NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I cant help but think of Maya Angelou's landmark book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' essay in The Atlantic: The Case for Reparations . Angelou died this week at her home in North Carolina at age 86. The reparations article, published last week, has generated a considerable amount of discussion.
In Caged Bird , many white readers were introduced to the Jim Crow south for the first time. While White-America was entering the era of The Great Society, even affluent blacks in the South feared lynchings, the Klan, and race riots. Maya (the semi-autobiographical character in the book) can't get her tooth filled by a white dentist, even though her grandmother loaned the same man money during the depression. There are moments of race-solidarity, like when Joe Lewis wins the heavyweight boxing title, but the constant weight of oppression is the norm. Modern-day blacks know this feeling -- real or perceived. Whites do not.
I remember the first time I read Caged Bird that I was taken aback at how cruel the black characters in the book were towards each other. Maya suffers a brutal rape at a young age by a man her mother trusted. Mayas' parents abandon her and her brother with relatives they barely know. Her father retrieves her years later and rips her from a stable life to move her to an urban St. Louis ghetto. He mistreats his children during bouts of drinking. He allows his girlfriend to throw his teenage daughter into the streets. Maya finds healing and her voice through a chance encounter. The lesson is unmistakable: most others wont be so lucky; their lives will turn out differently.
The Case for Reparations is very well-researched and thought-provoking. It is still unconvincing in its final argument.
It details the contract-loan mortgage schemes of the 1920 that extended into the post-World War II era. Red-lining, restrictive zoning, and neighborhood associations were used by banks, landlords, and neighbors to deny many blacks the opportunity of home ownership. The claim is that white families built wealth while blacks were being fleeced. The government was complacent with housing policies that favored white families and were blind to abuses. Government racism is the strongest case for reparations, and Coates researched the GI Bill, Social Security and Medicare, all which he argues were tilted towards whites over blacks.
But the case for reparations falls apart in two areas. First, there's no discussion, despite a very long article, of personal responsibility. While some of Americas race gap is undoubtedly the result of racism and the country's past, some of it is also the result of self-destructive individual choices. (Consider the landmark New York Times expose of young Dasani of New York City . It tells the story of Dasani's teacher, an African-American woman who chose to work in inner-city schools. Her mother told her not get her teaching degree. Getting a college education would make her too white and would separate her from her cultural roots.) Vice and non-conformity, which is not universal but is highly prevalent, have a tremendous impact on individual life-outcomes. Second, reparations still has the problem of being extra-legal. If you are wronged by someone, you'd press your case in court. But the actual proving of damages from slave labor that ended generations ago is impossible, and assessing those damages to U.S. taxpayers is twisted. Should my family, immigrants from Ireland and Italy who also faced discrimination when they arrived here, have to fund reparations to a family from Nigeria, who may have immigrated to the U.S. 100 years after slavery ended to build a better life here?
Ultimately Coates poisons the well that hes trying to draw water from. He suggests that one reason America is reluctant to even consider reparations is that the amount that the claimed may be beyond the nation's ability to pay. The argument is that all of our nation's wealth is built on enslaved Negroes picking cotton in the south. It feathered the beds of the railroad barons, profited bankers and financiers, was backed by our insurance and manufacturing industries, and created a stream of wealth that flowed to white, northern Americans and then across the Atlantic to our benefactors in Europe. It's a narrative that's not true. American ingenuity and economic advancement was also fueled by millions of post-slavery newcomers from many races. Marconi? Einstein? Jobs? They do not owe the debt of slavery. To hear an argument that our nation should make reparations and it still might not be enough to square race-relations turns a longshot argument into an absurdity.
Image: Poet Maya Angelou reads at the Inauguration of President Bill Clinton in on Jan. 20, 1993, in Washington, D.C. REUTERS via wsau.com