Ta-Nehisi Coates has powerfully opened a conversation about reparations. Though not a new topic, it remains an explosive topic. Race is not a subject that is ignored in American discourse. As John McWhorter points out at the Daily Beast, race has not been absent from the stage of American cultural conversation. Think of Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—a book which made the argument that the justice system (sentencing laws, incarceration, and the aftermath) has developed into a new system of control of black men—was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. Americans have not been ignoring race.
However, what is importantly disturbing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument, what will continue to be disturbing, is that Americans are still talking, or screaming about race as a passing phenomenon, a problem that will be solved. The Supreme Court almost said as much as it gutted the Voting Rights Act and declared affirmative action unconstitutional. Coates’ argument is that reparations is not just about slavery, and the economic and psychological impacts of slavery, and the economic legacy of slavery in the guise of the housing scams in Chicago. Coates’ is not advocating a wholesale payout on the order of German reparations for the Holocaust. What Coates’ is arguing for is that we must come to terms with the fact that the United States was built on slavery. Slavery was the wealth—both the bodies of the slaves and the slaves as means of production—that enabled this country to come into being. Furthermore, the history of the United States after the Civil War continued to be inextricably tied to the oppression of African-Americans. We cannot tell the story of this country without telling it within a narrative of slavery. The colonists, the founding fathers, the writers of the Constitution, and the writer of the Gettysburg address, all lived in a slave culture. FDR’s New Deal made way for compromises with the South on farmworkers and domestic workers so as to protect the “Southern way of life.”
This is what truly upsets those who are upset. What is truly upsetting, angering, is that the “peculiar institution,” as slavery was euphemistically called, was not an anomaly like, perhaps, the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, or the House Unamerican Activities Committee under Joe McCarthy, from which the United States recovered, returning to its better angels. Slavery was, and will continue to be part of the warp and woof of this country’s story. This is the conversation that we must have. Until we have that conversation, the unfinished business of the peculiar institution will return in the guise of a “war on drugs” or disparities in educational allocations, or the criminalization of every day life for young black men.
In a passage worth quoting at length, Coates explicitly lays out his bottom line:
[W]e 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. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans. …
What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.
This should all sound familiar to the American Jewish community. This is the very reason that any talk of the nakbah, the Palestinian catastrophe that occurred simultaneously with and inextricably from the creation of the State of Israel, is off limits. Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land, took one small step toward opening that conversation. He plainly admitted that Palestinian villages were destroyed and their residents exiled, some of them killed. However, the book is written from a place of hubris. “We Israelis had to do this and we should have no regrets, for without this we would not have a state.” Apologetics, though, is not an apology. The book has been accorded a mixed and suspicious reception for this very reason. Accepting the fact that the nakbah, that the idea of avodah ivrit/Jewish labor, that according preference to Jews at the expense of Palestinians were central ideas in the nascent Yishuv and inextricable from the creation of the State means rethinking the comfortable Zionist narrative we have grown up on.
However, just as we have to have the larger conversation about reparations that Ta-Nehisi Coates presents, the American Jewish community, and the Israeli Jewish community have to have the conversation about the nakbah. Neither reality is going away, we will not “get past it.” We have to face it. Honestly. Now.