“So Foundational to the Country”

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

The consequences of 250 years of enslavement, of war upon black families and black people, were profound. Like homeownership today, slave ownership was aspirational, attracting not just those who owned slaves but those who wished to. Much as homeowners today might discuss the addition of a patio or the painting of a living room, slaveholders traded tips on the best methods for breeding workers, exacting labor, and doling out punishment. Just as a homeowner today might subscribe to a magazine like This Old House, slaveholders had journals such as De Bow’s Review, which recommended the best practices for wringing profits from slaves. By the dawn of the Civil War, the enslavement of black America was thought to be so foundational to the country that those who sought to end it were branded heretics worthy of death. Imagine what would happen if a president today came out in favor of taking all American homes from their owners: the reaction might well be violent.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic

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30 comments… add one
  • Tfsmith May 26, 2014 @ 16:53

    True; I also don’t know that May was the best edition for this, either. Minor matter of a national holiday of memorial and remembrance…

  • TF Smith May 25, 2014 @ 11:15

    I think the essay is great reading, but the title is terrible – “the case for reparations” implies an argument for judgment, and there is no legal precedent for national level class action on the basis of a protected class where the definitions are so vague. Putting aide the reality that basic politics is never going to entertain this concept of majority/minority debts, there may be a class of potential plaintiffs in terms of FHA decisions and the like, but that’s about it.

    Basically, there may be a moral argument for such, but the same case can be made for 50 percent of the general population, as well as Americans of indigenous ancestry, etc etc.

    Collective guilt is not a principle likely to find much support in the law or politics.


    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2014 @ 11:17

      Given how little attention is paid to reparations I agree that it is somewhat of a misleading title.

  • Julian May 25, 2014 @ 8:08

    I’ll walk into the lions’ den and say that Brendon’s caveats do have some traction: eg (1) do not punish the innocent; – so if someone is to be made culpable – given that you probably would argue that he has not identified anyone to be so designated – who are they or could they be and for what action has the culpability arisen. Can the descendants of the huge late 19th century migrations of Europeans to the US after slavery was formally abolished be held responsible – because none of them held slaves or lived and worked in a society where labour in various industries and services as well as on huge plantations was undertaken by enslaved Africans. Or are these descendants of Ellis Island era arrivals responsible too as it was the prosperous country built on slavery that attracted these migrants. Then too what of mort recent arrivals in a supposedly post racial era – including Hispanics moving northwards and the many Asians and subcontinental Indians – none of whom except for migrants from the Caribbean have any close link to Jim Crow or segregationist practices

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2014 @ 8:32

      There are a whole host of questions that would need to be addressed. I read Coates’s essay as a first step toward coming to terms with our collective past. In doing so, perhaps we can move beyond framing this in terms of punishment and culpability.

    • Woodrowfan May 25, 2014 @ 15:42

      true, but what if you came over in 1890 and got a job with a company that had made a lot of money because of slavery pre-1865. In a sense, your job was possible because of the wealth created by slaves.

      • Julian May 25, 2014 @ 17:06

        and that is a concept that becomes interesting as it links into current and live debate in the UK that Britain’s wealth and innovative entrepreneurship during the industrial revolution that led to its global influence was based upon exploitation of the people and resources of the British Empire and sustained by trafficking and exploiting slaves from the West Coast of Africa to and in the Caribbean and the American colonies – even including the dreamed of tourists’ and romantic novelists’ Britain of cottage gardens, floral dinner services and high tea – Coates may be aware of the scale and the complexities of these British debates

  • Julian May 25, 2014 @ 7:25

    Without sounding facetious one could say that “karmic” reparations have been already extracted from the US economy – the sub prime mortgage market which has imploded so spectacularly during the GFC is an updated version of the real estate scams described here, where real estate speculators again banked upon the profitability of poor and/or minority house owners not to be able to pay their mortgage, that money was loaned with the knowledge that there was a profit to be made when they defaulted

  • Jimmy Dick May 24, 2014 @ 6:18

    TNC gets this concept of a national discussion correct. When you wonder why a discussion is needed you come to our American History classes at the K-12 and college levels. There are students who are not taught what the cause of slavery was or how racism has been a constant theme in our history from the very beginning. There are large blocs of adults who complain when real American history is taught to their kids because they don’t want them exposed to what really happened. They prefer a sanitized version of history where the US did no wrong.

    Why is there an element of racism in the US? That answer should be explained easily in an American History survey course. Yet, the same people that whine about the Confederacy and Southern Heritage (TM) are the same people that scream bloody murder when you explain why slavery was developed in the US as it was. Fortunately, that group is dwindling as they pass away and Americans who have encountered American History in all its glory and agony replace them.

