufficiency can never be established, and of strident claims as to the moral and intellectual deficits of all those who, incredibly, suspiciously, perhaps unforgivably, fail to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates?

Image by University of Michigan’s Ford School

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