Will America ever be ready for a Congressional commission to study reparations?


Homeownership Loan Corporation redlining map of the city of Chicago, courtesy of Urban Oasis

If you have a quiet hour over the long weekend, read Ta-Nehisi Coates' epic new Atlantic cover story on the case for reparations, even if (especially if) you're put off by the headline.

Coates, who won a National Magazine Award last year for his essay on race in the Obama era -- "Fear of a Black President" -- looks back much further into history in this one. But the most compelling parts of his argument don't come out of the antebellum chapters of American history (although you will find few writers who describe them more beautifully). They come out of the 20th century, and even more recent times, and out of the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's West Side today.

For a variety of reasons -- because discrimination has grown subtler, because it's easier to talk about what happened in America "before my family came here," because we think we live on the other side of all the major civil rights victories -- we know this more recent history less well. But the consequences of 20th century racial covenants, government redlining, and predatory lending have been just as destructive for black wealth creation and investment in black neighborhoods. And these are forces that have run right up through the latest housing bubble.

The crux of Coates's argument is not just that black families have gone uncompensated for labor that was taken from their great-great-grandparents 200 years ago in a crime for which no one remains to be punished today. The real indictment lies in what's happened since, in the active engineering of disadvantage seen most clearly through the modern housing market.

Coates begins his story with a middle-class black family victimized in the 1960s by the scam of buying a home in a "contract sale," a predatory arrangement that's largely been forgotten by history. Black homeowners in Chicago who could not obtain a mortgage instead found their way to "contract sellers" who sold housing at inflated prices, and then kept the deeds until the contracts were entirely paid off. Black families who aspired to the "American dream" of owning a home earned no equity in the process. Many of them lost their homes when they failed to keep up with payments that were much higher than what a white family would have paid for a mortgage on comparable housing. And contract sellers made tremendous profits in the process -- all the more when one black family was evicted and a new one came along, with a fresh down payment.

Schemes like this illustrate why homeownership has been a much more precarious prize for blacks. They also explain why the racial wealth gap remains so wide today. Wealth in America, as it's passed from one generation to the next, is intimately tied up in housing. And blacks have systematically been denied the chance the build that wealth. Just earlier this week, the Center for Global Policy Solutions released a report looking at the racial wealth gap in America today. It found that the average black household in America owns 6 cents for every dollar in wealth held by a typical white family. It found in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area that whites have a homeownership rate that's still 20 percentage points higher than blacks.

The kind of "reparations" that Coates is talking about in light of these facts is not merely about money. It's about a recognition of forces that didn't disappear with the end of slavery:

We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.

He does not offer a number. The number is almost beside the point. What he does offer by way of solutions is a modest first step: For two decades, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has been introducing a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. This is, yes, just a study. The public act of conducting it might matter more than the output. These are the bill's generally inoffensive aims for such a commission:

(1) examine the institution of slavery which existed from 1619 through 1865 within the United States and the colonies that became the United States, including the extent to which the Federal and State governments constitutionally and statutorily supported the institution of slavery;

(2) examine de jure and de facto discrimination against freed slaves and their descendants from the end of the Civil War to the present, including economic, political, and social discrimination;

(3) examine the lingering negative effects of the institution of slavery and the discrimination described in paragraph (2) on living African Americans and on society in the United States;

(4) recommend appropriate ways to educate the American public of the Commission's findings;

(5) recommend appropriate remedies in consideration of the Commission's findings on the matters described in paragraphs (1) and (2); and

(6) submit to the Congress the results of such examination, together with such recommendations.

Now, is that so impossible?

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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