A lot has been written about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic on reparations, but there haven’t been many coherent critiques. Coates made criticism pretty difficult first of all by producing what may be the best magazine length work on race in America that anyone has ever written. But he also introduced a sort of rhetorical sleight of hand that made it difficult to respond to his central thesis.
Coates didn’t get bogged down endorsing any potential program of reparations. He merely laid out the moral case. Most critiques have foundered by taking his bait, focusing on the practical impossibility of delivering reparations and missing the real power of Coates argument. Along the way, almost everyone who tried to take him on fell into some version of the “it wasn’t so bad” trap.
When in trouble, look to a nerd.
Economist Noah Smith, who also writes for The Atlantic, has been one of Coates’ more pointed critics for some time. In a short piece he takes much of the punch out of Coates’ thesis without wasting energy trying to diminish the power of Coates’ case. Smith focuses on the flaws of reparations on a moral rather than a practical level.
Smith argues that the pursuit of reparations is itself a kind of energy-wasting trap. He gives several reasons, but the 3rd carries the most punch:
Reason 3: Because good things can never make up for bad things 100%. I think this is just how human psychology works. If your parents beat you and then buy you ice cream and apologize then no matter how much ice cream they buy you, or how much they apologize, there will always be that memory of them beating you.
The danger of reparations is in its focus on the past. There is no justice or restoration in the past. A past denied carries a festering sore into the present. What was done must be dealt with. By the same token though, picking at the scab doesn’t help. At some point there must be a determination to conquer the past by building a brighter future.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize this: Escape is the only true revenge. If African Americans can live good lives, and can be fully incorporated into the fabric of American society and American institutions, then the bad guys lost.
And that’s got to be good enough. Or else nothing will be.