“Civil Whites”: Christopher Caldwell on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Call for Endless Reparations


From The Weekly Standard:

Civil Whites

Why are critics so deferential to the radicalism of Ta-Nehisi Coates?

AUG 17, 2015, VOL. 20, NO. 46 • BY CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL

Maybe “Culture Belongs to Everyone,” as they say at New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park shows, but the works of Atlantic essayist and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates appear to exist in another realm altogether. In the weeks since the publication of Between the World and Me, Coates’s letter to his teenage son about the perils and promise of being black and male in America, critics have struggled to find adjectives to match his achievements. Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post summed up recent discussions of who counted as America’s foremost “public intellectual” by concluding: “Coates has won that title for himself, and it isn’t even close.” New York Times film reviewer A.O. Scott tweeted: “?‘Must read’ doesn’t even come close. This from @tanehisicoates is essential, like water or air.”

The book’s devotees ask not just whether we can “come close” to fathoming its genius but whether we, and especially the whites among us, have the moral standing even to aspire to. The novelist Michael Chabon begs pardon:

I know that this book is addressed to the author’s son, and by obvious analogy to all boys and young men of color as they pass, inexorably, into harm’s way. I hope that I will be forgiven, then, for feeling that Ta-Nehisi Coates was speaking to me, too, one father to another, teaching me that real courage is the courage to be vulnerable. …

For decades, several books every publishing season have promised an “authentic” account of the experience of being black in America. But the 39-year-old Coates, a Baltimore native, has struck it very big. We learn from New York magazine that he even shows up late for meetings with the president. Coates claims as his model a classic of the black autobiographical genre, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). It is not immediately clear, though, what distinguishes Coates’s effort from the heap of less distinguished books written in Baldwin’s wake. To figure this out one must look at “The Case for Reparations,” a 16,000-word essay Coates wrote for the Atlantic last year, which won him a wide Internet following. …

A hallmark of Coates’s style is the lurid metaphor that blurs the past and the present, the imaginary and the real, and incites ideological combat. “In America,” he writes, “there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”

From this point, Coates orates, rather than reasons, his way to a reinterpretation of American history. The key concept is “plunder.” White Americans did not, as the heroic narrative of civil rights would have it, move from enslaving blacks to excluding them, and then, starting in the 1950s, steadily break down the exclusion until we reached the more equal world of today. No—Coates’s argument is one of “structural racism.” To this day, society is structured so that whites can continue to rip off blacks. Indeed, they cannot do without blacks, whose exploitation is their main source of prosperity.

Lincoln noted in 1865:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

And of course that’s pretty much what happened. The South was poor for the century after 1865 until it could rebuild itself along Northern corporate business lines, in which African-Americans are of course of minor importance.

Black slaves were highly profitable workers during the King Cotton era of a few decades immediately before the Civil War. Before that, they were of modest importance, which is why slavery faded out in the North and was almost abolished by the legislature of Virginia, a state with a fading tobacco economy, in 1831. But the opening up of cotton belt states and very high prices paid for cotton by the English Midlands factories created a cotton bubble in the middle of the 19th Century. Of course, the Civil War popped that by not only sheer physical destruction, but by causing other places around the world such as Brazil, Egypt, and India to start producing much more cotton, preventing the post-War South from ever returning to its generation of cotton-based prosperity.

Without importing black slaves, the intensive populating of states like Alabama and Mississippi would have been delayed until electricity for electrical fans and other technological innovations, including modern medicine, made these latitudes more habitable by white people, just as Florida, which is even further South, was only lightly populated until late in the 19th Century or so.

But then there would have been no Civil War to destroy so much accumulated wealth on both sides and to depress the South economically and psychologically for so long afterward, either. So it’s difficult to imagine much negative impact on American per capita wealth in 2015 in an alternate universe without the slave trade.

You can tell that nobody takes very seriously the argument that African-Americans have been much of an economic boon for white Americans since 1860 by how so much black economic resentment in recent years is focused upon, say, white rappers like Macklemore for “appropriating” black innovations in popular music.

But outside of a handful of areas like pop music, it’s hard to make up a list of how blacks have, on net, made whites much money over the last 150 years, and easy, if forbidden, to notice how blacks destroyed many white urban homeowners’ net worths in the postwar era. If blacks were such moneymakers for white elites, you wouldn’t see white elites so unified in their urge to import immigrants to propel African-Americans out of elite cities, which is behind much of the furious Establishment denunciations of Donald Trump, that class traitor.

… But he does come up with a basis for a “bottom line”: the difference between black and white per capita income, multiplied by the population of blacks, to be paid each year for “a decade or two.” It is a figure that would today come to between $4 and $9 trillion (between a quarter and half the U.S. GDP), to be supplemented perhaps by “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.”

One more element in this view of reparations should detain us, and it is the key element: The reparations under discussion will not discharge the debt whites owe to blacks. “We may find,” Coates writes, “that the country can never fully repay African Americans.” What he is proposing is ultimately less a regime of reparations for blacks (since nothing can be fully “repaired”) than a program of infinite penance for whites. To judge from the reaction to Coates’s book, white intellectuals are ready to endorse this idea almost unanimously.

One black thinker is less convinced: