The idea of reparations has a hypnotic effect on blacks. Not only does it console them with the idea that black failure is someone else’s fault, it comes with the intoxicating fantasy that money will drop out of the sky. The latest version of this fantasy is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.”
There are simple, devastating arguments against reparations for slavery. First, it was practiced by individuals–not the government–yet the government is supposed to tax us to pay for it, even though there is no moral theory would require today’s whites to pay for something a few whites stopped doing 150 years ago.
Only one household in five in the Confederacy owned slaves. Even if it were possible to track down current descendants, there is no legal theory under which they should pay anything either. My grandfather may have murdered your grandfather, but you have no claim on me. You can go shout at my grandfather’s gravestone if you like, but I owe you nothing.
Some people claim it was slavery that made the United States rich, so reparations would just share the wealth. This is foolishness. Slaves were manpower–manpower directed by whites–and were hardly a miracle of productivity. Many abolitionists argued that slave labor was grossly inefficient and that blacks would be more productive if they were put to work at prevailing wages. Indeed, the South, where slavery was practiced longest and which had the largest black population, was always poorer than the North.
African blacks practiced slavery for centuries before Americans did, and it was Africans who sold slaves to whites. There is hardly a single known case of whites capturing and enslaving a black. If Ta-Nehisi Coates wants to blame someone for slavery, he can start with Africans.
Finally, if Mr. Coates wants to figure the cost of slavery—and of the 150 years of agony since then—he should take a look at Africa. Blacks call themselves “African Americans,” but precious few want the squalor, violence, corruption, and disease of the mother continent. They are much better off right where they are–“racism” and all–and they know it.
But Mr. Coates has a new wrinkle on the reparations argument. Although he revels in the eternal burden of slavery, he has a more recent and popular villain: bankers. In particular, he resents the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)–established in 1934–which guarantees mortgage loans for poor people but allegedly made it impossible for blacks to qualify. Along with segregation and restrictive covenants, this kept blacks in misery and set them up for the sub-prime lending crisis. This, believe it or not, is Mr. Coates’ central argument, so let’s take a closer look.
What the FHA did, of course, was set underwriting rules. It didn’t want to guarantee loans for people who would default. It put some “low-income and minority” areas in some cities off limits for guarantees. This is sound banking. It is perfectly logical to avoid lending in dodgy neighborhoods, even if a particular borrower in that neighborhood is a good risk. If the borrower does default, it’s hard to resell a house in a bad area.
How did FHA loans actually work? Were there white people who couldn’t get one because of where they lived? How many blacks would have been turned down no matter where they lived because they had bad credit records? Mr. Coates has no time for questions like these; for him, the FHA was a racist plot.
Since banks wouldn’t lend to blacks, the only people who would were sharks:
Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport. ‘It was like people who like to go out and shoot lions in Africa. It was the same thrill,’ a housing attorney told the historian Beryl Satter in her 2009 book, Family Properties. ‘The thrill of the chase and the kill.’
Setting aside what this says about the intelligence of blacks who can be “herded” and “shot” like game animals, here is yet another version of the myth that refuses to die: that bankers are demented, twisted people who will walk away from a profitable deal with a credit-worthy customer just because he is black. People who sell shoes or cars or funeral insurance do business with blacks, but bankers won’t.
There is an easy test for this theory. If blacks are being held to higher credit standards than whites, their default rates should be lower. In fact, the reverse is true. Studies from the 1990s–and probably from other periods as well–show that blacks stiff their lenders at about three times the white rate.
Mr. Coates knows nothing about this, of course. Instead, banker viciousness just carried on into the new millennium:
Black home buyers—even after controlling for factors like creditworthiness—were still more likely than white home buyers to be steered toward subprime loans. Decades of racist housing policies by the American government, along with decades of racist housing practices by American businesses, had conspired to concentrate African Americans in the same neighborhoods. . . . [T]hese neighborhoods were filled with people who had been cut off from mainstream financial institutions. When subprime lenders went looking for prey, they found black people waiting like ducks in a pen.
