Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?

Shawn Semmler, Ferguson, MO. August 16, 2014.

In the summer of 1960, James Baldwin wrote an essay he styled “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” Among the host of ills he observed in the neighborhood where he was born and raised, he gave a prominent place to the dynamics of racialized policing:

The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive … Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality. I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once.

Like so many of us watching events unfold on the live feed from Ferguson, Missouri, I thought about how depressingly familiar it all looked. How many times has this very script played out in our lives? What year wasn’t there a prominent slaying of a black citizen under dubious circumstances, followed by an outbreak of rioting? Here is Baldwin in 1960, describing the archetype in his characteristically lucid way, with empathy but also a stern moral clarity:

It is hard on the other hand to blame the policeman… he too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed… He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is. … He can retreat from his unease in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

The vulnerability of racially marked bodies to power, particularly police power, and the lack of justice — the singular and persistent evidence of gross unfairness where race and the law intersect — reveals a bloody knot in the social fabric that is as vivid in Ferguson, Missouri today as it was in Baldwin’s Harlem half a century ago. What can be done to end this awful cycle of violence? What still prevents so many blacks from being treated with full humanity — treated, in Baldwin’s words, as men?

In German, the word schuld means both guilt and debt. In the context of the American debate about race relations, “reparations” likewise reflects both sides of the coin. The principal difficulty with reparations, as with black history in America more generally, is that guilt is an unpleasant feeling, susceptible of clouding judgment. Guilt colors the whole conversation. Today nobody can deny that being charged with racism is one of the most incendiary charges one can levy in public life. People are genuinely mortified by the accusation; many fear to even approach racial topics, or tread though them like a minefield. This legacy of political correctness has proved double-edged. On the one hand, a certain kind of public discourse is far less poisonous and injurious than it was a few decades ago. On the other hand, we have made race a relentlessly personal issue, one that often shields and distracts us from the harder questions of structural inequality, racial hierarchy and social control.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, an editor for The Atlantic, has recently joined a long tradition of black American writers stretching back to David Walker by calling upon America to live up to its moral promise; to reimagine itself, in Coates’s words, through “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” His essay “The Case for Reparations” has renewed the enduring debate about the possibility of reparations as payment for racial injustice in the United States.

The popularity of the piece has led, predictably, to a considerable backlash, notably among black conservatives, with much of the criticism grounded in the notion that the topic of reparations is harmful rather than helpful to a conversation about racial politics. But Coates is right to take us back: in “reparations,” he has resuscitated a word with the rhetorical heft necessary to shift a conversation on race that has become too personalized, and too complacent. It is far more productive for us to argue about reparations than about, say, graphic suffering in 12 Years a Slave, or how wonderful (or troubling?) it is that Lupita Nyong’o is now a fashion icon. Talking numbers, legal cases: all this may not be as jolting as the prostrate flesh at the whipping post. Yet it represents what we still don’t seem to know: for whites, the extent to which blacks were defrauded and stolen from; for blacks, an oft-forgotten history of resistance, like Chicago’s Contract Buyers League, laying the groundwork for renewed action in the present.

At the same time, I want to seize on the opening Coates has provided to suggest a different emphasis, one which ultimately comes down to thinking about reparations for racial injustice as a moral rather than a material debt, and one that must be repaid politically, not compensated for economically.

I should make a few things clear here. First, Ta-Nehisi Coates does think America owes a moral debt to African-Americans; it’s just that he believes one way of discharging that debt is through material compensation. I agree that compensation is owed, and, like Coates, I am not impressed by the usual objections, many of which Coates anticipates and counters in his own essay. Typically these involve throwing up one’s arms over the practical conundrums of determining who is owed what, how much, how to be accounted after so many years, etc. What about people of mixed race? What about recent immigrants? What about all the white Americans who fought with the Union and bled and died to defeat the Confederacy? (I won’t respond to those here. For those interested Coates has good rebuttals to many of these objections, which he posted in a follow-up article.)

Ultimately, I think we ought to reject a program for material reparations in America for two reasons. The first is that no amount of monetary compensation can rectify a debt that consists in the broken promise of a social contract; this contract is a moral good, and therefore its abrogation a moral debt.

What do I mean by a moral debt? It is not fashionable these days to talk about the principle of a social contract. But the American founders were intimately attached to the idea, and placed it at the center of their reasoning and justification for creating a democratic republic. That this framework for freedom and flourishing was built over and against a massive system of black enslavement is at the heart of the American contradiction, our original sin. There is a strong belief today that the Civil Rights movement redeemed that sin for all time. But a real democracy doesn’t live on its laurels — it has to be “worked out in terms of the needs, problems, and conditions of … social life,” as the philosopher John Dewey reminds us. Can anyone today seriously maintain that there isn’t urgent work to be done to integrate poor black communities politically and socially, or that there is not a strong case for favoring such work over other potentially worthwhile objectives?

