The trouble with reparations isn’t what you think it is

Somehow, it’d been longer than I thought since Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic. I think when I first heard about the article, I was furious about the Left lumping me, along with all white males, in with wealthy white males as “privileged,” following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, despite my having been systematically excluded from the job market for, now, over eighteen years.[1] (The article was actually published in June 2014, while I was still working toward my Ph.D.)

But the demonization of white males has receded a bit and I finally felt able to read the article this morning. It is, as many others have said, a must-read, an account of how past discrimination reverberates in the present. And it also poses, without answering, the question of what form reparations should take. I am inclined toward the view, which Coates includes among possible responses, that true reparations are impossible. These crimes Coates recounts have robbed people of their entire lives: No amount of money, no investment in communities, no apologies can restore these. Many have died having lived their entire lives, cut short in far too many cases, with injustice.[2]

After compellingly arguing that the United States needs to be remade, Coates confines himself to advocating for a bill authored by John Conyers, Jr., “calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for ‘appropriate remedies’” which, at least as of the time of Coates’ writing, had never made it to the House of Representatives floor. I doubt it is just that, as Coates suggests, such a bill contradicts the U.S. self-image, because Coates himself makes a case that our entire system owes its existence and prosperity to discrimination against Blacks and to slavery. The issue of class, in Coates’ light, draws heavily upon on racial injustice. As a systems theorist, I understand this: The effects of this oppression, handicapping Blacks, enriching powerful whites, segregating communities—I think of Mon Valley, not very far from where I live, and really, nearly that entire area between Pennsylvania Route 51 and the Monongahela River, down to McKee’s Rocks and Stowe Township along the Ohio River, as well as much of the area along the Monongahela on the north side—will indeed have radiated out, permeating our entire social system. And I begin to comprehend how Coates is correct in understanding the need to remake the country[3] but see it actually as an underestimate of the magnitude of the problem.

Conyers’ bill is defeated even before he introduces it because of the power structures in our society, not just the country. Somehow—I don’t know how—we need to reach that and I cannot see how a traditional view of politics, relying on social activism,[4] can do it.

One of the things that Ta-Nehisi Coates points to early in “The Case for Reparations” is that slavery was driven by a perceived need for cheap labor.[5] This continues in the present: Ultimately, the rich, always seeking a “better [for themselves] deal,” rely on cheap labor, properly understood as devalued humanity, particularized and essentialized as economic units of production, a transformation made possible by and enforced through power relationships and now enshrined as neoliberal ideology.

Neoliberals, such as Jeffrey Sachs,[6] argue that their policies reduce absolute poverty. The simple reality is that to the extent they do so, they do so at the expense of the relative poor in “developed” countries in part through so-called “off-shoring” of well-paying jobs by moving industries to poor-paying countries,[7] notably those countries with weak or non-existent labor and environmental protections. (You didn’t really think the rich would pay, did you?) And now we learn that these policies are underperforming even at alleviating absolute poverty.[8] The ideology fails because it does not address a fundamental problem of economic power.

We can overlay that with race: When we speak of southeast Asia, India, or Africa, we are not largely talking of whites. When we speak of absolute poverty, we are not largely talking about whites. But to speak only of race is to elide the motivation of class.

The difficulty with Coates’ thesis is not that it is, in itself, wrong. It is that that thesis is one part of a larger picture. While Simone de Beauvoir observed that “othering” by some difference, whether by gender or race or any other condition, seems to be intrinsic to the human condition,[9] Scott Sernau saw race, class, and gender as forming a Gordian knot: These strands cannot be separated from each other.[10] Along similar lines, Audre Lorde was searing in her critique of straight white women’s hegemony in feminism,[11] even in what should have been feminism’s third wave—the wave that was supposed to recognize intersectionality. Finally, moving from the theoretical to the practical, the failure of land reform in South Africa now threatens new strife as Blacks often remain deprived of opportunity and remain in dire poverty while whites retain the best land and live in comfort.[12]

Coates can try, but he can never untangle the Gordian knot. Even seeking to do so is to privilege one difference over all the others even as the problem is not that there is one subaltern group, but rather that there are confounding subaltern identities, all of which elites use to pit the rest of us against each other. This is a strategy the elites have employed for centuries if not millennia to preserve their own privileges and positions relative to the rest of all of us.[13]

Coates did yeoman work in making his case. I encourage you to read it. But the rest of us have stories as well. If we were to try peace and reconciliation committees in Western society, we would surely ultimately be forced to a single conclusion: Power relationships are always problematic, whether based on race, class, gender, age, or any fault line of difference among humans, non-humans, and the environment you can imagine, even when subalterns derive some temporary benefits from the relationships.

  1. [1]Even with my Ph.D., it appears driving for Lyft is my sole career option.
  2. [2]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014,
  3. [3]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014,
  4. [4]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  5. [5]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014,
  6. [6]Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time (New York: Penguin, 2006).
  7. [7]Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  8. [8]Fabian Mendez Ramos, “Uncertainty in ending extreme poverty,” Brookings Institute, June 4, 2019,
  9. [9]Simone de Beauvoir, “Women as Other,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 345-347.
  10. [10]Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  11. [11]Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 449-451.
  12. [12]Christopher Clark, “South Africa Confronts a Legacy of Apartheid,” Atlantic, May 3, 2019,
  13. [13]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012,

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