Race and History

America Is Coming to Terms with Its Racial Past—Let’s Look Ahead Instead

We don’t need a “national conversation.” We have that every day. We need reading programs, no War on Drugs, and other concrete solutions.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

There was a time when reparations for slavery was a hot issue in race discussions in America. Randall Robinson’s The Debt was widely read, and there were endless forums on the issue nationwide. However, 9/11 broke the flow, and before long, Hurricane Katrina and then a certain senator from Illinois basically rendered reparations yesterday’s news.

However, in this month’s Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates revives the issue. There is little point in rehashing the rather easy arguments against the old-school notion of reparations in the form of cash payments to black people. Coates chronicles and pays his respects to this kind of proposal but seems to feel that they would be mere genuflection. He wants “more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe.”

His proposal is richer than any such thing; namely, he calls for a psychosocial revolution in American thought—“the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” It seems that for Coates, the money would be unimportant except as a vehicle of this transformation of perception, his main interest. As such, he is ultimately presenting, he is ultimately presenting an extended version of a now traditional call among educated black people for a “conversation” on race.

The idea is that the civil rights revolution was incomplete, and that black people will only truly overcome when America as a whole comes to a full and penitent understanding of the role that racism has played in black people’s past and present. Not just in the form of bad words and real-estate covenants, but as an institutional un-leveler of the playing field, as a micro-aggressional poison in social interactions, as what many term “what America has always been all about.”

Yet one can fully acknowledge the scourge that racism is and has been while being perplexed at a depiction of America as somehow blind to it. Far from turning a blind eye to the issue, America would seem rather obsessed with race, and has been for a long time.

Take even two random years a good while ago now. In 2001, a traveling museum exhibit of the Henrietta Marie slave-ship artifacts was launched and broke attendance records in 20 cities, while at a centennial celebration of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, organizers highlighted the racially discriminatory side of the original event. The following year, Washington Representative Hans Dunshee, white, agitated to have Jefferson Davis’ name removed from a Seattle highway and replaced by the name of a black Civil War veteran, William P. Stewart. Meanwhile in Ohio, white Underground Railroad buffs decried historical distortions in a museum then in the planning stages, while in York, Pennsylvania, to counter a white supremacist group that had travelled there to demonstrate, 400 people, white and black, held a unity rally. One could go on, year by year.

Despite frequent claims that America “doesn’t want to talk about race,” we talk about it 24/7 amidst ringing declamations against racism on all forms. Over the past year’s time, I need only mention Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Over the past few years, three of the best-selling and most-discussed nonfiction books have been Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Rebecca Skloot’s book about the harvesting of a black woman’s cancer cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), and Michelle Alexander’s invaluable The New Jim Crow. And let’s not forget recent major release films such as The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and The Butler.

Can we really say that these are signs of a nation in denial about race, racism, and its history?

Yet for writers like Coates, somehow none of this is enough. A shoe has yet to drop. We remain an “America that looks away,” “ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” But what, exactly, is the suggestion here? Surely not that no racism exist anywhere in the country—but what, then? In exactly what fashion could 317 million people “reckon” or come to certain eternally elusive “terms” with racism? Especially in a way that would satisfy people who see even America’s current atonements as insufficient?

The haziness here recalls doctrine more than proposal. The reality is something less proactive than reactive, not an initiative but a condition—a matter of identity. Four-hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow left us unwhole, and unfortunately susceptible to a baseline sense of existential grievance as a keystone of being black.

The only question is why things would not have come out this way. But, because we are faced with a matter of identity, a sense of self, we have to ask: would the “coming to terms,” once it had happened, be enough?

Imagine: “Okay. The acknowledgment has been expressed. I accept it, and now, finally we can move on.”

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I just can’t see it. More likely would be “They better not think they can just say sorry and be done with it.” One imagines the tweets: “400 years and it’s all over with a Conversation? #ItsNotOver.”

Many would argue that this would be just the right thing, that America would remain “on the hook” for efforts aimed at black uplift. And I’m all for the uplift, but wonder what the atonement would add. In a hundred years, who will look back and say that black America would have been better off in the early twenty-first century if there had been a national Reparational Realization about race?

Coates argues that we need this as “the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.” The writing is resonant, but must America “see itself” so squarely in this particular regard? Why, exactly, must history, in this instance, be stage-managed so closely? It would seem that what black America needs is not for white and other people to “understand” us or our past, but for us to be assisted in making our future brighter than our present, secure in “understanding” ourselves, thank you very much.

The War on Drugs must end, since with its demise, acrimonious and often lethal interactions between the police and young black men would cease as a foundational experience of being black. In schools, few are aware of how magical the effect would be of reading programs that actually work for poor kids, as I have written about here. We must utilize the reality of Obamacare to bring black America into a new relationship with the health-care system. Efforts to coach poor black parents on child care, having results in programs such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, should be taken to scale.

All of those things can happen—and in fact, are happening—without the profound national transformation in thought that writers like Coates seek.

Yet in race discussions one is taught that opinions of the kind I have just expressed are “conservative.” However, this is sloppy terminology. I am seeking to conserve nothing; I am looking ahead—and I am quite confident that I am not alone.