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In the newest issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an impassioned case for the need for reparations in response to the horrific treatment suffered by African-Americans throughout much of American history. His piece is valuable in making the scope of that suffering vivid, but it finds itself on far weaker grounds when it comes to the question of reparations as a viable remedy.
In the first place, he misunderstands the historical economics at work. As I note in my new piece for Defining Ideas at the Hoover Institution:
He is right that slave owners before the Civil War and the champions of Jim Crow afterwards exploited the black persons who lived under these regimes. Coates observes: “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all the productive capacity of the United States put together.” The tempting conclusion is that African Americans today should recoup the wealth that has, Coates argues, worked its way down to the current generation of Americans.
Sadly, however, Coates fails to note that those resources were largely consumed by the miscreants who extracted them from the backs of slaves. At most a small sliver of wealth was passed down by inheritance for a generation or two. But none of it was shared gratuitously with the rest of the nation. Both slavery and Jim Crow hurt the rest of the population by preventing them from doing business with black workers who held productive jobs. As a general matter, virtually all the wealth that exists in the United States today has been created by the ingenuity of a dizzying array of inventors, entrepreneurs, immigrants, and countless others. No fund of wealth survives the demise of slavery and Jim Crow.
Then there is the question of how to best address inequities that exist in the present day. As I note:
Rather than speaking of reparations, we should consider the many constructive steps that could, and should, be taken right now as part of our ongoing social commitments to black Americans. It is striking that Coates makes no mention of the charter school movement, which is working overtime to give less fortunate children of all races opportunities that would be otherwise denied to them. Nor does he ask how to remove the barriers to entry that progressive legislation has placed in the path of minority workers, including such statutes as the antidiscrimination laws and minimum wage laws that Coates presumably supports. These laws make it more difficult for African Americans to get jobs in today’s labor market. Deregulation, by contrast, knocks down barriers to entry instead of erecting them in the name of greater racial or economic justice. Coates should embrace the libertarian principles that explain the injustices of racism to forge a new set of forward-looking policies.
Instead of considering these prescriptions, Coates doubles-down on policies with a track-record of failure: What we need, he says, is “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.” This misguided solution, which resonates with the Obama administration, ignores the economic decline of African Americans and other disadvantaged persons since the president took office. That situation can only be reversed if writers like Coates grasp the intimate connection between the wrongs that they skillfully expose and the remedies that they inartfully promote.
Coates is right to point out the inhumanity that prevailed for too long in the treatment of African-Americans (though, as I note in the piece, he can be imprecise in his descriptions of it). But reparations are not the answer.Published in