The crime with which reparations activists charge the country implicates more than just a few towns or corporations. The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.
John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. 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. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
This essay has been getting a lot of buzz in the weeks before its publication, and now that it’s here I have to say that it’s not very good. Coates tries, I think, to do more than can be done even in the considerable space available to him. Much of the essay is devoted to establishing the (incontrovertible and frankly horrifying) fact that the consequences of slavery are active and pernicious today. We cannot be reminded too strongly of this. Nor can we be reminded too strongly that America simply has not reckoned with this ongoing tragedy.
But that is not all that Coates wants to do. Beyond displaying to us the consequences of our shameful history, he wants to say, as he does in the passage quoted above, that debating the Conyers bill is the way to deal with this manifest injustice. Or is that sufficient? Note that he goes from saying that the public debate is what really matters to saying that the payment of reparations is what really matters. But what does he mean by the payment of reparations? Earlier in the essay he writes, “Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.” But what would count as such “full acceptance”? Sometimes Coates seems to have something quite specific in mind, other times not so much.
(As for me, I would love to see reparations paid — by me, among others — if I could see some way to figure out who would get them, which is to say, who would not get them. The category of “black Americans” is a notoriously indefinable one, and it’s hard to see how Native Americans could be excluded from such attempts to rectify past injustices. And maybe others.)
Coates’s essay seems torn between two tasks: first, trying to evoke for his readers the brutal history, and for many black people the brutal present, that raises the whole question of how things could be even to some small degree made better; and second, making a case for one specific way to go about the process of rectification. The second task gets short shrift, and I think that weakens the essay considerably. I was disappointed by it.