For Parts I and II of X, please click here.
Last week, I highlighted the first two chapters of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ extensive piece in The Atlantic, in which he presents his case for reparations. In the chapters that follow, Coates blends more history and statistics in support of his premise.
On claims for reparations in the past, he writes:
As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected. Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make ‘membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.’ In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. ‘The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,’ wrote Pleasants, ‘would be an acceptable offering to him who “Rules in the kingdom of men.” ’
As time went on, however, and the memory (if not the effects) of slavery faded, the support for reparations faded as well. Coates ponders the state of the cause today:
Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for ‘appropriate remedies.’
A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.
Returning to his analysis of the shameful history of slave-ownership in America, Coates lays bare how wildly profitable slave labor once was:
Nearly one-fourth of all white Southerners owned slaves, and upon their backs the economic basis of America—and much of the Atlantic world—was erected. In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports. The web of this slave society extended north to the looms of New England, and across the Atlantic to Great Britain, where it powered a great economic transformation and altered the trajectory of world history. ‘Whoever says Industrial Revolution,’ wrote the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, ‘says cotton.’
Once the Civil War had ended and slavery was abolished, Coates writes, new methods of holding African-Americans back– often institutionalized methods– replaced old ones. One of many examples comes, in fact, from that paradigm of liberalism, Roosevelt’s New Deal:
‘The Jim Crow South,’ writes Ira Katznelson, a history and political-science professor at Columbia, ‘was the one collaborator America’s democracy could not do without.’ The marks of that collaboration are all over the New Deal. The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net ‘a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.’
These chapters of Coates’ treatise add history and context to the anecdotes of his first two chapters. Next week, I look forward to reading and unpacking more of his claim.
–Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer
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