The Reason Why ‘Reparations to Blacks’ Is a Stupid Idea

Eric Zuesse

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic is a prominent proponent of ‘reparations,’ which he doesn’t define, but which clearly entails monies to be paid by some majority-ethnicity to some minority-ethnicity that the given majority have historically victimized by some form of racism.

In a January 19th article, Coates headlined there, “Why, Precisely, Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?” That was a popular article, with 65,000 postings to facebook. It opened:

“Last week Bernie Sanders was asked whether he was in favor of ‘reparations for slavery.’ It is worth considering Sanders’s response in full:

No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.

So I think what we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino.

… The Vermont senator’s political imagination is active against plutocracy, but why is it so limited against white supremacy?”

For Coates, to be against ‘reparations’ is evidently to be a ‘white supremacist,’ or else in favor of, or at least not against, ‘white supremacy.’

Coates’s case for ‘reparations’ was presented in the June 2014 magazine, and titled “The Case for Reparations.” It was 16,000 words, and it had 249,000 postings to facebook; so, it was an article that disproves stupid editors’ prejudice against long articles – the idea that the public don’t respond favorably to them, or that they respond less favorably to long than to short articles. This article was enormously successful, from a commercial standpoint, and it has considerably boosted its author’s reputation. 

Almost all of its 16,000 words itemized the repulsive history of anti-Black racism in this country, and the consequences that this racism has had in starkly reducing the typical quality-of-life that black people in America experience today as compared to the quality-of-life of ‘white’ people, though Coates doesn’t say whether light-skinned Hispanics should also be in the category of people to be paying ‘reparations’ to ‘Blacks.’ 

Besides providing this centuries-long laundry-list of anti-Black bigotry and its results, there is no case presented for ‘reparations.’ The closest Coates comes to presenting a ‘case’ is his saying that Germany paid reparations to Jews, so it can be done. But those were real and quantifiable reparations, to people who had been robbed and injured etc., by German taxpayers, some of whom had voted for Hitler, but some of whom hadn’t, and also some of whom were the children of Hitler-voters, but some of whom weren’t. In a collective sense, then, this did constitute reparations: it was restitution to the victims by their victimizers and their first-generation descendants. I have now defined “reparations,” which Coates failed to do. But should all of those Germans be obliged to pay from their taxes to restitute those specific Jews, as was done? Should only Hitler-voters and maybe their children have been obliged to do that, or should all of the German population in, say, the decades immediately after the War, have shared in that obligation, as “Germans” to those specific “Jews”? These were concerns that were in every intelligent German’s mind when it was happening, but, ultimately, the decision was made, collectively, by the German nation, that their country had indeed, perpetrated a massive crime, and that, to the extent its victims after the war could be identified and their suffering and losses be quantified, this restitution should be paid as being a national obligation to those survivors and to their immediate heirs. Individuals could be located, and they were paid – after the count of their individual loss was estimated. This is “reparations”: it is restitution, by the victimizer, to his victim, but it requires a collective and democratic decision to be made, and specific victims identified, and their individual losses estimated. 

What Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to as ‘reparations’ is nothing of the sort. The slavery that had been experienced by some of the ancestors of some of today’s Blacks in America, by the ancestors of some of today’s Whites in America, cannot be restituted to those slaves, and to their first-generation children, because they’re all long-since dead. So, too, the slave-traders, and the slave-buyers, are dead and gone. Reparations are not possible. Thus, there likewise is no possibility for a collective and democratic decision to be made as to which individuals will pay what, and which individuals will receive what, as “reparation” for what.

Should Barack Obama receive ‘reparations’? Should ‘Whites’ pay them? How white? How black? And should Blacks who descended from slaves in other countries be on the receiving end of America’s ‘reparations’? Should Whites who descended from people who never owned nor sold slaves, and who both themselves and their ancestors were never bigots against any group, be on the paying end? Sanders said, “It would be very divisive.” He’s politic enough not to have said, “It would be extremely stupid,” but I am not politic, I’m an honest journalist, and therefore I can say it, because it would, indeed, be true, and because there are obviously lots of people who don’t know that it’s true, and who – for the sake of American democracy – need to know that it’s true. What Sanders said is true.

If some direct slave-descendants, and some direct slave-master descendants, can be identified who are living today, then there is no clear moral obligation between them for whom their ancestors were, because those are distant ancestors, not parents nor anyone whom today’s descendants ever even so much as met. The debt was never paid, and it will never be paid, because both the victimizer and his/her victim are long-since dead-and-gone. To presume otherwise is stupid. But Ta-Nehisi Coates presumes it. And that is his ‘case.’ And 249,000 of its readers passed it along via facebook. And still another 65,000 posted the version of it that called Bernie Sanders a ‘white supremacist’ for rejecting Coates’s – and their – stupidity. Democratic voters need to know and understand the reality on this matter.

The present article is only one-fifteenth as long as Coates’s “Case” was, but I’ll be lucky if it receives even one-thousandth as many facebook postings. Truth is a more important value than success, even if it leads to failure, as it often does. The markets for stupidity and deceit tend to be far larger and more lucrative.

There are some injustices in this world that simply must be accepted, in order to be able to take on the real challenges of governance in a democracy. Sanders knows that, even if some members of his audiences do not.


Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of  CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.