The Case for Reparations: An Intellectual Autopsy

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, May 22, 2014

The best thing about writing a blog is the presence of a live and dynamic journal of one’s own thinking. Some portion of the reporter’s notebook is out there for you to scrutinize and think about as the longer article develops. For me, this current article–an argument in support of reparations–began four years ago when I opposed reparations. A lot has happened since then. I’ve read a lot, talked to a lot of people, and spent a lot of time in Chicago where the history, somehow, feels especially present. I think I owe you a walk-through on how my thinking evolved.

When I wrote opposing reparations I was about halfway through my deep-dive into the Civil War. I roughly understood then that the Civil War–the most lethal conflict in American history–boiled down to the right to raise an empire based on slaveholding and white supremacy. What had not yet clicked for me was precisely how essential enslavement was to America, that its foundational nature explained the Civil War’s body count.  The sheer value of enslaved African-Americans is just astounding. And looking at this recent piece by Chris Hayes, I’m wondering if my numbers are short (emphasis added):

In order to get a true sense of how much wealth the South held in bondage, it makes far more sense to look at slavery in terms of the percentage of total economic value it represented at the time. And by that metric, it was colossal. In 1860, slaves represented about 16 percent of the total household assets–that is, all the wealth–in the entire country, which in today’s terms is a stunning $10 trillion.

Ten trillion dollars is already a number much too large to comprehend, but remember that wealth was intensely geographically focused. According to calculations made by economic historian Gavin Wright, slaves represented nearly half the total wealth of the South on the eve of secession. “In 1860, slaves as property were worth more than all the banks, factories and railroads in the country put together,” civil war historian Eric Foner tells me. “Think what would happen if you liquidated the banks, factories and railroads with no compensation.”

As with any economic institution of that size, enslavement grew from simply a question of money to a question of societal, even theological, importance.


[Editor’s Note: This very long article is the cover story of The Atlantic this month. The full article is available here.]

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