And Liberty and Justice for All
It is the first week of July and once again time to congratulate ourselves on our love of freedom, on our democracy and dedication to equality. Reminding ourselves of our wealth and power, our preeminent position in the world, we can fill all our hearts with genuine satisfaction.
It is also a good time to reread Ta-Nehisi Coates' article in the Atlantic Magazine of June 2014, "A Case for Reparations." (You can easily find it on the Internet.) By telling the stories of a few African-Americans who succeeded in buying and holding on to their houses in spite of being all their lives exposed to fraud and robbery by whites, Coates reminds us that American dedication to liberty and equality has some large exceptions. It only very intermittently applies to African Americans.
Coates stresses the pain caused African-Americans, especially young ones, when they themselves are insulted and denigrated or when they see others treated without respect. It is extremely difficult to grow up with a healthy sense of your own capabilities and merit, if you find yourself, your family, your friends consistently treated shabbily and the society as a whole refusing to acknowledge that.
This psychological damage of racism reminds those of us whites who are trying genuinely not to participate or support anti-black racism, that the damages will continue to be done regardless of our resistance to our own racism. As long as American society accepts the denigration of African-Americans by some of its members and by its government, the best and most well-meaning efforts of some of us will not be enough to achieve genuine justice and equality.
You may point to the passage of civil rights legislation, you may point to a black president, but the second class status of African-Americans has not changed. If you have any doubt about that, read the stories told by Coates.
If you have any doubt consider the consistent denial by white people that there is any problem for African-Americans, which is not of their own making. The diagnoses change over time: African-Americans suffer because they do not manage to form families in the same way as white middle-class Americans. They do not do well in school. They get involved with drugs. Black Americans are disproportionately imprisoned or under the supervision of the parole system. None of that, many whites insist, is our fault.
In his article, Coates documents impressively how housing segregation is the result of government regulations of the home mortgage market and the work of white real estate speculators. White home buyers cooperate, for instance, by buying repossessed houses cheap in this process of segregating where people live by race. Lanie Guinier offers example after example of municipalities, counties and states manipulating the rules governing elections so as to make quite sure that black voters will never elect a black representative. Amy Goffman and Michelle Alexander demonstrate how the criminal justice system is set up to catch and absorb young black men, often when they are barely in their teens. But whites keep denying their complicity. What else do lawsuits over affirmative action say but "the second-class status of African-Americans is not my responsibility. I have nothing to do with that."
But we should know better.
To confront that consistent denial, Coates asks for reparations. By that he does not primarily mean that someone, most likely the government, should pay money to African-Americans, or support them in buying houses, or help them get a college education, or in other ways distribute money to them they have not earned by working. Instead the demand for reparations is intended primarily as an opportunity for all Americans to reconsider the history of African-Americans on this continent from their first arrival in 1609 to today. Asking for reparations is asking for white people to consider seriously whether they are in fact as innocent as they claim to be of the second-rate status of African-Americans.
Next year, on 4 July, we could perhaps dedicate the day to considering seriously whether white people, who deny that the condition of African-Americans has anything to do with them, are speaking the truth or are not rather implicitly admitting their guilt by protesting their innocence too much.
It is high time that we reconsider what it means to be generally dedicated to equality and what we need to do if we are to take equality really seriously.