Ta-Nehisi Coates has published a masterpiece of an essay called "The Case for Reparations." It's a frame for an extensively detailed (but still only partial) accounting of the ways that the African-American community has been plundered by a white supremacist society. And it has a lot of white people up in arms.
At least blacks aren't in Africa, some whites have responded. All the slaves are dead, others say. Then there is the refrain: What about reparations for abortion/the sack of Carthage/#Benghazi? Most of all, I hear: I never owned any slaves!
But these are all varying degrees of nonresponses to the overwhelming evidence that the structure of American society had and continues to have its boot heel on the neck of African-Americans. Even if we begin after the end of slavery, Coates' accounting still includes such widely recognized injustices as the Jim Crow laws, where blacks were stripped of their constitutional rights and systematically plundered, to the lesser known, like racist housing policy. In the latter, blacks were refused the benefits of FHA insurance and denied ordinary mortgages, thereby forcing them into the arms of predatory scam artists who would charge them a terrific premium for contracts stipulating their houses could be repossessed on the thinnest possible pretext.
Today's society is measurably prejudiced in many ways, but even today, the way housing finance is administered in this nation is often barely better than the days of the contract scammers:
Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself "the nation's leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers," the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building "generational wealth." But the "wealth building" seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself. According to The New York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as "mud people" and to their subprime products as "ghetto loans." [The Atlantic]
Injustices are still built into the structure of American society, denying opportunity, stealing money, imprisoning vastly disproportionately, and refusing to rectify past wrongs (in fact, in many areas, going in the opposite direction).
But I think what motivates the worst responses to Coates' piece isn't a resistance to these basic facts. It's a resistance to being labeled a racist. And that is missing the point. His article is not a personal critique; it is a structural one, which ought to minimize some of its personal sting. Structural racist outcomes (mostly) aren't the fault of white people alive today; they're about the foundations of society and the legacy of history. Such analysis isn't about making white people feel guilty, it's about providing countervailing structural pressure to right past wrongs.
This is part of the genius of Coates' piece. He firmly roots his analysis in the structure of American society, one which sweeps along whites regardless of their beliefs about race:
The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America's public and private sectors. For should any nonracist white families decide that integration might not be so bad as a matter of principle or practicality, they still had to contend with the hard facts of American housing policy: When the mid-20th-century white homeowner claimed that the presence of a Bill and Daisy Myers decreased his property value, he was not merely engaging in racist dogma — he was accurately observing the impact of federal policy on market prices. Redlining destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived. [The Atlantic]
Personal beliefs and feelings, especially today, are simply dwarfed by these structural factors. In other words: Fellow white folks, it isn't always about our feelings. Properly considered, that's a liberating thought. After all, we didn't choose to be born in a prejudiced society that has almost certainly infected our subconscious minds with prejudiced instincts. So long as we do not choose to be actively racist, the important thing is to focus on these obvious structural disadvantages and push against them. That can involve trying to work around our subconscious prejudice with awareness or quotas, or it can involve direct transfers of power: Reparations. Of the two, I believe the second is far more likely to work in a lasting way.
I would also save a word for today's organized anti-racism, which while ostensibly dedicated to the structural approach, in practice is far, far better at attacking people who say racist things. As many have pointed out, it's rather disturbing that it wasn't Donald Sterling's well-known racist actions of trying to keep black and Latino people from renting his property that got him exiled from polite society; it was a tape with racist comments.
The actual form of reparations is a topic for another day; as Danny Vinik points out, it will take some more study. But the motivation and justification for some kind of direct action is clear, if you read Coates' essay.