My second objection is pragmatic, although not in the sense described above. Despite the justifiability of the case for material reparations, it is vastly improbable that they will ever be mandated politically, whereas reasonable new initiatives in education, policing, prison reform, community empowerment, and sentencing reform, even if difficult, should all be realizable within the horizon of contemporary politics.

Ta-Nehisi Coates knows that the chance of restitution resulting from a reparations bill passing in Congress is nil; the gambit is that even without enforcement the required return to forgotten history could provoke “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” I agree that we need to have the kind of conversation that would lead to a national reckoning. I just think the issue of monetary loss and compensation is not the right angle from which to pursue it.

Let me be clear: Coates is not wrong to address the wealth gap. Far too few Americans understand the way black poverty has been systematically contoured and shaped by white power, by whites refusing black populations access to the levers of upward mobility that they then endlessly complain blacks fail to take advantage of. Yet Coates’s overarching emphasis on material loss can make it seem as though our affective reaction should primarily be motivated by material inequality. Coates writes that “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.” The wealth gap is obviously a significant metric for blacks today, but I would argue it is not nearly as significant as the black incarceration rate, as the death rate of blacks at the hands of police, as the number of failing schools in black school districts. The “Colored Only” sign says to a black person that they have been robbed of much more than what could or should be in their wallet.

Toward the end of his article, Coates draws a comparison to the case for German reparations after the Holocaust. The comparison is thought-provoking but inexact. One obvious problem is that, in the German case, the reparations were paid to the state of Israel. A state can collect and allocate large-scale resources in ways that can generate gainful investments benefitting the population it speaks for. In the case of reparations to American blacks, there is no state organ on the side of the collector. More importantly, the Israeli Jews on the receiving end of German reparations were citizens of a separate nation from the one that was paying them. The reparations we are concerned with here are not for foreigners, or a group of African Americans with their own state in, say, Liberia. The taking and giving in this instance would be from the same people; black American taxpayers would be handing money back to themselves. Within its own borders the way for a state to do justice to an oppressed minority is not by paying it off, but by creating the conditions for it to flourish equally.

Reparations as cash equivalent, even if justified, would be inherently superficial in this sense. But there is another way of thinking about reparations. Instead of arguing about wealth, we could talk about freedom from domination, community control, and justice before the law. Reparations in the form of political and legal reform, a recognition that blacks still need and deserve greater control over their communities, and the resources to make that control efficacious. The disturbing images from Ferguson are clear: a police force with a local power structure that is overwhelmingly white coupled with jurisdiction over a community that is predominantly black is a recipe for disaster. None of this should be surprising given our history — but that does not make it intractable. We have addressed such problems with democratic principles and reform-minded politics before.

I wanted the protection of the law,” Clyde Ross responded when Ta-Nehisi Coates asked him why he left Mississippi for Chicago. Ironically, Mr. Ross would find himself again the victim of unjust housing policy in the North. The protection of the law is not something that white Americans are used to thinking of as a luxury. But for black Americans the law has only rarely functioned as a protection, and then only after it has been struggled for mightily. I don’t use the word luxury casually. It’s astonishing how often people talk about Civil Rights without considering how deeply illogical it is that Civil Rights needed to be passed in the first place — how it took a hundred years after Emancipation for blacks to have protections to which they understood themselves entitled even in bondage.

The hypocrisy of white power in the United States has long flowed through illegal, extralegal or flagrantly immoral channels. It is black Americans who time and again have called for ensuring truer and broader justice in the land — for America to live up to the formidable ideals of its charter and not just pay lip service to them.[1] That deep sense of corrective justice suffuses King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” with its profound meditation on just and unjust law, and with its memorable and timely chiding of the “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” From Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign, to Freedom Summer, to the ongoing campaign against the unconstitutional “Stop-and-Frisk” policy in New York City, black Americans have relentlessly advocated for a nation of laws, for respect for Constitutional rights and for freedom from domination, the cornerstone of republican participation and inclusion in the social body.

