The Case for Owning Inequality

Child at Chicago Projects

There’s one thing I’ve learned for sure from reading about race: A quick way to find the fault line between Left and Right is to broach the subject of reparations. Nothing quite gets Conservatives riled up like a $1.4-trillion transfer of wealth to the African-American community to restore it to what economist Robert Browne described as “the economic position it would have if it had not been subjected to slavery and discrimination.” Reparations, for many conservatives, are nothing more than the ultimate and dangerously irrational manifestation of liberal white guilt—a related concept that gets the bullets flying, too. On that subject, George Will, in his 2006 review of Shelby Steele’s White Guilt, warns that “Black ‘militants’ are actually preaching militant dependency. They have defined justice as making whites feel so guilty that they will take responsibility for black advancement.” That’s some classic George Will right there. In one, tightly coiled sentence, he indicts large swaths of the black community and white liberals.

Meanwhile Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose work I read last year while on a self-guided exploration of race, isn’t shy either. In “The Case for Reparations,” originally published in The Atlantic, he calls for nothing less than a revision of our national identity. He is worth quoting at length here:

The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that 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.

Irrespective of the cost of reparations and the political rabbit-hole associated with such an undertaking, Coates argues that “wrestling publicly with these questions, matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced.” It’s not how big a check America writes, so much as the public dialogue that helps us see our shared heritage as more complicated than the gleaming chimera we celebrate on the Fourth of July. The reward in such a national reckoning, he urges, is “America’s maturation…into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

An American Spiritual Renewal

Interestingly, both Will and Coates argue for a deeper, more rigorous engagement with the issues that make discussion of reparations even thinkable. From whatever ideological camp you view the problem, widespread inequality is undeniable. Federal Reserve data released in 2017 showed that white families have a median net worth that is nearly 10 times that of blacks’. One might conclude, as many on the Right do, that African-Americans just need to pull themselves up by those proverbial American bootstraps and work harder. Coates might counter that it’s tough to do so when you can’t afford boots. I don’t pretend to have mapped out the implications of reparations, nor do I necessarily believe a financial transaction will accomplish anything other than deepen the antipathy between Left and Right. But I have also seen what happens when a nation persists in the delusion that 12 percent of its population lacks the moral or ethical zeal to help itself.

No doubt, I’m moved by Coates’ call for a “national reckoning that would lead to a spiritual renewal”—though the political climate feels a bit chilly for that right now. Still, the only reconciliation I can imagine would come from us all taking some ownership in the problem of inequality and airing it out publicly and intellectually—not with reductive terms like “white guilt” and “militantism,” and not because anyone alive today was ever a slave, or owned one. But because the country we all inherited, whether we like it or not, wasn’t solely shaped by lofty Enlightenment ideals but by slavery and Jim Crow as well. You’d think we could agree on that much.