I finally read “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and I highly recommend people reading the article. Coates does a phenomenal job of detailing and articulating the long history of violent exploitation and oppression of African Americans. Throughout the article he makes a strong case for how this history indicts and incriminates the entirety of U.S. social and political formation. Coates summarizes his arguments by stating “Black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it” and “white 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“. I really appreciate seeing articles in traditionally bourgeoisie liberal outlets articulating the harsh and often unsettling reality of U.S. politics. There is no equivocating that without slavery and the brutal subjugation of African people kidnapped from the continent, America would not exist. The United States exists as a colonial-empire strictly because of the immense wealth amassed from the centuries of unpaid, forced labor of enslaved Africans. Moreover, the U.S. still operates under a logic of slavery that views African Americans as non-human, second class citizens worthy of extrajudicial killing by state actors, mass incarceration, rampant discrimination in all aspects of social life, as well as vulnerability to poverty and pre-mature death. The reality of the current racial and national oppression of African Americans is hardly articulated with such detail in the popular press as it was by Coates in his article.
Nevertheless, the article is not without problems. I will preface by saying that my critiques of Coates are coming from an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist worldview that seeks the revolutionary dismantling of U.S. colonial empire. In the section titled “Toward a New Country”, Coates disappoints by veering into a popular and insidious form of liberal, left patriotism and nationalism, which I expected. Ta-Nehisi’s articles are usually written from a perspective that somewhat aligns well with the nominally left in the U.S. and I have often felt the intended audience for his articles are (white) liberals. Given that this article was published in a major bourgeoisie liberal outlet, I was not expecting any truly revolutionary calls to actions and I am not surprised that at times his arguments slips into liberal thinking. The liberal thinking I am specifically referring to here are the moments where he argues “reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans” or “what is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche” or “what I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal […] A revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history“.
The arguments about “spiritual renewal” or “healing of America” are frankly liberal and idealist. They are not only vague, but they implicitly normalize the continued existence of the United States settler-imperial project. White supremacy and anti-blackness will not disappear through spiritual renewals but through the creation of a revolutionary movement of people committed to transforming the concrete and material political, economic, and social arrangements under which Black people suffer. Furthermore, if one recognizes that the United States and its democracy were founded upon and still operate along the logics of slavery and anti-blackness (as well as settler colonialism and indigenous genocide), then “spiritual renewal” should not be the goal. Instead, the dismantling and unsettling of the United States is the goal. The goal of reparations and black liberation is not to improve American consciousness or to be included in the U.S. nation-state. Nor is the goal of reparations to redistribute resources and wealth to African Americans within the context of U.S. capitalist-colonial formation. Restitution for the centuries of unpaid labor is foundational, but a related and crucial goal of reparations and the revolutionary black freedom struggle has been the abolition of the entire anti-black-colonial-capitalist-imperialist entity that is the United States. Black self-determination and reparations are inseparable from each other. We not only want full repayment of the debt owed to us, but we also — as the Black Panther Party argued — want “to able to determine our destinies in our own communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions which exist in our communities.” We want freedom from the anti-Black U.S. colonial empire.
I am also reminded here of Malcolm X who, like Coastes, recognized that white supremacy and anti-black racism were fundamental to America. However, Malcolm X never articulated a desire to improve the American psyche. In fact, he argued against the very identification with ‘America’ when he stated: “I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.” Decades later, Malcolm X’s words still ring true. American democracy is predicated upon the violent exclusion of African Americans and thus must be opposed, not redeemed.
I am excited that we are revitalizing the conversations around reparations. Yet, let us not forget the legacy of the Black Radical tradition, which understood that calls for reparations and Black self-determination are articulated from a standpoint that neither validates nor seeks inclusion into the U.S. anti-Black settler-imperial state. Although I sincerely doubt the U.S. neoliberal project will ever take seriously calls for reparations and Black self-determination, I wanted to write this piece to clarify that slavery reparations and Black self-determination are political projects that in their historical articulation resist inclusion and co-option. That legacy must never be forgotten.