And yet the poisonous dynamic that Baldwin described hasn’t shifted an inch. Blacks in the most vulnerable and poorest areas of America continue to experience the law as a raw power relation, the police as a hostile enforcer to be distrusted or openly resisted. People continue to be astonished at “no-snitching” attitudes, even as police continue to justify coercion and abuse by framing their captives in the same light as the Bush and Obama administrations have painted terrorists: folks beyond the reach of the law, folks that bad things (like torture) happen to, because — implicitly — they deserve it. This situation, one of negative tension rather than positive justice, has all but drowned out the voice of Mr. Ross. But his desire to simply be “protected by the law” has always burned behind black demands for access to the law, for an instrument that respects their moral agency and values their lives accordingly.

We would do well to recall images that we have allowed ourselves to forget. Like that famous photograph of old Mose Wright, standing and pointing in the courthouse in Tallahatchie, Mississippi to identify the men who abducted and murdered Emmett Till. He risked his life to do what was right, and in faith that the law would bring justice. It did not. The all-white, all-male jury acquitted the killers who left the courtroom smiling. People who watched and rewatched videotape of police beating Rodney King in 1992 were sure the LAPD would finally have to be held accountable for a practice blacks knew was routine in their neighborhoods. The police were acquitted. L.A. exploded. In 1997 Amadou Diallo, a black immigrant from Guinea pulled out his wallet to produce identification and was shot 41 times by police who claimed they saw a gun. Officers were acquitted. In 2006 Sean Bell was leaving his bachelor party when he was gunned down by plainclothes officers, also acquitted. In 2009, Oscar Grant was shot in front of a packed rush-hour train while lying facedown with his hands over his head on the subway platform. Riots had to be suppressed in San Francisco. Blacks felt sure that in 2012 with a black president in the White House, history could not repeat itself in the case of Trayvon Martin. But it did. Even the O.J. Simpson case of 1994, a “victory” that proved terribly pyrrhic, revealed how deeply American blacks wanted to believe that they could have the power of the law serve them.

Earlier this summer, the death of Eric Garner — a black man selling illegal cigarettes — at the hands of police who were videotaped taking him down in an illegal chokehold, revived racial tensions in New York City. A report from the New York District Attorney’s office that adolescent inmates at Rikers Island have for years been systematically physically abused and had their rights violated will perhaps shock some white New Yorkers, but it is only a small part of a pattern that is common knowledge to the city’s blacks. The cases continue in their ugly procession. Today the nation knows the name of Michael Brown, dead at the hands of a white policeman in Ferguson who shot the unarmed teenager six times in broad daylight.

These are only the most publicized cases, the tip of the iceberg. There are innumerable examples that don’t grab headlines, like that of 16-year-old Corey Stingley — who in December 2012, about ten months after Trayvon Martin’s death, stupidly shoplifted some wine bottles he was too young to buy from a corner store in suburban Milwaukee. He was restrained at the store by three older white men, and held in a chokehold that ended his life. In an excellent documentary Vice News produced on the case, Corey’s father, Craig Stingley, says, “I’m not going to stop pursuing the justice that my son deserves, until I know that there is no justice. And that will be an indictment on the system in and of itself.”

Would the local D.A. have taken the case to trial, instead of dismissing it, if Corey were a 16-year-old white boy and had been pinned down by three grown black men? What if the D.A. had been black instead of white? Forget the racial dynamics for a moment. Consider simply that Corey’s father is moved with extraordinary calm to seek justice in the law; all he asks is that his son’s death be allowed to go to trial. Even that has been denied. The father has spoken on what that lack of justice means. But the failure of justice spreads like a ripple, and for Corey’s white girlfriend Maddie, and particularly the other black citizens of Milwaukee, a wave of ominous questions must now cloud their lives.

Injustice has an affective, emotional dimension that is deeply corrosive, but which can never be quantified. The rage and pain that blacks feel when white officers are acquitted has no useful coefficient — yet I would submit it is precisely this kind of injustice that most seriously frays black confidence in integration, by reinforcing already deeply ingrained attitudes towards institutions. The point is that injustice inflicts primarily a moral cost, and only incidentally a monetary one. Thomas Piketty may have recently revived a conversation about inequality of income, but many Americans fail to fully recognize that a well-segregated subset of their fellow citizens still do not see equality before the law.

Such a blow can be literally fatal. The deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police cannot be attributed to the wealth gap: plenty of poor whites come into police custody all the time. But the deaths of black men at the hands of police can, by destroying and warping moral confidence in society, contribute in very real ways to the persistence of a wealth gap. If black men feel confirmed in their status as outlaws, as rejected and unwanted bodies, it’s more likely to harden patterns of anti-social behavior that will isolate and impair them. How can you in good faith enter a society that treats you more like an enemy combatant than a citizen?

