Coates does not, as you might expect, dwell on the 400+ years of slavery. How do you calculate specific recompense for those years. How do any of us offer recompense to the legions of descendants of those our own ancestors displaced? How do any of us demand recompense from the descendents of those who displaced ours? Looking at the broad scope of history, we all owe and are owed by each other to such an extent that there can be no end to the bookkeeping.
As an older white woman descended from Norwegians and English people who beat up on each other long before they started beating up the rest of the world, I have long maintained that if these tall pale-skinned blondes had treated each other, not to mention everybody else, with fair-minded kindness, we would indeed be the superior people that we came to call ourselves. But I've made this argument before. It's valid, so far as the past is concerned. Guilt does nothing for any of us except flaying our flawed ancestors with an impossible standard. But I have never meant it as an argument for the status quo.
The argument that Coates makes dips into the past, but its a past that lives on into the present. It's a past and present in which real property and possibilities have been jerked out from under the feet of those to whom were promised 40 acres and a mule, at the very least. Who never got that either. Chris Hayes put it succinctly on his show All In: Yoink!
People who have finally acquired a few acres and a couple of mules. Yoink! People who moved north, got a job, worked hard, and found a way to buy a home. Yoink! A kid who could have gone to school, except that he needed his horse - a horse he already owned. Yoink! Double yoink! No horse, no school.
We - 0ur country, our culture, our ancestors and sometimes ourselves - have been the Lucies forever holding out the football to the Charlie Browns of our various sub-cultures, especially those which embody the shame of our history, ever since the Emancipation Proclamation. And then - Yoink!
Because if African-Americans, Native Americans, and Other Americans can't make it in the "real world," well then. What does that tell you?
What it tells me, and what Ta-Nehisi Coates seems to be trying to tell us, is that you can't expect anybody to kick a Yoinked football over the goal posts. But what, you might ask, does he want? What does he mean by reparations? And he doesn't really know either. It's a complicated question. But he does propose a first step.
Representative John Conyers has introduced H.R. 40, A Commission to Study Reparations. It's gone and is going nowhere at present, but it doesn't have to die. It could at least come up for debate. As Coates writes:
No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can't be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as - if not more than - the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent American's maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.