On the case for reparations—and the National Review's response

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William F. Buckleys National Review reponds to the discussion about discussing reparations
  • Rober A. Reeder
  • William F. Buckley's National Review reponds to the discussion about discussing reparations.
What's so interesting about "The Case for Reparations," the cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June Atlantic, is how easily that case is made. Coates points out that everything awful (short of systematic genocide) that can be done by one people to another was done by white Americans to the blacks brought in chains to serve them. The blacks were bought, sold, whipped, executed, worked like beasts, and granted no rights whatsoever, not even to the company of their families. Once nominally freed from bondage, they lived harrowingly circumscribed lives (and not only in the deep south), victims of laws and customs concocted to confine, neuter, and exploit them. Focusing on Chicago as a case study, Coates recalls how blacks here were redlined out of mortgages—the FHA refused to insure them—and forced to buy their homes on contract. This meant forgoing equity, and dealing with panic-peddling sellers who bought low, sold high, and could take a home back if the buyer missed a single payment.

When I came to Chicago in 1970 one of the big ongoing local stories concerned the legal struggle against those sellers by the Contract Buyers League, which Coates tells us was made up of south-side and west-side blacks "all of whom had been locked into the same system of predation." When they lost in court in 1976, Coates writes, the jury foreman said he hoped the verdict would end "the mess Earl Warren made with Brown v. Board of Education and all that nonsense."

The first African slaves in America arrived in Jamestown in 1619. If that's ancient history, 2012 isn't, that being the year Wells Fargo paid $175 million to settle a suit alleging the bank was targeting blacks for predatory home loans. Slavery, says the intro to Coates's story, is a "deep wound that has never been healed or fully atoned for," that rather "has been deepened by years of discrimination, segregation, and racist housing policies that persist to this day." Coates doesn't go so far as to say who should pay whom, and how much. He wants America to confront its past. He wants a soul-searching conversation.

He won't get an argument from me. I wrote a column in 2002 arguing that the best case for reparations wouldn't limit itself to slavery. I wrote, "Jim Crow was enabled by presidents and lawmakers from all parts of the country. It was enabled by honored statesmen and generals, by captains of industry, by leading sportsmen, religious leaders, and authors, and by many of the most distinguished voices in journalism." This isn't ancient history: millions of Americans on both sides of the Jim Crow divide are still alive.

One of journalism's distinguished voices belonged to William Buckley, mourned at his death in 2008 as a man so good at heart and such a pleasure to be around that it hardly mattered that he'd been as eloquent a defender of Jim Crow as it ever enjoyed. Oh, Jim Crow might often have struck him as a little crude and heavy-headed, but far more troubling to Buckley than Jim Crow were the attempts being made to put a stop to it.

As I noted when he died, here's what his National Review had had to say about the Birmingham bombing of 1963:

"Let us gently say the fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur—of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro . . .

"And let it be said, that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court's manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice."

And about the 1964 murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney in Mississippi, when a federal grand jury indicted some local police officers:

"It is everyone's impression, including ours, that some, at least, of the Neshoba police are a crummy lot. But we pause for reflection. Are 'violation of the Civil Rights Act' and the even more tenuous 'conspiracy to violate' going to become a catch-all charge by which the Federal Government can get its hands on nearly any citizen?"

After reading Coates's argument for reparations, I decided the thing to do was to read an intelligent critique of it that went beyond duh, it'll never happen. So I turned to Buckley's National Review, where the response by Kevin Williamson did not disappoint me.

Williamson calls Coates's argument for reparations "intelligent and sometimes moving" but unpersuasive, which, since duh, it'll never happen, I guess it is. But he judges Coates’s piece not simply by the seat of his pants but by the values of the National Review. For instance, Coates wrote that New Deal reforms did southern blacks no favors because they were written to mollify the segregated south; that's why social security and unemployment insurance excluded farm workers and domestics. Williamson finds this lesson in that: "Blacks probably should extend [their] skepticism, or even transfer it, to the welfare state." He says Coates needs to consider the possibility "that programs run [today] for the theoretical benefit of the poor, who are disproportionately black, are in fact run for the benefit of the largely white upper-middle-class bureaucrats who are employed by them."

One of the strengths of Coates's piece is the way in which he finds the general in the particular: he introduces us to a Clyde Ross, born in 1923 to a Mississippi couple who owned and farmed 40 acres until state authorities, on a pretext, seized their land, animals, and buggy, reducing them to sharecroppers. Clyde Ross fought in World War II, settled in Chicago, and wound up buying a house on contract for $27,500 that the seller was flipping after buying it six months earlier for $12,000. Ross worked three jobs to keep up the payments, his wife worked another, and they still had to move their kids to a cheaper school.

Ross's troubles don't distract Williamson from a point of principle. "Treating people as individuals makes reparations morally and intellectually impossible . . . " he declares. "Some blacks are born into college-educated, well-off households, and some whites are born to heroin-addicted single mothers, and even the totality of racial crimes throughout American history does not mean that one of these things matters and one does not."

Of course a heroin-addicted, single, white mother matters, though I'm not sure I see how her mattering reduces the point Coates was trying to make. Williamson sees that clearly. "Once that fact is acknowledged, then the case for reparations is only moral primitivism," he continues, using verbal explosions to pry open the breach he thinks he's made in Coates's case: "My interests are inextricably linked to my own kin group and directly rivalrous with yours, i.e., the very racism that this program is in theory intended to redress."

Coates seems to think whites can handle the truth and it's high time they tried. Williamson doesn't want to rock the boat any more than Buckley did back in the 60s, when black children were getting murdered and Buckley was blaming Washington and the victims.

Williamson concludes:

"Mr. Coates is largely correct about the past and is to a degree correct about the present. About the future, he is catastrophically wrong. The political interests of African-Americans, like those of other Americans, are best served by equality under the law. The economic interests of African-Americans, like those of other Americans, are best served by a dynamic and growing economy, preferably one in which the labor force is liberated from the dysfunctional, antique Prussian model of education that contributes so much to black poverty. [Earlier, he accused the teachers' unions of "occasionally hysterical opposition" to school reform.] The people to whom reparations were owed are long dead; our duty is to the living, and to generations yet to come, and their interests are best served by liberty and prosperity, not by moral theater."

As Williamson knows perfectly well, they're not "long dead." (Even Clyde Ross is still alive.) Williamson's final riposte to Coates's argument is to garble it as he heads out the door sprinkling the patriotic confetti of duty, liberty, and prosperity. But it's a counterargument worth reading, and the next response might be even better. Coates hungers for some formal clearing of the air after 400 years of racism, and that's not going to happen, but the rest of us can do our bit, read each other, debate, discuss.

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