A quick comment on the reparations issue

A quick comment on the reparations issue May 25, 2014

OK, so everyone’s talking about Ta-Nehesi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.”  And it’s fun to ridicule the concept.  I have, so far as we’ve figured out, one ancestor, a great-great grandmother, from the South, and more likely to have been dirt-poor than a slave-owner (a census record appears which may belong to her, in which she is being raised by a widowed mother, with both mother and 13-year-old daughter working in the cotton mill in 1880).  All other ancestors settled in the West or North.

But it’s kind of missing the point.  Remember the Pigford settlement?  Corrupt as hell, but the basic concept was that the government had treated black farmers unjustly, and had the legal obligation to remedy this — the problem was simply that they paid out settlement funds to anyone who staked a claim, without requiring proof of any kind.  But the idea is that the government as a corporate entity has liability, not just the specific individuals in government at the time.

True, Coates uses the loaded word “reparations,” and there’s never been any history of the U.S. government being responsible for permitting its citizens to act in ways which we now judge to be unjust.  Slavery is age-old (I’m reading The Anguish of the Jews — look for a summary of this later — and one of the earliest impediments they faced is that they were not permitted to own Christian slaves in the late Roman Empire/early Middle Ages, which meant that they were forced out of farming, because slaveowning was simply a part of being a farmer), and it doesn’t make sense for us, 150 years later, to hold the U.S. government responsible for not banning it (all the more so since, pre-war, the federal government simply didn’t have the power to do so).  More recently, the defrauding of sharecroppers by plantation owners was again not something that the government explicitly endorsed.

We also, of course, don’t have any precendent, in the U.S. or elsewhere, for paying descendants, many generations removed, for injustices in the past, and all the more so when those descendants can’t be identified except via a racial “one-drop rule.”

But Coates does point to some more recent instances in which the government was directly involved in discrimination against blacks which had a long-lasting effect.  The most specific of these is the “red-lining” of the FHA that made it impossible for blacks to get  home loans on the same terms as whites, which ultimately played a significant role in the creation of the black ghettoes in Northern cities.  Would existing legal principles (in the same manner as in the Pigford settlement) mean that those blacks, presumably now elderly, who were denied FHA loans (or, indirectly, were obliged to purchase their home on a “contract”/rent-to-own basis with unfavorable terms, and who, as a rule, lost the house upon a single missed payment), would have a case against the government?  Not against individual Americans, of course, but against the government?

That’s a much more productive discussion than throwing around calls for “reparations.”

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