Conor Friedersdorf has a new piece in the Atlantic responding to the now famous Ta-Nehisi Coates piece "The Case for Reparations". Friedersdorf seeks to advocate for what he calls a set of "race neutral" reparations policies. The kernel of his argument is that seeking race neutral policies to alleviate or compensate for past injuries, in this case housing discrimination, are better than race-based policies because they will compensate more people, thus alleviating more injustice, and prevent racial resentment.
This is, singularly, the greatest piece of concern trolling of all time. I have many, many issues with this piece, but I will try and cover some of my main annoyances, starting with factual/historical miscues and work into larger issues.
Timid, Unimaginative Policies
Friedersdorf offers a variety of different policy recommendations to universally compensate injured parties in a variety of areas, but once you look beyond the fact that the policies are novel, it becomes quite clear that they are incredibly conservative nature and not at all transformative. I am not looking for the dissolution of capitalism, but he can do better.
He first offers a series of modest policies in response to redlining, including federal grants or waiving property taxes, to expanding public transportation and access to school vouchers. Absent the obvious point that many victims of redlining and "slum" clearance no longer own those properties and may no longer own any property and therefore could not be compensated through property tax exemption, these recommended policies are decidedly NOT novel or even that aggressive. School voucher movements and the rise of charter schools are well advanced in many urban areas to where New Orleans school district is now entirely made up of charters. And advocating for decent public transit that serves traditionally disinvested areas? Look, I'm all for it, but to make it seem like this is some grand compensation for past wrongs as opposed to simply how a public transportation should be run is laughable. If this is how you justify providing transport for the transit-dependent, fine, but recognize that comes from a position that believes such public goods should not be geared to serve the most vulnerable AND lets transportation planners, past and current, off of the hook for their racist and anti-poor policies.
A more radical, or even imaginative, set of policies might have included fundamentally restructuring how public schools are funded by decoupling their funding from local property taxes. Or, as Sandy Darity mentioned the other night on twitter, all public and private pre-Civl War institutions should offer free tuition to the descendants of slaves as their endowments universally benefit from the legacies of chattel slavery. Or, if we want to keep policies universal as Friedersdorf prefers, we should make ALL public higher education free. Ever-increasing student debt and disproportionate Black underemployment, even for Black college graduates, shows that access to education should not be limited to those who can pay.
And one set of policies entirely unmentioned that would do some of the most good and be universal would be the vigorous enforcement of existing Fair Housing statutes and the passage of stronger fair housing laws and the re-adoption of public housing in the US. Housing discrimination is a persistent, universal, ongoing problem for millions of people in America, in particular, for people of color. Demanding that HUD more vigorously pursue Fair Housing complaints (and giving them the funding to do so) and encouraging the construction of new housing for low-income folks through a combination of zoning loosening, greater subsidy, and the immediate halt to public housing demolition are policies that would immediately change the nature of our urban landscapes and open up space for a real discussion of disproportionate impact of current and historical decisions.
Americans are racist. Americans are ignorant. Americans are racist and ignorant.
Beyond advocating for "universal" policies, Friedersdorf also attacks Coates's demand for a congressional study on reparations stating that any such study would invariably be politicized and that people are already well aware of the effects of housing discrimsination and slavery. There's a lot in these statements so I'll give you the block quote for better context:
This is the passage in the essay that least persuades me. In part, that's because my faith that Congress would sponsor a rigorous, non-politicized inquiry into reparations approaches zero. Nor do I think that a congressionally sponsored inquiry would confer any more popular legitimacy on the recommendations than a historian's book or a magazine writer's reported feature. There is, too, a hint of presumptuousness here: that if masses of America rigorously studied and fully confronted the history that Coates highlights so powerfully—as if that's going to happen—the result would be a transformation of how they view America. At the top of this article, I linked a number of thoughtful intellectuals who examined history exactly as Coates sees it and made good faith efforts to grapple with his insights and arguments. None of them had their consciousness "revolutionized" by the exercise.
That's not how people or ideas work.
First, the fact that such a study on reparations would be "political" is precisely the point. The topic itself is political and deal with the longstanding racial politics and policies of the US government. The Kerner Commission's report on the "urban crisis" of the late 60s is a useful example here. The commission called out, in print, the racist practices of government at all levels for encouraging and defending segregation and ghettoization and how that lead directly to the riots and recommends immediate redress. It doesn't get more political than that! That's the entire point of such commissions, really. So, the inability of congress to not be political is an absurd level to place such a story. Second, the supposed presumptuousness of Coates's wish for Americans to be fully informed on these issues and thereby transformed assumes Americans are already knowledgeable about these things, and it is obvious they are not.
I am a PhD student and I have had the fortune to attend good to excellent schools my entire life. And NEVER have I been in a classroom whether it was at my DC prep school, a seminar at UNC, or a lecture here in Portland, where someone has not expressed surprise at the outright nastiness of American racial history, in particular to urban policy. Americans are largely ignorant of the LOOOONG history of urban race riots, residential segregation, the outright exclusion of Blacks from varied arms of the progressive movement, the harms of urban renewal, and the current neoliberal turn in urban policy that is based primarily on mass incarceration, the withdrawal of welfare supports of all kinds, and displacement through gentrification. A commission on reparations or even one on the current state of urban America that focused on race would expose a system that is still virulently anti-black and a set of policies that serve only existing economic and political elites. Coates may indeed be presumptuous as to the effect such a commission could have on the collective American conscience, but we haven't even gotten far enough to test the assertion. Friedersdorf advocates for keeping Americans in a comfortable ignorance that can only be expressed through a confused advanced white-guilt complex from progressives and callous indifference from conservatives.
No One Actually Thinks the Federal Government is Blameless
This next section goes after Friedersdorf most nakedly (wrong) libertarian argument of the entire piece: that the federal government is largely responsible for housing discrimination and it complicates the way we view the federal government and its role in racial discrimination.
The logic goes something like this: the federal government enters into vigorous housing policy in the 1930s, culminating in the Federal Housing Acts culminating in the Housing Act of 1949 that set the stage for urban renewal for the next three decades; realtors using the lending guidelines and infamous redlining maps of the Homeowners Loan Corporation redlined many areas of cities, in particular black neighborhoods, and jumpstarted mass housing discrimination and displacement; if the federal government had not entered housing policy black communities would not have been harmed; this connection shows that the federal government is not the benevolent giver of civil rights as loony progressives would have you believe.
Such a chain of logic is absurd on the face of it, but also shows a terrible misreading of history or total ignorance about the history of housing and planning policy in this country at the federal and local levels. Part of this comes from the oft-mentioned, yet mistaken, notion that the Homeowner's Loan Corporation (HOLC) mandated redlining and started the onslaught of disinvestment of poor and black neighborhoods. Amy Hillier has done some great analysis to show that HOLC had actually little to do with the classifying of neighborhoods as redlined for local real estate agents in most cities. The HOLC maps were carefully guarded and were largely made from pre-existing market analyses and racist logics. In other words, black neighborhoods were already de facto redlined by local real estate agents. Thomas Sugrue and other urban scholars make similar points when they point towards the warehousing of blacks in certain parts of cities, in Sugrue's case, Detroit, and starving those areas of funds while preventing blacks from leaving. These were entirely local policies built around keeping blacks segregated. HOLC, in many ways, simply documented the areas that were already largely seen as no-go zones by local real-estate interests.
This is not to absolve the federal government in this. HOLC did not challenge the racist policies of cities and the locking out of blacks from federally subsidized mortgages sped up white flight and ghettoization. The federal government is entirely culpable in these areas. But to say that the lack of federal government intervention in the housing market would somehow have lessened the negative impacts on blacks is preposterous. While the federal government has done many messed up things in regards to housing its entryway into the market from the construction of public housing to fair housing legislation have absolutely benefited blacks, not to mention lifting discriminatory lending practices in relation to federally subsidized loans. In a country where blacks in many places were expressly forbidden from purchasing property, where cities attempted explicit racial zoning policies, and placed multiple barriers to blacks living anywhere except for their designated places by local authorities, the federal government has been absolutely central in opening up space for blacks to live. Such an argument also arbitrarily draws a hard historical line somewhere between 1934 and 1960 as the culmination of federal housing action and ignores ALL of the work the federal government has done since then to try and defend the right of people to live where they can. Not to mention how even drawing such an arbitrary line still ignores policies like public housing that were incredibly helpful for poor populations, both black and non-black alike.
Its this arbitrary drawing lines that allows Friedersdorf to conveniently ignore the Fair Housing Acts, the de-fanging of George Romney's HUD (examined, in depth, in this great piece from Nikole Hannah-Jones) that has crippled Fair Housing to this day, and multiple other policies that federal government has attempted to enact precisely to mitigate and reverse the devastating effects of residential segregation. But who have been the primary opponents of these changes? The same local jurisdictions with long histories of enforcing segregation in the first place! The federal government, as with many times in our history, has been a primary mover, if not always benevolent or perfect, for the advancement of civil rights of African-Americans. To say otherwise is either myopic or patently dishonest.
You Can't Recognize Racial Injury and Argue for Racial Neutrality
Beyond these questions of history and policy, important on their own, lies a larger issue with Friedersdorf's argument that must be addressed. There are two parts here.
The first issue is his valiant effort to make the argument that even as he recognizes in his piece that racism and discrimination in the housing market uniquely injured blacks that our policy prescriptions should not be addressed specifically towards black people. He claims that "universal" policies seeking redress for past behavior will simultaneously help blacks, and the greater population, and also not engender racial resentment.
