Two Black Writers Debate Reparations

After the Supreme Court effectively ended affirmative action in higher education, there’s been a renewed focus on other efforts to address historic racism across American society. Celeste Headlee, host of Slate’s Hear Me Out, recently discussed reparations with the Manhattan Institute’s Coleman Hughes. Though he’s Black and can trace his roots to slavery, the host of the Conversations With Coleman podcast adamantly rejects the idea of reparations and has testified against the concept before Congress. Headlee, who is also Black, supports the idea. A partial transcript of the conversation is reprinted below; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Celeste Headlee: I found it interesting that when you testified before Congress, you began with a pretty impassioned statement, saying that nothing that you said was meant to downplay the horrors of slavery. Why begin there?

Coleman Hughes: I begin there because an argument against reparations could easily be misconstrued as an argument that you don’t care about slavery, or you don’t think slavery was that bad. And I wanted to close the door to that interpretation of my view, right at the start.

So, give me the summary of your argument. You’re not saying that enslaved people, especially at the end of the Civil War, shouldn’t have been offered some kind of recompense—land or money—right? That’s not your argument.

Exactly. My argument is precisely that they should have been given reparations in their lifetimes, in the second half of the 20th Century. [Ed. note: Presumably Hughes meant the 19th Century.] But once you miss the opportunity to give the actual victim reparations, the reparations claim does not survive forever. And it certainly doesn’t survive down to their great, great, great, great, great, great grandchild, which I think is the correct number of greats in my case.

You know, people often say, “Well, how come Black people didn’t get reparations? … The Jews got reparations after the Holocaust. The Japanese Americans got reparations for being interned in World War Two.” Well, I think that, to me, that’s hypocrisy or a double standard, standing from today’s vantage point, because they got reparations immediately—almost immediately after the atrocities in question. And they were actually paid to the people or their families. And so the truth is, [for] the great majority— almost all historical crimes against people, [against] races/ethnicities throughout the past, say 300 years—no reparations have been paid for them. No reparations are ever going to be paid, and the claims have timed out.

So I think my position in Congress and my position today is the same, which is: I actually support reparations paid to living victims of the Jim Crow system in the South, or of segregation in general. This is happening in Evanston and outside of Chicago, where they’re trying to identify specific individuals that were denied loans on houses because they were Black in the late ’60s, and paying them specifically, or at most their immediate family members. That I support. That’s the kind of reparations I support, and is in line with my principles. What I don’t support is reparations paid to descendants of slaves for slavery, which ended in 1865.

This is my favorite kind of conversation, because I so disagree with you.

Here’s the thing: I wonder if the comparison would hold up if they had promised Jews after the Holocaust reparations, and then refused to hand them over, which is what happened with African Americans. They were promised land; they were promised help. And then states in the federal government—partly because Abraham Lincoln was killed—simply didn’t do it.

Then there’s also the fact that it wasn’t just the Civil War that caused the trauma. If you go back through history—I mean, just in my own family history—there is story after story after story of people in my family earning land and having it stolen, sometimes through legal means and sometimes through means that were “legal,” but not at all ethical. There are many times when our family has paid much more for insurance, for homes, for things because of redlining, and that happened recently.

Where do you draw the line of when the harm was done? To say that they should have been paid right when the damage occurred?

So, to the first point, no: I don’t think if the government made a promise in 1865 that was unfulfilled, that they therefore are on the hook for that promise. I mean, the people they promised that to are all dead, and they have been dead for a long time. That’s extremely sad. It’s extremely tragic. It was a miscarriage of justice at the time.

I do not think that that means what was promised to those people should be given to their six-greats grandchild. And I think, frankly, that intuition is widely shared, right? Most of us literally don’t know the names of our great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents. To collect something owed to them, is not something anyone—any typical or rational person would expect for the most part.

And secondly, like I said, I actually support reparations paid to people in their lifetimes for harms that they or their immediate family members have incurred. And at that level, you might not even call it reparations. You may just call it damages, right? Like if laws are broken, if discrimination laws on the books are broken to your detriment, you can sue the state. And I completely support that. So if that’s happened in your family, that’s a quite a separate conversation, I think.

