Race in the U.S.: Let's Confront the Monster in the Closet

Race in the U.S.: Let's Confront the Monster in the Closet

A writer for The Atlantic wants an official accounting of the cost of slavery and the years of racial oppression that followed. His critics say there’s nothing left to uncover but really don’t want us to look.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates believes there’s a monster hiding in the United States’ national closet, and he thinks it would be a good idea to open the door and check. The national correspondent for The Atlantic, Coates has a legion of critics, many mocking him for worrying about something that, they say, doesn’t even exist. 

There’s nothing at all in the closet, they maintain, while strenuously insisting that whatever we do, we absolutely, positively, should not open that door. 

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Coates is the author of a much-discussed cover story in the magazine this month titled “The Case for Reparations.” One suspects the title of the essay was meant to generate exactly the reaction it has – anger among some, soul-searching among others, and outright curiosity among a great many more. The Atlantic is in the business of selling magazines, after all. 

The term “reparations,” to be clear, is generally used to refer to some sort of payment to make African Americans whole for hundreds of years of government-sanctioned mistreatment, from the outright subjugation of slavery, to the persistence into living memory of laws that prevented blacks from taking advantage of many of the opportunities available to white citizens. 

The use of the term suggests that what we’re talking about here is a question of economics or, to be more precise, accounting – that Coates wants to add up the damage done to American blacks over the centuries and put a price tag on it. 

The title of the essay, though, is slightly misleading. Dollar signs are notably scarce in the essay, and Coates admits that actually repaying the debt may be impossible. “[W]e may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans,” he writes. “But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion - and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper - America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.” 

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Calling the essay the “case” for reparation is equally misleading. Coates produces plenty of facts and figures that would be used to argue the case for reparations, his role though, is less that of the prosecuting attorney than that of the Grand Jury. He’s merely presenting enough evidence to make it clear that there ought to be a trial. 

The “trial,” in this case, would be a study conducted by a congressionally appointed committee under the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, a bill that has been submitted by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in every Congress for the past 25 years, but has never been brought to the floor. 

The purpose of the bill is “to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”

The Commission would have no authority beyond the ability to compel testimony and gather information, and would be authorized to spend $8 million - a sum utterly trivial in the grand scheme of the U.S. budget. Its conclusions would not have the force of law, and could not require the U.S. government to take any action whatsoever.

Related: The Biggest Racial Problem No One Talks About 

This brings us to the monster in the closet. Coates believes that the United States, as a people, has never been fully honest with itself about the extent to which black Americans were subjected to institutionalized discrimination. Further, to the extent that we have acknowledged discrimination, the U.S., as a country, has never made an honest effort to assess what it cost the country’s black citizens. 

That’s what we’ve locked away in the closet, he argues, and the Conyers committee’s charge would be to open the door and find a way for the United States, as a people, to kill the monster. It’s that effort itself, Coates writes, done under the imprimatur of the federal government itself, which would be the true act of making reparations.

“Reparations - by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences - is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” he writes. 

“What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt. 

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“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices - more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.” 

Coates call for an accounting has been a magnet for criticism. Some thoughtful, some not so much. 

Writing for The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway criticizes Coates’ piece for “sweeping generalizations, laughable straw men, claims that were both major and unsubstantiated, and numerous holes” while, quite literally, failing to identify any of these specific problems. 

Related: Where Mandela Succeeded, Obama Has Failed 

Others, including prominent African-American scholars such as Columbia Professor John McWhorter, call the idea unnecessarily backwards looking. 

“The writing is resonant, but must America 'see itself' so squarely in this particular regard?” McWhorter writes in The Daily Beast. “Why, exactly, must history, in this instance, be stage-managed so closely? It would seem that what black America needs is not for white and other people to 'understand' us or our past, but for us to be assisted in making our future brighter than our present, secure in 'understanding' ourselves, thank you very much.” 

McWhorter doesn’t want us to look in the closet not because he thinks Coates is wrong about what we’ll find, but because he doesn’t think it will do any good. What if we do come to some national recognition of the enormity of the wrong done to black Americans? 

“Imagine: ‘Okay. The acknowledgment has been expressed. I accept it, and now, finally we can move on,’” he writes. “I just can’t see it. More likely it would be, ‘They had better not think they can just say sorry and be done with it.’ One imagines the tweets: ‘400 years and it’s all over with a Conversation? #ItsNotOver.’” 

Still others offer vague warnings of what might happen if we look too deeply into the closet and don’t like what we see. 

Related: Obama Warns of Complacency 50 Years After March

“There are still, after all, an awful lot of white people,” Kevin D. Williamson writes, somewhat ominously, in The National Review, “and though many of them might be inclined to make amends under some sort of racial truce following the process Mr. Coates imagines, many of them might simply be inclined to prevail.” 

Williamson seems to represent, if not the largest, then at least the loudest segment of Coates’ critics – those arguing that looking back at our history in this way is not only pointless, but also dangerous. 

“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,” he writes. 

Well, fine. Maybe the closet is empty – perhaps we have truly come to terms with the legacy of slavery and oppression, and the only people owed anything for it are dead. But there are many people in the country who aren’t convinced that’s true, and $8 million seems a small price to pay for establishing that as an accepted fact.

Coates’ critics can claim that there’s nothing in the closet, and that he’s foolish to warn us that there is. But they risk credibility by making that claim at the same time that they stand, arms-crossed, in front of the closet door, refusing to let anyone look inside. 

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