Race, Reparations, and the Republic

I spent my morning reading Ta-Nehesi Coates’ well-researched, thought-provoking, but most of all gut-wrenching piece in the Atlantic about the moral case for the United States to pay reparations to African Americans.  Not, it should be noted, reparations for slavery per se; slavery, as the piece so clearly shows, was just one phase of a system of oppression and outright thievery that will soon have lasted as long as the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt.

There is not much for me to add at this time, but I want to put my thoughts down before the discussion of the piece (which I’m sure will be fierce) alienates me from my own initial reaction.  This, then, is the mindset I have after reading the piece, and I hope to look back on it with more nuanced views in the future. I should also say that I don't even know how to move forwards on a subject like this--I'll leave that to policy discussions in the future. What strikes me as most important is to address the moral imperative, to atone, as a nation, for our original sin.  

The first things to note is that, reading the piece, I could only read it through the lens of the other things that I am reading and thinking about.  The glasses I was wearing were tinted not with rose, but with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century and my continued study of the last century of the Roman Republic.

From within the context established by Piketty, one of the most striking features of Coates’ piece was the focus on the long-term theft of wealth from African Americans.  If we accept Piketty’s claim that it is not jobs but wealth that bring individuals prosperity, then those in this country who currently praise a seemingly semi-divine class of ‘job creators’ should take a step back and thank generations of slaves, who were the true wealth creators in the early days of our nation’s history, and who saw that wealth systematically stripped from them generation after generation.  Whites not only denied them ownership of the means of production, they denied them ownership of themselves; even after emancipation, they were denied the right to property, the franchise, and most importantly the loans and infrastructure necessary to accumulate in a capitalist society. The overarching theme of the societal theft of wealth undergirds the article and, in light of Piketty’s recent studies on the importance of capital, suggests that no program of reparations that only has the goal of education and preparation for the workforce could ever be equitable.

The context of the fall of the Roman Republic is trickier, not least because of the difficulty in assigning causality in a low intensity crisis that spanned at least a century and which we can only reconstruct with necessarily flawed records. Secondly, to equate anything with the collapse of the Republic is fraught, and leads to charges of the misuse of history and the sense that an ideological mission is being snuck in with the history lesson.  There is a certain alarmist streak in bringing up the Gracchi or Marius and Sulla; but, we must remember, the transition from Republic to Empire took four generations, and to each of those generations the changes were imperceptible.

Regardless of the nuances of the history, and whether I end up using it or merely abusing it, it is without question that at a certain point between 133 BC and 31 BC the elan of Republican Rome disappeared. There were no more Cincinnati, nor would anyone execute his sons for disobeying orders. A large part of this change came in the dissolution of the implicit social contract that had buttressed the Roman state: that hard work and military service would let any (free, male) citizen have his own plot of land and his little family farm.* Let’s call that the Roman Dream, for even if it never existed it pulsed through the veins of that society.

The Roman Dream fell apart in the face of massive wealth inequality (within the citizen body) that spiraled out of control over the course of the 2nd century BC.  The fundamental order of the society was shaken, and soon individual loyalties outweighed loyalty to the state and soon the state became synonymous with the individual who most successfully dominated the rest.

But back to Coates, and America. We are in a situation where our society is feeling the tension of rising inequality, and the sense that the American Dream is slipping out of reach. We stand in very real danger of the fundamental promise of America going the way of the fundamental promise of Republican Rome. Even if we admit that for many the nice suburban home never was in reach, it stood as an ideal, but an ideal that was tarnished by the legacy of the cruel injustice that built the very foundations of those homes. This isn't just localized to the African American community, as inequality and poverty are everywhere in this land.  But what separates this case is the deliberate, determined effort of our own government to build our nation up on the backs of a tortured people.

Toward the end of his piece, Coates writes, 

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

Let’s think a bit with that phrase, ‘a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.’  What would it mean for our national dialogue to exorcise the ghosts of our past, or even just to acknowledge that they still haunt us and that their legacy still divides us? Let’s think about spiritual renewal, a flourishing of the very idea of America, in the age of the Koch brothers and the least popular Congress in history. And let’s think about it while keeping in view that all great civilizations before us have collapsed, all experiments in democracy before ours have fallen prey to a divided citizenry, and that this Republic, a government of (some of) the people, by (some of) the people, and for (some of) the people, is now as always in very real danger of perishing from this earth.

But it need not—for we have the good fortune of hindsight and the ability, and moral duty, to patch up our wounded ship of state and address the fundamental problems that now and moving forward tear at our collective national soul.

*Republican Rome was not great. The entire society was predicated on mass slavery and rape, not to mention annual brutal conquest of anyone who was around and had money. Not defending them on any of those counts. But, in terms of the way the society viewed itself, the period between Zama and Actium was pretty radical and, I would argue, bad. 

© Henry Gruber 2013