It is undeniable that the ghettoes experienced a brutal shift in the 1980s and 1990s, as the government ramped up the so-called War on Drugs and the neo-liberal state retreated from social care, in favor of what sociologist Loic Wacquant has called “punishing the poor.” This climate of violence and fear damaged solidarities and communities in ways we still haven’t come to terms with. You can hear the shift in black music, as hip-hop hardened between 1988 and 1994. Biggie’s “Things Done Changed,” Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” and a litany of similar tracks show a deep awareness of a change in conditions that isn’t about poverty, but about violence, incarceration and drugs. When Nas says in the song “Halftime,” from Illmatic (1994), that he “raps in front of more niggas than in the slave ships,” the historical continuity is telling. It speaks volumes that his imagination can seamlessly recast the projects as nothing but the long, hardened shadow of the slaver’s hull.

When I used to teach at a high school in Red Hook, Brooklyn, I would assign a beautiful book by the photographer Jamel Shabazz called A Time Before Crack. Shabazz grew up in Red Hook in the late Seventies and Eighties, documenting the nascent hip-hop generation that was coming up around him. My students loved seeing images of an optimistic youth that had “swag” but didn’t appear to look or feel criminalized, “gangster.” They saw images of a generation that was ready to live, not ready to die. They couldn’t recognize themselves in it. The issue wasn’t money — the kids in the pictures didn’t seem any poorer or wealthier than them. Something else was missing.

The Princeton political theorist Philip Pettit has been a proponent of a return to republican (with a small “r”) values in political philosophy. Republicanism, a tradition founded in classical Rome that flourished in the city-states of Renaissance Italy, conceives the relation of the individual to the state primarily as a subject bound by laws and duties. But its most essential feature, according to Pettit, is non-domination. In his 2012 book On the People’s Terms, he reminds us that for republicans “the evil of subjection to the will of others, whether or not such subjection led to actual interference, was identified and indicted as the iconic ill from which political organization should liberate people.” This evil was described as “being subject to a master, or dominus” — suffering domination — and was contrasted with the good of libertas, liberty. The state must guarantee citizens freedom from domination from each other, but, importantly, “it also needs to guard against itself practicing a form of public domination.” For republicanism to work the people must “demand a rich array of popular controls over government.”

It is no accident that blacks in the United States would be attracted to a republican conception of politics. Black Americans are the only population in U.S. history to have known complete lack of lawful protection in regular peacetime society, a condition described by Giorgio Agamben as the “bare life” of homo sacer: the human being whom the sovereign treats as existing beyond the reach of the law, capable of being terminated at any time and without any legal or moral cost. (Sociologist and cultural historian Orlando Patterson famously named this condition “social death.”) The black man in America has often been imagined as an outlaw, but in truth blacks more than any other group have fought for the sanctuary of the law, seeing in it their best weapon for securing freedom from domination.

Arguably it is that intangible freedom that subtends the possibility all other goods; where it is eroded or negated, all else fails. It won’t help Mr. Ross to pay off his mortgage with a reparations check if he has to continue living in a neighborhood that is patrolled like a war zone. No material reparation of any kind would have made a difference to Michael Brown’s fate as he ran from an ugly encounter with a cop. His family cannot be consoled by a check in the place of a son going off to college. And the black citizens of Ferguson cannot trust they are safe, or believe they are equal, if they don’t see justice.

Think about how the world looks from one of the black ghettos we hear about — say, on the South Side of Chicago. Think of the real pressures of domination that shape the perspective of so many young black men, who by reasonable inference from their immediate environment see themselves in an overtly antagonistic relationship to a Foucauldian state that expends considerable resources to discipline and punish them, and none to secure a basic foundation for their flourishing. They are born squeezed between what Hobbes would have recognized as a war of all against all, where life is “nasty, brutish and short,” and what Michelle Alexander has called “The New Jim Crow,” a society that has shamefully crowned America with the highest incarceration rate in the world, with the federal inmate population increasing by 800 percent between 1980 and 2013. Unfreedom is everywhere, nowhere is safe, justice is the law of the gun. Let’s focus on changing these conditions. When we do, I’m confident blacks will reconstitute all the wealth they need.

Gil Scott-Heron has a beautiful song I wish Ta-Nehisi Coates and all of us would listen to again. It’s called “Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul?” The title is also the refrain, but the force of the rhetorical question lies in its pithy yoking of materialism and slave capitalism to a logic that transcends the material. This is also the crux of my dissent: What can reparations mean when the damage cannot be accounted for in the only system of accounting that a society recognizes? Part of the work here is thinking about the value of human life differently. This becomes obvious when commentators — including Coates — get caught up trying to tabulate the extraordinary value of slaves held in bondage (don’t forget to convert to today’s dollars!). It shouldn’t be hard to see that doing so yields to a mentality that is itself at the root of slavery as an institution: human beings cannot and should not be quantified, monetized, valued in dollar amounts. There can be no refund check for slavery. But that doesn’t mean the question of injury evaporates, so let us ask a harder question: Who will pay reparations on my soul?

Black American music has always insisted upon soul, the value of the human spirit, and its unquenchable yearnings. It’s a value that explicitly refuses material boundaries or limitations. You hear it encoded emblematically in the old spirituals. Black voices steal away to freedom. They go to the river. They fly away. Something is owed.

But the very force of this debt lies in the fact that it cannot be repaid in the currency that produced it. There is a larger question at stake, a question of values and social contracts, and about dismantling the intimate relationship between white supremacy and capitalism, which threatens to make a mockery of the republican promise of freedom from domination.

Reparations should be about bending the social good once again towards freedom and the good life. The War on Drugs and its corollary, mass incarceration, represent a massively unjust and abusive use of state power with massive consequences. I firmly believe it will go down as a blight on American history. For the work of reparations, dismantling its legacy and restoring confidence in a demilitarized social life is urgent. Thankfully, there are some signs that — however belatedly and feebly — Eric Holder’s Justice Department is inching in that direction.

In other areas, too, there are divinations of progress. The nation is slowly recognizing the absurdity of its sentencing guidelines, with New York’s judge John Gleeson serving as a powerful voice to reform mandatory minimums with infamously disparate racial impacts. In Newark, newly elected mayor Ras Baraka is championing citizen involvement and empowerment at the neighborhood level, in part by organizing concerned citizens to monitor and patrol high crime areas in coordination with city police, making them stakeholders in neighborhood safety and not just collateral damage to police enforcement. Prison reform that would track juvenile non-violent offenders into spaces isolated from a harder prison population should be explored. Accountability and reform that prevents the physical and sexual assault too often endured by American prisoners is needed. Examining the hiring and training of local and state police, and ensuring that communities have a say in how they are policed, and who is policing them, is an urgent business. And Black Americans must strive to reinvigorate a communal, grassroots politics that brings pressure from below, a pragmatic social politics that black intellectuals like Eddie Glaude, Jr., Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have been advocating for years now. These practices and demands of civic inclusion are what a republic is supposed to embody: a freedom where people care for each other and hold each other accountable.

After Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay was published, the popular liberal pundit Ezra Klein interviewed him for Vox. There is a touching and awkward moment in that interview when Coates tells Klein that he is interested in the question of whether a state can have the kind of memory that a parent has for a child: a love unconditional, but that doesn’t shy away from recognizing vices and flaws. Klein takes up the point, but not the metaphor. It struck me as a fascinating moment because in some ways this is a very “black” way of thinking about society, of the body politic, one that makes perfect sense for Coates to evoke, but which Klein would likely never articulate in quite that manner.

Black Americans have long maintained an understanding and practice of kinfolk acknowledgment, born from the condition of subordination in a racially hierarchical society, that extends kindred belonging to all those in need of it. Black men who don’t know each other are “brothers”; a black woman I give directions to in the street will say, “Thank you, baby.” And we’ve never had any other choice than to make white America a part of the family; our self-understanding as Americans depends in part on it. Chris Rock makes the joke that Uncle Sam is kind of like the uncle who molested you, then paid your way through college. Everyone knows that Jefferson and Washington are more likely than not to be black family names.

Blacks have often understood family, and the love of family, as a metaphor for society, an affective relationship based on mutual respect and realistic expectations. The American state, initially constructed by and for whites only, has never fully relinquished its conviction that blacks are subjects who need to be dominated. There is no way forward, no path to King’s “table of brotherhood” where we sit together as family, without demolishing the remnants of that mindset. We won’t see a republic of socially responsible, free and equal persons until the ugly damage of racial domination in America is repaired.


  1. The tradition goes back to the founding. David Walker in his Appeal of 1829, invoked the broken social contract when countering Thomas Jefferson’s racist pseudo-science in Notes on the State of Virginia. The theme is the thunder in Frederick Douglass’s blistering philippic, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” And it is why Dr. King, in his last speech, directed mostly to an audience of illiterate sanitation workers, could get such a clamoring response when he said, “somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.” None of the workers there had likely “read” the founding documents; but they could read King’s irony perfectly. They were striking for a fair wage, but it wasn’t just about money. Someone wearing a sign that says “I AMMAN” is not merely asking for a pay raise. At stake in Memphis was a claim on a civil birthright.