Making Reparations

I bought my house with the help of a downpayment from my parents. My parents got help to buy their house from my father’s parents. At the time when my father’s parents bought their house, a black family in most of America could not have gotten a traditional mortgage, certianly not an FHA-insured one, no matter how credit worthy, and probably could not have purchased in the neighborhood they did.

I am a direct beneficiary of explicitly racist government policies and the pervasive white violence that supported and surrounded them. (Here is where I am tempted to digress into an accounting of how not racist my family is and was, but that’s beside the point.)

I came to this realization many years ago when Melvin Oliver’s book Black Wealth/White Wealth came out, but I was reminded of it when I finally sat down to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic.

In the interim, I’ve watched from my professional perch the questionable outcomes of trying to address the racial wealth gap through promoting homeownership. Homeownership is a tenuous proposition to enter into if you don’t already have a significant financial cushion to deal with unexpected repairs. But also, homes don’t actually generally appreciate, when you take into account the capital it takes to maintain them. It’s land value—location—that appreciates. And that value is not under the control of the homeowner. It’s generated, or taken away, by public investment or disinvestment, changing market preferences, and racism. We still live in a very residentially segregated country, with the legacies of Jim Crow, vigilantes, block busting, contract sales, redlining, urban renewal, and strategic disinvestment showing all around us. Still, today, being in a majority black neighborhood reduces the value of your home.

Now, the people who want to blame the foreclosure crisis on homeowners and their advocates make me see red. Let’s be very clear: it was irresponsible financial institutions and predatory actors who caused the problem. People of color and lower-income people given responsible loans did just fine with them. At least until the recession took their jobs. On the other hand, the “expanding homeownership is the answer to our problems” mantra always seemed weirdly, possibly even condescendingly, off base to me.

Reading Coates makes me think that perhaps what it was was premature. We, as a country, haven’t reckoned with our past in a comprehensive way, which necessarily leaves isolated attempts to address its legacies out of context and partial. “We are asking other institutions to answer for something major in our history and culture,” Coates writes in a blog post explaining how he made the journey from opposing reparations to supporting them. In looking at racial disparities in our country, he added, we have “a relentless focus on explanations which are hard to quantify,” like some vague sense of cultural difference, “while ignoring those which are not,” like a several-hundred-year legacy of an economic systemic rooted in enslavement and white supremacy.

I imagine I am not alone among left-leaning liberals or progressives who saw Coates’ article go by and figured it probably didn’t contain all that much information that would be new to me. If you had that reaction, I suggest you read it anyway. You will probably still learn a some things (I did), but more importantly, Coates ties together a number of disparate historical facts into a compelling, cohesive narrative about how this country didn’t just happen to have slavery until we finally got rid of it, but that our wealth, our economy, even our democracy, is the way it is because of slavery, and the racial violence that allowed it and outlasted it.

One of the most important things to realize about reparations is that it’s not a punishment, and not an attempt to foster a sense of individual guilt. In fact, the idea of reparations crops up on a small scale within programs that are attempting to create alternatives to our punitive justice system. Making reparations for harm caused is healing and freeing to both the recipient and the giver.

In the case of this country’s relationship with the descendents of African slaves, we don’t know what it would look like—it likely couldn’t actually be proportional to the harm done. But the fact of it happening at all beyond a nominal level would be the crucial thing.

Coates argues that until we’re willing to study what the practical options might be (Rep. Conyers has apparently introduced a bill in Congress every session for the past 25 years to do just that and can’t get a vote on it), practicality isn’t the reason for avoiding the issue. He has a point.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on June 5, 2014.)

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