We’re going to kind of dig a little deeply into all the different nooks and crannies of what systemic racism has cost African Americans. But what about the issue of simply not being able to move on? The fact that, even in political speeches, you’ll hear African Americans talk about the 40 acres and a mule that were promised to them? There are really good records of land that had been taken from plantation owners in the South and given to African Americans after the Civil War ended, and they farmed it for a while, and were doing fine. And then it was taken after the federal government basically left the South and allowed the South to govern itself again. So what about this idea that reparations might help us at least close the book on that era, and focus our attention on our current situation?

I think that that’s naive. I think, if it were true that reparations was going to help people move on, then it would seem to me that all of the national and state level apologies—official apologies that have been made—would have helped some people move on.

In fact, they have had no impact whatsoever. Both houses of Congress officially apologized for slavery in 2008 and 2009. In 2004, the Senate officially apologized for the lynching of African Americans. At least eight different states—and slavery was, as you know, a states issue—have individually apologized for slavery. I have seen almost no one bring up those facts—other than me—in this conversation.

And not only that, I’ve seen that make no dents at all, even though those were longtime requests from the community, the same community of people that want reparations. For years people said “Please can we have an apology? Can we have national-level apology, a state-level apology.”  The apologies come, and it makes no dent at all in the in the wound.

And so what does that tell me? What that tells me is the wound of slavery insofar as it is sincerely felt by people, it’s not going to be healed by anything external.

It’s difficult for me to think, “Look, reparations won’t help anybody because the damage happened so long ago.” That’s hard for me to really accept, because the damage is still happening.

So hold on: What do you mean by reparations? Do you mean a check? Or do you mean a package of specific policies? Because people have very different pictures.

When I say reparations, I think it should be both, frankly, depending on the individual. But I think that the most impactful thing would be to get some actual anti-racist policies in place that dealt with inequities in the health care system, inequities in the education system, in the economic system in wages and small business loans, definitely in criminal justice and law enforcement. That would be the most impactful thing.

That’s extremely complicated. Would I love it? Yes. Is it possible? I’ve been a journalist for too long to say yes to that. I think that aiming for some of that, and then also sending people a check to acknowledge the depth of the harm they have suffered, and the fact that they have not been able to enjoy the inheritance from their ancestors that they should have.

For example: the people whose businesses were burned out in Oklahoma, during that massacre. We [also] have the Eugene race massacre, the homes and the businesses that were destroyed in Detroit when they decided to build a freeway right through the African American part of town. Again and again and again, you see people who are not being able to build up generational wealth, because they were either murdered, it was stolen, their land was taken, destroyed—whatever it may be. So yes, some kind of recompense for the generational inheritance they lost out on, I think, is perfectly OK. But a combination of the two would be ideal.

OK, so whatever anti-racist policies you think are good for the country and good for Black people: Why do you call those reparations? Is the implication that they would not be implemented but for slavery? Or is the implication that they would only go to Black American descendants of slavery as opposed to Black immigrants? Why not just support those policies without labeling them reparations?

I don’t think you have to label them reparations, but because it’s combined with some kind of repair, monetary repair for the damage that’s been done. You know, I’ve spent a long time looking at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that occurred in South Africa. Obviously, that didn’t solve all their problems there. But I when I think about reparations, I think about restorative justice. And whatever reparations look like, to me, they have to have some element of restoration in them.

Again, the disanalogy there is that what happened in South Africa happened between the actual individuals that experienced apartheid, and the actual individuals that perpetrated it. Slave owners are dead and the slaves are dead. You know, we—alive today—could play-act some truth and reconciliation–style interaction. But it’s not genuine. The boat was missed; it’s a tragedy. That doesn’t mean that we ought to but pretend that we’re able to repair that today. I think we have to get on with the project of making life as good as possible for people today, based on the problems that exist today, not based on the problems that weren’t solved 150 years ago.

Listen to the full interview.

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