Skip to main content

Why we need to talk about reparations

By Eric Liu
June 27, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
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
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT