“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
Ever since Ta-Nehisi Coates reopened the debate over reparations this past May, with an article in The Atlantic, Americans are re-assessing this “moral debt” owed to a whole people. The case for reparations is once again dogging those least disposed to doing anything about it, and re-awakening hopes something might yet be done for those of all colors who long for it.
Making America whole redounds to the benefit of us all. It does no good to have so many black Americans who are yet shut off from equal opportunity—in a 21st Century where culturally, so many of us would not seek intentionally to deny American citizens equal opportunity. It must be equal opportunity that is real and not theoretical in the rarified air of law and the courts.
Too often, white American’s, and even white progressives’ focus is on what is easy; righting the wrongs of Jim Crow segregation and overt racism. While laudable, Coates effectively argues the point that economic outcomes between the races yield startling divergent results. And it is not due to any fundamental inferiority among blacks in natural aptitude or unwillingness to work in a merit-based system for success.
For example, Coates cites a Pew Research Study that notes that white households are worth 20 times what black households are worth. While 15 percent of whites show a negative wealth, a full third of black households do. Black Americans have no margin to survive medical emergencies Obamacare or no Obamacare, divorce, the loss of a job depended upon and more.
Most disquieting is that even when African-Americans earn $100,000 a year, persistent racial segregation in housing policy puts them in neighborhoods comparable with white families earning $30,000 a year. Still another study shows that black Americans are economically relative to whites where they were in 1970. That is 44 years ago.
Coates wants us to know that much of this is not overt racism anymore but the shackles of so much ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice that in fact does remain in our society no matter how many whites protest to the contrary.
It is a commonplace outcome that black unemployment will be double that of whites no matter what the state of the economy. And the propensity for six to seven times as many blacks as whites per capita occupying our prisons, and the concentration of the drug war in economically compromised black and Latino neighborhoods ensure that a majority of black men will have had a prison experience by the time they reach adulthood.
When it is considered that blacks even with no criminal record whatsoever obtain employment at the very same rate as whites do as criminals, we begin to perceive the wealth divide that continues to cut blacks off at the knees. Add to that long-held, culturally imbedded perceptions, racial stereotypes, and quietly held but ever-present prejudice and we arrive at the problem.
Coates in his most poetic yet chilling truth-telling makes this argument:
“We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”
It indeed is difficult to imagine a United States where so elementally, white supremacy does not reign supreme. That has not happened yet. As a historian who makes the argument that white supremacy is the father of slavery, I can personally attest to the truth of what Mr. Coates says so well.
I’ve seen it when speaking to groups about my book-length historical essay on our collective memory of the American Civil War, and what it should be. When I say it is recognizing the centrality of white supremacy mouths drop open, heads look to the floor and then raise themselves in anger, tune me out, only waiting for the chance to fling hostile question after hostile question, and polarizing comment after polarizing comment.
You simply have to see it– experience it– to fall into that deep, past time, where whites held black slaves; white sheeted men rode on horseback by night and terrorized black families. In 2014, they still do. Only white supremacy is carefully and artfully hidden by the fact that the majority of Americans-still white, do not see what is so clear to everyone else, save minority people of color, and a relative few whites who stand with and for a common humanity, with its required and attendant social justice.
And those white supremacists in fact or in attitude who do see, push back with illogic and hatred.
Want to guarantee a book on the Civil War will not sell? Make this kind of argument. That observation’s value to me now, has inherent value, in that we have a white supremacy problem—not a black laziness problem, that begs for resolution. This must be hit square on, at the very same moment we explore reparations for so much past abuse and injustice.
The distinguished Michigan Congressman John Conyers offers his H.R. 40 bill every single congressional session and it never comes up for a vote—ever. What is it? Merely a bill to study the economic costs imposed on black Americans by our white supremacist past and present. Conyers and Coates both argue with impeccable logic that we study the weather, the economy, social matters of all kinds, and use them to set policy.
Why not do so here? Well, by now the reader must suddenly know that we are back to white supremacy again and white 21st Century fears that they will be bankrupted and displaced by reparations. Nothing could be further from the truth. But fear is the handmaiden of racial bigotry and so much that is evil in our land.
Let’s make a blunt, straight-up argument for our fearful white brethren here. You hear so much about the injustice to whites done by blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native-Americans who disproportionately depend upon public assistance, to the point it threatens their merit based success economically, and steals wealth that is theirs. Stunningly, they have a good argument here, but they pursue law enforcement, economic, and housing policies that actually promote and sustain the status quo ante.
Struggles for Justice supports the proposition that changing the outcomes that diverge so substantially between whites and people of color means closing the wealth gap Coates so effectively presents in his Atlantic magazine piece. As it is, the wealth gap between middle-class white Americans, and the top five percent or so, are widening dangerously.
Closing that gap is NOT an absolute communistic form of equality, but redressing the most discreet economic injustice, while pursing aims that actually do permit the overwhelming majority of people of color to obtain the success that has been their birthright and been denied them for so long.
When people have a real and not a theoretical opportunity to better themselves, they will. And those who can do so will not need the public assistance conservatives complain of so loudly and to no effective purpose, other than to highlight the white supremacist basis for our society throughout all of American history.
Right from that moment when whites set their feet in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 they went to a policy of extermination of the native peoples on this continent. As early as 1619, they began enslaving blacks. And in Philadelphia, the basis for white supremacy was already set firmly in place as we trumpeted our independence from Great Britain and heard for the first time, the inspiring words of Thomas Jefferson.
While in some cases reparations must be the writing of a check to those dispossessed, and legally both exploited and oppressed; policy that permits hard working Americans to advance themselves must be developed and implemented. It must somehow fatally undermine such long-held white supremacist assumptions we’ve seen throughout American history.
The case for black reparations? Consider it fully made.
Thomas Martin Saturday
for Struggles for Justice
“Speaking for the Voiceless, Protecting the Vulnerable”