The first claim, on addressing a greater number of wrong parties, is a strictly utilitarian one. On pure welfare grounds it is hard to ignore, but it contradicts his recognized point that blacks have been uniquely penalized in the housing market compared to other groups. Such an utilitarian approach then subsumes the legitimate, unique injury claims made of blacks by equating them with the injury claims made by other groups. To whit, if you're a white Irish person and your neighborhood was redlined in the late 40s, you would have as equal a claim as a black person whose property may also have been redlined. But what such a point does not recognize is that that white Irish family could draw on private and public funding for new home loans, they had access to residential areas made expressly forbidden to blacks by law, had access to work, at levels of the labor market, traditionally barred from blacks and on and on and on. The claims are entirely incommensurate and to think you could evenly compensate the two is absurd.
The second claim that universal policies will adequately address black injuries is ridiculous. The argument for reparations is fundamentally one based on a rejection of utilitarianism and instead is one based on notions of re-distributive justice and that is precisely why Freidersdorf cannot connect the two. A unique claim of discrimination and injustice means you have to make specific policies to respect those claims. That does not preclude compensating folks who were displaced by urban renewal. By all means do so, but the claims made by blacks are STILL unique because of ongoing anti-black racism that forms the foundation of American existence and policy. Liberalism, especially more libertarian strains, are entirely incapable of accepting a world where justice, accompanied by redistribution, is a legitimate action of the government and not an affront to individual liberty. The liberal ethic, best understood from Rawls as the "primacy of the (political) right over the good" precludes real, radical redistribution of resources. This is Friedersdorf initial policy recommendations are so unimaginative, because he wants to feel as if he's actually doing something without having to give anything up. There is no recognition that non-blacks have gained wealth, influence, and power at the expense of blacks and in virulently non-black institutions since the inception of the nation, and that continuing discrimination ranging from housing discrimination to mass incarceration disproportionately affects blacks and benefits non-blacks, particularly whites.
The second part feeds directly from this lack of awareness and that is Freidersdorf's, and many other commentators in the wake of Coates's piece, utterly shallow understandings of race and its role, not only in history, but in contemporary settings. It is incredibly disheartening that after building up such a great case and set of examples, that Coates's critics only choose to focus on what they frame as a purely historical racist regime as opposed to connecting such de jure racist policies with ongoing de facto racist policies currently. Beyond that, such blindness also prevents these commentators from recognizing how incredibly central racial identity is to America's understanding of itself, primarily because these commentators are too frequently unable to view themselves, read: white people, as themselves raced individuals. If you are able to frame American's development, economic, political, and cultural as one built upon anti-blackness and the expansion of the porous borders of whiteness, then it is impossible to accurately link historical discrimination with current black want and contemporary institutional and structural racism. Blackness remains a heavy barrier in ALL aspects of American life and even moreso historically. If you cannot see the formation of American identity as one of separating one's group from blackness, then you cannot see how utterly absurd a claim of "race-neutral" reparations really is. Because the assimilation project of other ethnic groups in this country, to this very day, is a project of separating one's identity from those of blacks, blackness, and a black politics.
The story of what Adolph Reed calls "benign ethnic succession" that punctuates so many histories of different ethnic groups in our cities has never applied to black Americans. Blacks garnered large municipal power, and even then only temporarily, primarily due to the abandonment of cities by other non-black groups and the forced enclosure of black people in central cities. The projects of ethnic assimilation like the settlement house movement were explicitly barred to blacks. Political machines and trade unions, traditional paths of urban ethnic power grabbing and social mobility, were also forbidden to blacks. The advancement and whitening of other ethnic groups, is built upon, requires, the exclusion of blacks over and over again throughout our history and continues to this day. Not understanding the role race, and really what I mean is anti-blackness, plays in this means that commentators can only ever point towards seemingly "universal" policy prescriptions that act only as band-aids on the gaping chest wound that is America's relationship with the descendants of its slaves.
Finally, and if you've made it this far, I thank you for your patience, I would say that there is no room for those who would wish to try and straddle this logical divide over reparations. You can argue against them, and I can respect your view, but what I cannot abide is for someone to recognize that blacks indeed have been, and continue to be, uniquely injured by American policy and that this requires a set of policy prescriptions, and then have the temerity to say that blacks should not be given special consideration within said policies. It's a contradictory position that cannot hold. One must take the honest position that either we must do more and it should targeted towards blacks, even as we seek more universal solutions, or one must stand firm on the ground of Rawls and other liberals and say that while the history is wrong and blacks may have a unique claim is too heavy a cost to individual liberty to do anything substantive about it. That may be unjust, but at least it is honest.