Here is one of the most puzzling indicators of American social welfare: In 2016, federal government data showed Black infants were more than twice as likely to die as white infants – 11.3 per 1,000 Black babies versus 4.9 per 1,000 white babies. More, this racial disparity is wider today than it was in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, “when most Black women were considered chattel,” the Brookings Institution noted. “Education and income offer little protection. In fact, a Black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.”
There is a tendency among liberals and progressives to jump to conclusions about this (while conservatives are typically unmoved); to seek the macro solution; to say it proves the need for more government spending on health care and protecting the environment – which are indisputably good and necessary things in 2020. Yet there is no reason to assume that what institutional racism has wrought – for what other explanation can there be? – could be fixed with the same kinds of programs and spending that helped get us here or at least did not lessen race-based inequality (when they were not compounding it, as happened in the New Deal).
So what can be done? The answer may be the same thing that can still dependably frighten many Americans: Reparations. It is not new, of course. We just haven’t been doing it.
As the Civil War was concluding, Union Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, reserving land on the Southeast coast of the U.S. so that each family among freed slaves would have “a plot of ... 40 acres of tillable ground.” This became known as “40 acres and a mule” because it often came with a used Army mule. It is the still-unredeemed IOU of Reconstruction.
Almost 150 years later, The Atlantic magazine published Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations,” detailing the ways, including redlining, that Black Americans continue to be robbed by systemic racism. At the time, in 2014, the late Congressman John Conyers Jr. had introduced a bill to form a commission “to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans” (it was reintroduced to the current Congress in 2019 by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, still as H.R. 40). Why, Coates wanted to know, is this simple expedient languishing? What is the harm in just studying it?
To select the top 10 works of journalism of a decade seems like a huge task made no easier when we are looking at the one just past, but that is what New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute did on Oct. 14. Working with a broad definition of journalism, and whittling down from 122 finalists, the NYU top 10 includes books such as: Isabel Wilkerson’s wonderful study of the internal migration of African Americans, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” at No. 2; and New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement,” at No. 3; as well as articles such as the series by Washington Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold on Donald Trump’s claimed charitable giving (he found it was largely bogus).
It was nice to see No. 1, even if it was not really a surprise: Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” It is richly deserved. But that surfaced a question: Just how much are we going to talk about talking about reparations without also seriously entertaining the idea where laws and policy are made, in addition to reputations?