Last week, The Atlantic published The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The article does not focus on the Civil War but rather on the entrenched institutional racism that has dogged black Americans since then. Coates examines the life of a sharecropper in the Deep South and then in mid-century Chicago for black Americans. The predations of the Jim Crow South are familiar to most; as Coates says, “In the deep South, a second slavery ruled.” But institutional racism crippled black lives and hopes in the North as well. Of the examples Coates lists in his controversial article, nothing demonstrates this better than the legacy of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).
The FHA was created in 1934 to stabilize the mortgage market and insure mortgage loans, among other things. The purpose of the new administration was to make the dream of home ownership possible for more Americans ( If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the same lofty dream that catapulted us into the most recent financial crisis. It’s almost as if interfering with markets in order to advance utopian ideals is a bad idea).
As part of its duties, the FHA ranked neighborhoods to indicate ‘stability’ as an investment. Mysteriously, all black neighborhoods, no matter the economic situation of the residents, received a ‘D’ and were ineligible for FHA backing. This redlining effectively prevented black homeowners from obtaining legitimate mortgages. It also concentrated black residents into the same geographical zones which then rapidly declined into poverty, since meaningful investment in the community was impossible. In short, it created ghettos.
For a better analysis of the effects of redlining and other atrocities, please read Coates’ article. The article is lengthy but well worth it, as it contains disturbing history that every American should know.
But now I’d like to highlight the part about the FHA because reparations, while perhaps created with good intentions, will likely have the same effect as the FHA , which was also created with good intentions. Like the FHA, an official program of reparation would be riddled with unseen errors, prejudices and mistakes that end up heaping burdens on the next generation. Vast federal programs, by their very nature, denote some people as ‘in’ and some people as ‘out.’ And while some obvious good may be done, much bad will also be done, although it may not become clear for years.
To be clear, Ta-Nehisi Coates states that he merely wants to have a conversation. He is not advocating any particular scheme of reparations; the most extreme policy recommendation he advocates is a House bill to study the issue.
So let’s have a conversation.
First, let’s admit that I can care about the problem without accepting your solution.
Then, let’s be honest about the true nature and legacy of vast government programs.
Let’s examine the relationship between well-meaning federal policies like the FHA and institutionalized racism. Let’s see if one enables the other. Let’s uncover what laws crippled the black fraternal and mutual aid organizations that provided so many social services, including mortgages, to their members.
Let’s talk about other, innovative and voluntary ways to solve this problem (What if we added a check-off box to our tax forms, just as we allow people to make voluntary donations to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund?).
If we do these things, we can have a real conversation, instead of a one-way chute into partisan and identity politics.
So by all means, let’s have a conversation about this.