Ta-Nehisi Coates has written the cover essay for this month's issue of The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." He argues that America's wealth was built on a foundation of white supremacy, starting with slavery, but not ending there.
Coates documents a history of mortgage policies, social programs and other political choices that allowed white families to accumulate wealth while deliberately shutting out blacks, all continuing until the late years of the 20th century. The result? Massive economic disparities that have lingered between racial groups decades beyond the end of Jim Crow.
Should America attempt to rectify those wrongs? How shall we grapple with the less-admirable parts of our history? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk consider the issue.
JOEL MATHIS: If you've already concluded that reparations are too expensive or too impossible, perhaps your sense of American citizenship is itself a cheap and flimsy thing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates never says precisely those words in his provocative essay on reparations for The Atlantic, but it's clear his mission isn't just to argue what this country owes its African-American citizens — it's also to get us to reconsider our own American citizenship, and how we express that identity.
Coates would rather we grapple with the fullness of our American heritage. Instead, we tend to celebrate our noble triumphs while disregarding or excusing the sometimes-craven flaws of our nation's founders.
"The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time," he writes. "The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism a la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson's genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings' body."
Coates never argues for a specific program of reparations; he'd leave the specifics to a committee appointed by Congress.
"Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can't be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed," he writes. "But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced."
There are many, many people who have commented on Coates's essay without bothering to read it, so quickly do we fall into our respective us-versus-them camps. So try something: Read Coates's essay. Wrestle with it honestly. You may not end up favoring reparations; it doesn't cost anything, though, to take the question seriously.
BEN BOYCHUK: Ta-Nehisi Coates' 15,000-word essay in The Atlantic is an important, thoughtful read. The history of systematic economic injustice against black Americans is impossible to ignore or deny — Coates' article makes certain of that.
But that still doesn't change the fundamental fact that reparations are indeed too expensive and politically impossible. His case is moving. But it's still not convincing.
Coates, of course, is not the first to make the case for reparations, and he won't be the last. Reparations for American slavery are not an abstract question. In the end, it would come down to dollars and cents. Coates isn't interested in pulling numbers out of the air — that would be for this panel he proposes to figure out.
But it isn't uncharted territory. A political and legal effort to make reparations a reality gained momentum in the late 1960s, and again in the 1990s and the early part of the last decade before falling to pieces after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. One estimate put the figure at $97 trillion — or $300,000 from every American not descended from slaves.
Once you begin carving people into interest groups, groups begin to get interested. And so the old questions arise of what do the living owe to the dead, and what would reparations mean for future generations of Americans?
Perhaps some injustices are simply too great to be repaired. Justice requires treating people as individuals, not as members of vast, undifferentiated groups. Reparations would turn that principle on its head.
"To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America's origins in a slavery economy is patriotism a la carte," Coates writes. Fair enough.
It's also fair to say America's Founders often articulated principles better than they lived them. Equality before the law has at times been more of an aspiration than a reality, and at times and under some circumstances it remains an aspiration.
But aspiring to equality under the law, however imperfectly executed, is far better — and considerably more just — than a system of racial division and distribution that reparations would require.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.