    The scary part is what is happening today as history is being pushed to the side on local, state, and national levels as STEM courses are given preference.

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2014 @ 6:26

      At some point during the next school year I am going to use TNC’s essay in my U.S. History classes. It offers a wonderful model for the persuasive essay and it integrates so much of what we explore re: slavery and race.

      • Jimmy Dick May 24, 2014 @ 8:38

        I think that is a great idea. I am putting together my class on American History to 1865 over the weekend and I think I’m going to install that as a reading to reinforce the theme of racism and how it is still part of America today. It is really too bad I can’t have them read the great monographs on this subject and others, but I can reference them and cull passages from them as well as chapters.

      • MSB May 25, 2014 @ 4:37

        Kevin, that’s a great idea. Not only would your students be introduced to one of the country’s best writers (I don’t know anyone who can combine precision of thought with beauty of expression to the same degree) but they would also see one of the best reasons to study American history: Ta-nehisi Coates persuasively argues that the past, especially with regard to race, continues to influence the present.

  • Brad May 24, 2014 @ 2:52

    I disagree that the bill was paid when slaves were freed. The only thing that was paid in blood was slaves actually becoming free people de facto but that does not make up for the treatment of black people in the centuries before.

    In any event, what TNC is primarily asking for at this point is a consideration of Rep. Conyers’ bill and a debate about this country’s past. It’s not really asking a lot. However, asking people to confront unpleasant facts is not always an easy matter.

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2014 @ 3:47

      In any event, what TNC is primarily asking for at this point is a consideration of Rep. Conyers’ bill and a debate about this country’s past.

      TNC is I think intentionally unclear about whether the goal is reparations or a debate about the history that he has absorbed over the past few years. I think it is more the latter. Coates puts the nail in the coffin in the naive interpretation of American Exceptionalism. Coates articulates powerfully the crucial point that there is no understanding of freedom and progress in this nation’s history without an understanding of slavery and race at its core.

    • Brendan Bossard May 24, 2014 @ 5:04

      I didn’t say that the bill was paid. I said that the ante-bellum bill was paid. Post-bellum, an argument for reparations can be made, because abuses continued. My concern is that I will have to pay reparations in some form or other simply because I am a white person, and that whatever reparations I pay–in whatever form–will be swallowed up in a white dwarf of a government program that does no good for anyone.

      • Kevin Levin May 24, 2014 @ 5:10

        My concern is that I will have to pay reparations in some form or other simply because I am a white person…

        I am not suggesting that I agree or disagree with reparations in the form of financial payment, but why must this be understood in terms of what is owed by white Americans. Is there any other way to frame this?

        • Brendan Bossard May 25, 2014 @ 9:45

          Kevin, I may be missing your point, but I see only three ways in which the discussion about reparations can be framed: (a) what individual white Americans owe to individual black Americans; (b) what white Americans as a group owe black Americans as a group; and (c) what the American government at all levels owes black Americans.

          I find the first approach the least objectionable, and the least likely to happen. The problem is that most of the actual perpetrators are dead. Although those still living could be punished in theory, in practice it would be very difficult, given the distance of time between now and the actual events. And who wants to convict a man who already has one foot in the grave? And punishing the heirs is legally, ethically, and morally problematic at best.

          The second approach I find the most objectionable, and moderately likely if the federal government does get down to doing something. It is always easier for the feds to lump people into groups than to work on a case-by-case basis. And although there are constitutional problems with treating one group differently from another, it can be done. I simply have a serious problem with lumping the innocent in with the guilty.

          The third option I find less objectionable than the second, but more objectionable than the first, because, again, it punishes both the innocent and the guilty. But it is the most likely course for reparations to take, because it would be politically the easiest.

          Sorry, my 21-month-old is calling me. I hope that answers at least a good measure of your question.

          • Kevin Levin May 25, 2014 @ 10:14

            Hi Brendan,

            If you go back and take a look at Coates’s essay what stands out is that while the title references reparations the content pretty much ignores it and even when it does it focuses on other instances. Coates is clearly interested in what he calls a “hearing” as outlined by Conyers’s HR 40. You are jumping ahead to the question of how any call for reparations must be framed, but again I wonder whether the kind of national discussion that Coates is hoping for may open up some other ways to see this controversial issue.

            • Brendan Bossard May 25, 2014 @ 16:12

              Kevin, I am with you and TNC regarding having an open and honest discussion about the subject. Have a good night!

