“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Ta-Nehisi Coates may have restrained himself from trotting out William Faulkner’s overused aphorism, but it would have been an apt subtitle for his September visit to campus. The Atlantic essayist and blogger was hosted by the Penn Social Science and Policy Forum to discuss his 2014 cover story “The Case for Reparations,” which set traffic records on the magazine’s website when it appeared in May. The public event took the form of a conversation between Coates and Thomas Sugrue, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology.
Coates based his argument substantially on claims of injury more recent than slavery. Theft of black-owned land, abetted or even perpetrated by local and state governments, has been documented through the mid-20th century. The Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farm laborers and domestic workers—jobs disproportionally held by African Americans, 65 percent of whom therefore did not qualify for old-age insurance. Federal housing and mortgage insurance policies explicitly discriminated against African Americans until 1968, depriving great numbers from accumulating home equity, the primary means by which American families build and bequeath wealth.
Yet any case for reparations must grapple with the powerful reluctance of present-day citizens to answer for past injuries. In response to one of Sugrue’s questions, Coates offered a rationale for why contemporary Americans should accept that responsibility.
Sugrue: One of the arguments that I hear when I discuss reparations with folks is, “My parents weren’t here. My grandparents weren’t here. My family didn’t own any slaves. I’m not a racist. Why should I pay, out of my hard-earned tax dollars, to pay back for something I’m not responsible for?”
Coates: Because the very meaning of a state, and of government, is that you pay for things that you are not personally responsible for, and you also receive things that you did nothing to receive. If one only paid for what one was personally responsible for, we would be a failed state. That’s what that is: that’s a failed state. People who make the argument that, you know, “My parents came here in 1890,” or, “My parents came here in 1930”—well, you should not celebrate July 4! You didn’t do anything!
There is a whole suite of traditions and [obligations]. As late as the early 2000s, we were still paying pensions to veterans of the Civil War—not actual [combat] veterans, but to their widows and surviving family members. For the Civil War! [Editor’s note: In fact, the last such beneficiary, the late-in-life daughter of a soldier who served in both the Confederate and Union armies, was still receiving $73 per month as of press time.] And at this late date, I believe we’re still paying pensions out for the Spanish-American War … The idea that I would say, “Listen, I don’t want any of my tax dollars going to any widow or kid from the Spanish-American War”—it just sounds ridiculous!
It is integral to the definition of a state that the state outlives its individual citizens. [Otherwise] we wouldn’t have a Presidents Day, we wouldn’t have Memorial Day … there would be no reason to talk about American history at all, because your history is only your personal history. If you really want to take that approach, then you don’t really have an identity as an American at all.
And so what people want is to be able to claim the things that are good, and not have to claim the things that don’t necessarily credit them. They want to be able to open their paycheck, and never open the credit-card bills. And that’s effectively what you’re arguing for—a kind of a la carte citizenship: I get to pick when I am a citizen and when I am not. A la carte patriotism: I get to pick when I love my country and when I don’t.
Imagine if I said to my wife, “Baby, I’m only going to love you when it immediately credits me.” That would be ridiculous! No specimen of love could live in that sort of way. And yet when we talk about reparations, we get these ridiculous arguments that don’t really hold water in any other context—except when we’re dealing with a group of people who we don’t actually consider to be fully human.