The Best Sound and Fury: The Case for Reparations

Has it really been over a month since I last posted? Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve passed all my classes and passed all my comprehensive exams, so no more coursework or tests in my extended education. All I have left is a dissertation proposal and then the dissertation itself. Not to mention also becoming a father and major role model sometime in last August!

Anyway, I’m resurrecting this blog (again) not so much to say anything new or novel, but instead to encourage people to go over to The Atlantic and read “The Case for Reparations” by the very talented essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a long read with ten chapters, and it’s not so much about an economic argument for reparations for African-Americans as it is an honest and thorough analysis of the many injustices facing the African-American community in the United States. This isn’t about statistical models, wonkish graph parties or anything like that, but a hard historical look at the institutional racism, discrimination and abuse a large segment of our national population has had to endure for generations — and the collective amnesia we so regularly take part to ignore it. It isn’t easy information to process, but it’s important for people to read it and to acknowledge that when we put the Founding Fathers on a pedastal or wax romantic about the past, we’re picking and choosing our history and failing to realize — much less take responsibility for — the fact the U.S. was built on and remains mired in racism.

It’s important for me to have written the above because lately I’ve been very down on blogging and promoting anything that might be considered a “thinkpiece.” I’ll probably never write anything as important or as meaningful as Coates’ essay, but even if I did, it would be hard for me to believe that, other than resounding in a like-minded echo chamber, such a piece would have any affect at all. Many people have already dismissed Coates’ essay without reading it; they read the title and perhaps the byline and reject it out of hand as “playing the race card” or “divisive politics” or whatever. People who care about social justice will share the article on their Twitter feeds or on Facebook, but will we really inch at all closer to addressing any of the many problems Coates outlines in his essay? It may be a great intellectual achievement and an eloquent exposition on slavery, bigotry and unaccountability when it comes to race relations in the United States, but as pleasant a sound is or as powerful a fury is, what do they amount to if they do not influence the popular consciousness or inform policy?

There’s a metaphor I like of human history being a mighty river, and each printed page is a stone, thrown into the river to raise the water level and spread the river out, until it becomes a marsh. If the stones are placed deliberately, with careful thought, then perhaps something meaningful can be built on that muddy foundation. But, as purposeful a set of stones as Coates’ essay is, will it amount to more than a pile of rocks? I doubt it. The social media buzz will pass, the essay will still be shared now and again by the people who really value the message and the effort, but for the most part, modern “journalism” will remain GIFs from Game of Thrones explaining Chinese cyber-terrorism.

What’s all the more frustrating about it is that this is a conversation America needs to have. Not just a “beer summit” that lasts a media cycle. Race is a big issue and one that comes up a lot, be it wannabe cops killing black teens with impunity or men in positions of power and influence regularly expressing racist views. Yet all one needs to do is consider how “political correctness” is treated today to see how little progress we’ve made on this issue. What is “political correctness” but, at worst, institutionalized politeness? How is that we as a society let white people believe even for a second that they are the most put-upon people in history because they are expected to think about their words before they articulate them? Granted, there are times when calling people out can get toxic, but nothing is more disgusting and crine-worthy than white middle class people spouting the old “Maybe the real racists are the people calling us racists” nonsense. No, believe it or not, the structural conditions constructed with the key pillars of racial segregation and exploitation founded in the past and perpetuated into the present are the problem, not the minor embarrassment you felt because your racist comment was identified as racist. This really isn’t that hard to understand.

So, yes, Coates’ essay is brilliant and you should read it. Yet I’m not at all sanguine that it will matter much in terms of inspiring change in our messed up world. But I hope I’m wrong.

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