  • Brendan Bossard May 23, 2014 @ 19:09

    Our nation paid reparations for the antebellum treatment of black people in full in both blood and treasure in the Civil War. When I consider the generations that never happened due to the death and maiming of so many young men, and the prosperity that did not happen because of the diversion of resources into that great sin sacrifice, and the advancement of the rights of black people that did occur that would not have without that sacrifice, I cannot bring myself to agree with anyone who feels that this nation owes reparations for the antebellum treatment of black people. It would render that sacrifice meaningless.

    Postbellum, TNC may have a point, with a few serious caveats: (1) do not punish the innocent; (2) have a limit to reparations clearly defined; and (3) make sure that the reparations paid, in whatever form, actually improve the quality of life for the payees, which will also benefit the nation as a whole.

    I am reminded of a story about my mother. She used to use a wooden spoon to spank us on occasion. One day my sister did something that warranted a pretty serious spanking. My mother became extremely angry. She fetched the spoon, but then realized that she was so angry that she might actually hurt my sister, so she broke the spoon on the counter and let my sister go.

    There is much reason to be angry; let us not cause more harm than good in our anger.

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2014 @ 3:50

      One of the main points I took away from TNC is that you can’t so easily distinguish between ante- and post-bellum United States.

      There is much reason to be angry; let us not cause more harm than good in our anger.

      I don’t get the sense that Coates is angry.

      • Brendan Bossard May 24, 2014 @ 5:00

        TNC and I disagree regarding ante- vs. post-bellum. But I also agree with you that he is not angry; I was speaking more about general principles that should be kept in mind if Congress ever gets around to a serious debate about reparations. There is a group of people who believe that all white people should pay reparations simply because they have benefitted from inheriting a position of power. That is a dangerous notion based on a covetous and angry stereotype that can gain a lot of power if we are not careful. That is what I was referring to.

  • Lyle Smith May 23, 2014 @ 18:22

    I’ll give TNC this: he definitely seems to understand why most white southerners would fight a disgustingly bloody civil war over such a disgusting way of life.

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2014 @ 3:51

      Yes, but he also shows the commitment to the maintenance of a black underclass in the far reaches of the North. That commitment, as I understand Coates, knows no regional boundary.

      • Lyle Smith May 24, 2014 @ 17:33

        You’re right, he understands the history. I’m not sure how well he understands the present or what should be done heading forward in time though.

        • Kevin Levin May 25, 2014 @ 1:41

          I’m not sure how well he understands the present or what should be done heading forward in time though.

          Well, who does? I certainly don’t.

        • John Betts Dec 31, 2014 @ 6:13

          When I first read Coates’ article months ago I rejected the idea of reparations. I still do. Yet, in re-reading the snippet posted above I appreciate more what he wrote about viewing slavery as an institution and its societal impact. Very thought-provoking and I’m saving this for when I teach on the subject.

  • Brad May 23, 2014 @ 11:12

    He’s talking about more than what he calls “hush money.” but by “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” What is needed, in his view (with which I agree), is a discussion of what has gone on and is still going on so that this country can come to account with its past. Mr. Coates calls it a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. He then offers the case of Germany paying reparations to the State of Israel for the Holocaust. He concludes by saying that we must start with the adoption John Conyers’ HR 40, which calls for “congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for ‘appropriate remedies,’ ” which will at least allow the conversation to get going. Unfortuntely, unless it breeds easy headlines like Treyvon Martin or Donald Sterling, people, in my view, are not willing to do nor take the time (we are a nation with a short attention span).

  • decklap May 23, 2014 @ 10:46

    I read TNC frequently and agree with him occasionally….Im not sure where he sees this ending. On the one hand he has said that he isn’t making an argument for direct payments, that he just seeks a more realistic conversation and ultimately recognition for how endemic white supremacy has been in the formation of America. Okay. I would support that as well, we ought to be brave enough to fully own our history, but at the same time I have the very strong sense that TNC isn’t just being critical of the depth or tone of our national conversation on race… we talk about it all the time yet it doesn’t strike him as sufficient. I don’t foresee an apology or truth commission or anything really assuaging his grievances in which case I wonder what the point is, and I wonder if he knows either.

  • James F. Epperson May 23, 2014 @ 3:31

    I have not finished the article—started it, got depressed, went on to other things. If by “reparations” he means direct payments to people, I think it is a Very Bad Idea. If he means “expansion of social services and justice to address wrongs of the past,” I’m all for it. If his point is simply to highlight the massive injustices done to American blacks over many years, then I think he has made a valiant effort.

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