More baloney. Again, even in the sub-prime segment, from 1998 to 2006 blacks consistently defaulted at about twice the white rate. What is more, it would never cross Mr. Coates’ mind to consider the tremendous pressures banks were under to lend to blacks and Hispanics, no matter how bad their credit. There are good arguments to be made that the entire banking crisis had its origins in a forced lowering of credit standards for blacks and Hispanics that was extended to white borrowers.
The FHA guaranteed a lot of those bad loans, which meant bankers could set aside their usual worries about repayment, and this meant lending to people who were virtually guaranteed to default. But Mr. Coates wants it both ways: In the 1940s, the FHA was evil because it did not guarantee loans for blacks; in the 2000s it was evil because it did.
So what are we to do after all these centuries of evil? Blacks certainly shouldn’t have to lift a finger to help themselves. Mr. Coates specifically chides Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter for saying they should. That would be useless because “the kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable.” In other words—and this is astonishing—Mr. Coates thinks that white attitudes towards blacks have nothing to do with black behavior.
And we better not think that having a black President suggests that whites have anything but pathological resentment for blacks: “In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good–and enduring twice as much.” Can Mr. Coates really believe this about two people who, their entire lives, have swanned from one affirmative-action handout to the next?
Like so many of today’s pampered blacks, Mr. Coates is convinced the country is collapsing into open racism: “The Voting Rights Act has been gutted. The Fair Housing Act might well be next. Affirmative action is on its last legs.” That’s right: Pretty soon black people won’t be able to vote or buy a house in a white neighborhood. As for affirmative action, Mr. Coates is angry because it is no longer seen as overdue compensation for past evil but as a means to “diversity.” Its purpose should be to help solve “the problem of what America has taken from them [blacks] over several centuries.”
Mr. Coates quotes a former football player to explain what all this means:
The message the young black boy receives from his country, Billy Brooks says, is ‘ ”You ain’t shit. You not no good. The only thing you are worth is working for us. You will never own anything. You not going to get an education. We are sending your ass to the penitentiary.” They’re telling you no matter how hard you struggle, no matter what you put down, you ain’t shit. “We’re going to take what you got. You will never own anything, nigger.” ’
I’m sure that is exactly what every American governor, congressman, mayor, policeman, and school teacher says to himself when he gets up in the morning.
Needless to say, blacks are every bit as smart, hard-working, and disciplined as whites, so any difference in outcomes is due to white malevolence:
Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap. Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same.
And so, finally, once we have got “every aspect of society” weeping with remorse and ready to pay up, what’s the price tag? Mr. Coates suggests we start with the difference in per capita white and black income–someone calculated it as $34 billion back in 1973. The current number “could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two.” A decade or two? Why not three or four?
This is all so stale. Amiri Baraka said the same thing with much more feeling back in 1967:
You can’t steal nothing from a white man, he’s already stole it. He owes you anything you want, even his life. All the stores will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: ‘Up against the wall motherfucker this is a stick up!’
For Mr. Coates the magic word is “reparations.” If white people are robbed raped or killed because enterprising blacks believe this nonsense and just want to cut out the middleman–well, who cares? This kind of excuse-making will be going long after we are gone.
But then Mr. Coates himself rises to poetry:
Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as–if not more than–the specific answers that might be produced.
You see, it’s not about the money after all. A few billion would come in handy, and Mr. Coates certainly believes blacks deserve every penny they could ever screw out of us. But what matters just as much–if not more–is “wrestling publicly” with how unspeakably evil white people are, how mortified we should be just to be alive. Yes, Mr. Coates, we understand. To have white people forever in the mud at your feet is sweeter than all the money in the world.
But let us conclude on a conciliatory note, on something on which we can agree. Mr. Coates writes:
[W]hite supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.
And so we must imagine a new country.
Let’s imagine two new countries, Mr. Coates: one for you and one for us. One in which you will finally be free from the horror of having to deal, generation after generation, with me and my kind. And one in which we, too, will be free.