Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A response to Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations"

It seems all of America was reading "The Case for Reparations" over the weekend. It is a great article; Coates has done a splendid job of compiling years worth of his own research and observations to make the case that African-Americans have been robbed since the country's founding and that since restitution was not made after the Civil War, the results have simply been a compounding of loss of potential income and wealth.

Coates confronts myths about racism and civil rights espoused by both left and right "From the (current) White House on down." He points out that "Roosevelt’s New Deal, much like the democracy that produced it, rested on the foundation of Jim Crow." The GI Bill and federal housing policy, which are often thought of as helping minorities, were designed to discriminate against blacks such that they saw little benefit from them. He details the long history of legal discrimination and fraudulent activities that have targeted blacks from the Civil War to the recent subprime mortgage bust. He also argues that reparations are not historically unprecedented-- they were discussed frequently in the 1800s and there is international precedent as well (see the section on Germany and Israel towards the end of the piece).

Coates makes very good points. But might there be another people to whom the U.S. government arguably owes much greater in terms of reparations? One that very simple reforms would grant them property rights and a true path to self-determination? How about Native Americans.

Take, for example, the demographics of North Lawndale, a Chicago neighborhood, as offered by Coates. Let's compare that to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. 

"(North Lawndale) is 92 percent black. Its homicide rate is 45 per 100,000—triple the rate of the city as a whole. The infant-mortality rate is 14 per 1,000—more than twice the national average. Forty-three percent of the people in North Lawndale live below the poverty line—double Chicago’s overall rate. Forty-five percent of all households are on food stamps—nearly three times the rate of the city at large. Sears, Roebuck left the neighborhood in 1987, taking 1,800 jobs with it. Kids in North Lawndale need not be confused about their prospects: Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center sits directly adjacent to the neighborhood."

Pine Ridge Reservation-- seen as a P.O.W. camp to those who live there (estimates have to be made because too few will respond to the Census):
94% Native American.
Teen suicide rate 150% above U.S. average.
Life expectancy: 48 for men, 52 for women. 
85-95% unemployment rate.
95% of population below the federal poverty line.
Over 50% of adults have diabetes.
60% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are infested with Black Mold, Stachybotrys, etc.

That's one reservation out of many in the U.S. African-Americans have better odds of owning property, starting a business, and having crimes prosecuted than Native Americans on Pine Ridge.

I could go on. The plight of the Native American was chronicled very well in PBS' American Experience documentary We Shall Remain. Diane Sawyer also drew attention to Pine Ridge recently.

I don't begrudge Coates' argument about reparations, I just want to say there are others who are at least equally deserving.


lucas said...

I posted the Atlantic article on Facebook and a friend had the same reaction as you. While I agree that it's important to remember the plight of Native Americans, it would be a mistake to pit the two groups and their respective injustices against each other. Doing so only benefits those who have and continue to benefit from that injustice. I ran across an excellent, if not very heady, article on this just today which attempts to tease out some of the nuances of this problem and this particular response by white folks who feel solidarity with either african-americans or indigenous people.


Justin Tapp said...

I have to say I found that article confusing, I'm not sure how exactly it relates. Is his main question: "how can critiques of settler colonialism proceed so that white scholars do not appear to be their origin, their proper authors, or their possessors?" I have no idea what the "Two-Spirit Movement" is.

My intent is not to pit the two groups' grievances against each other but to point out that one is getting major attention and discussed seriously, whereas the other gets swept under the rug. But speaking of colonialism, people in American Samoa and Puerto Rico also have some grievances that should be addressed. Americans forget about their responsibilities to all those they govern.