Skip to main content

Why we need to talk about reparations

By Eric Liu
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri June 27, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Atlantic's June cover story about reparations generated strong reactions
  • Eric Liu: There's a reflexive move to find reasons why reparation couldn't be done
  • He says whether reparations are feasible or not, we should at least discuss the issue
  • Liu: When we understand why reparations make sense will we get to "beyond race"

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "A Chinaman's Chance" and "The Gardens of Democracy." He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- African-Americans deserve reparations. Discuss.

The idea of reparations -- that the descendants of slaves should be compensated by the national government for the wrongs and the legacy of slavery -- has always been controversial.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic wrote the June cover story, "The Case for Reparations," he set a traffic record for the magazine's website. He provoked responses from across the political and ethnic spectrum. Some of his critics did him the courtesy of reading the entire 16,000-word piece. Others, particularly in the Twittersphere, reacted viscerally to the headline and to reactions to the headline.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

Through many of these responses, whether thoughtful or tossed-off, there's been a certain thread of uneasiness; a reflexive move to find reasons why reparation couldn't be done or why it wouldn't be workable or fair.

To me, this reflex is as interesting as the original argument. And it suggests that before America could ever actually do reparations, America would have to first be able to imagine the necessity of reparations. The greatest obstacle to considering reparation isn't practicality; it's a dearth of moral imagination.

Reparations for Holocaust survivors
U.S. "burdened with a legacy of slavery"
Jones: Nugent comments are racist

Coates makes a powerful and persuasive case. He describes not just the obvious injury that demands redress -- namely, slavery -- but also the way in which whites after emancipation systematically and over most of the ensuing 150 years built a nation premised on second-class status for blacks and on supremacy for whites.

The obvious example is the latticework of code and custom that we call Jim Crow. But as Coates reminds us, white supremacy was not just about measures of outright racial subjugation; it was also baked into measures intended to create wealth and opportunity, like parts of the New Deal, which contained many devil's bargains with conservative Southern Democrats to exempt African-Americans. And it plays out in today's criminal justice and incarceration regimes.

What Coates recounts in painstaking detail is an un-whitewashed history of African-American citizenship. It comes as revelation only if you really didn't want to know the truth. Anyone black, by telling their family history, could have told you this history and anyone not black could have read about it.

But his article is in some ways mistitled. Coates is not quite making a case for reparations. He's making a case for a discussion of reparations. He doesn't pretend to spell out all the operational policy choices that would have to be made to put reparations into effect. The closest he comes to a legislative recommendation is to tout a perennially neglected bill that Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, introduces every session of Congress, which calls simply for a public study of the possibility of reparations.

This isn't a shortcoming of Coates' argument; it is its purpose. What we need to do is to study the issue in earnest. To have a hearing, in the deepest sense. To listen to the difference between Americanness and whiteness, and to notice the manifold ways that whiteness was (and is) an identity fabricated from the myth of blackness.

To be sure, every ethnic group that's not called white has experienced suffering in American life. But the experience of African-Americans is exceptional in its systematic, multigenerational, reverberating effects. And it's exceptional in its centrality to the founding and building of our nation. No experience reveals more than the African-American experience both the hypocrisy and the possibility of our national creed.

Does any of this answer the question everyone wants to rush to, the question of implementation and how reparations would actually work? How to decide which people are called "black" or "black enough" to get compensation? How to allocate reparations? How to decide how much? How to decide who decides? How to begin the process without it leading to the unraveling of every aspect of institutional wealth, privilege and power in our country? No, Coates doesn't answer these questions. He asks for a hearing.

And the point of a hearing on reparations -- and making it a civic experience as profound and prismatic as the Watergate hearing -- is not to get the American public to "how." It's to get us to "why." For only when we understand why reparations are justified, even if in good faith we cannot yet figure out how or even whether they could be feasible, will we have a shot at being "beyond race."

Maimonides said, "Teach thy tongue to say 'I do not know' and thou shalt progress." On a topic as charged as race, and as woven into the warp and woof of American identity as whiteness, the temptation is always to speak emphatically from fear or pain. But if more of us in reaction to reparations simply say, "I do not know -- but I wish to understand," then we will be making true progress.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT