American writer, journalist, and educator Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a very eloquent essay, “The Case For Reperations”, which focuses on the heavy injustices black people in America have faced in history and face today. He alternates between picturing the lives of people who endured segregation during the twentieth century, such as Clyde Ross and Billy Lamar Brooks, and exposing America’s broader history of racism, especially during the infamous Jim Crow era. I say “exposed” because even today, where we believe we have risen above racism, we still deny our history to a broad extent and our modern world it begat.
America has a nasty habit of sweeping racism under the rug but Coates sticks to his guns, emphasizing how the profits of slave labor allowed America to economically rise into a world power. He insists racism is so deeply entrenched in American culture and history we would be living in a vastly different world without it. Racism, slavery, and genocide are as much part of the American tradition as apple pie. He is absolutely right. To distort or deny our dark history is callous and willfully ignorant at its best and monstrous at its worst. He makes an eloquent argument that makes you seriously consider making reparations to black people all around America.
But the problem is as soon as you do, you run into problems. Coates’ fatal flaw is he never specifies how to go about making reparations. Do we give all lower middle and lower class black people a hundred thousand dollars? Do we take people out of the projects and build suburbs for them, mirroring the opportunities presented to white people after World War II? Coates does give examples of a few models attempted under Lyndon Johnson, but he never uses them to come up with his own solutions.
This is where the other essayists Kevin Williamson and David Frum step in. They provide their own reasons why reparations would be practically difficult to impossible. Williamson does not show any specific ways reparations would be impractical, just the sentiment that “the path from policy to outcome is a crooked one.” Frum is more specific. He says reparations would cause as much distrust and contention as affirmative action, which is unpopular and controversial in its own right. Furthermore, black people are far from the only people who have been oppressed in America. What about Mexicans-Americans? What about women? What about Asians?
As for me, I am pessimistic. I don’t feel confident about reparations, at least the kind Coates has in mind. Bureaucracies exist first and foremost for themselves and for the capitalists who employ their workers. They are designed to be ineffective and to cause more problems than they solve. In my last essay I discussed how building the projects and renovating public schools in Chicago were both fraught with problems. Both government programs were enormously saddled by bureaucratic complications and ultimately were not given enough support because America insisted on private enterprises having most of the power.
What should have been humanitarian missions became another form of business. Services were sold like a product to costumers and only the customers who could afford the services were the ones who bought it. The people who needed those services the most, the poor and destitute, did not receive much. The projects were neglected until they became dilapidated and dangerous because private enterprises didn’t see any profit in it. Chicago’s public schools were not renovated in an efficient way to be totally inclusive for the same reason. Bureaucracies are designed to be ineffective. Bureaucratic solutions succeed most in making bureaucracies more pervasive. Working with the system, playing within the rules, makes for minimal progress. The house always wins.
And this is a cause for deep sadness. The people, especially the oppressed people, deserve better. They deserve justice. I do have some optimism. Though gaining progress within the system, through bureaucracies, is very slow but there are at least marked improvements. The lives of black people are enormously better than they were a century ago. The lives of women have had similar drastic improvements. However, those improvements came with heavy costs. With each concession capitalism makes, with each loan it gives you, it finds some way to make you accumulate interest. Prejudices vanish, but some stay and become ever more insidious.
My own solution is through a complete overhauling of the social structure. To create equality it would be necessary to attack the disease itself, not the symptoms. This means taking away the power of the capitalists who profit from bureaucratic hierarchies and then to decentralize the power to give it back to the people. I am no expert on political philosophy and activism, so I will admit I have little knowledge of how to make this drastic change go about. I can only point to a better idea.