Ta-Nehisi Coates & Social Progress

Ta-Nehisi Coates & Social Progress

Blackness & The Majesty Of Moral Self-Worth

By Professor Laurence Thomas (Syracuse University)

July 28, 2016            Picture: Sean Carter Photography/Flick

This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”


There can be absolutely no doubt about it: Ta-Nehisi Coates is an extremely gifted thinker. Thus, anyone should find reading and reflecting upon his views a marvelous and ever so rewarding experience, both intellectually and morally. So it is whether in the end an individual primarily agrees with Coates or not. After all, agreeing with a person’s views is hardly necessary in order to see and appreciate the richness of the individual’s thought or to learn something of significance as a result of reflecting upon the views that the individual has developed and put forth. In his powerful essay “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, June 2014), Ta-Nehisi defends the view that is the title of his essay.

At the heart of Coates’ thinking is the incontrovertible truth that throughout the very history of the United States, racism against blacks has existed and continues to exist to such a horrific degree that the well-being of blacks has been and continues to be negatively impacted. Hence, it is morally appropriate for the U.S. government to compensate blacks for the systematic and horrifically wrongful treatment that blacks have had to endure in the past and which blacks are continuing to endure in the present.

Let me be explicitly clear from the outset in stating that Coates’ call for reparations is not just based upon the indisputable wrong of the enslavement of blacks in the United States, but also the horrific injustices that blacks have had to endure throughout the 20th Century. Although there is simply no denying Coates’ profoundly informed account of the horrific indignities that blacks in the United States have suffered, I do not see that he has made the case for blacks receiving reparations.


I.Money Doesn’t Solve Everything

From the very beginning of my reflections on Coates’ essay, I have asked myself the following question: What would be more efficacious in terms of affirming and wonderfully underwriting the status of blacks as equal citizens: (1) monetary compensation or (2) a profound measure of genuine affirmation and appreciation that transcends ethnic differences and becomes a routine part of society’s respect for blacks. (2) entails that the standing of blacks as moral equals is fully and graciously acknowledged throughout society as ever so obvious and naturally true. Of course, it goes without saying that (1) and (2) are not mutually exclusive. But there is a very straightforward sense in which with (2) alone, it is conceptually the case that there is an affirmation of blacks that is ever so meaningful and profoundly inspiring; whereas that is not at all a conceptual feature of (1).

After all, a particular amount of money can be given to a person for no other reason than, as they say, “to get the individual off of one’s back”—and not at all because one believes that the person as such truly merits the amount that she or he is given. In a country that fostered an utterly despicable attitude towards blacks for more than two centuries, it simply cannot be the case that money alone will fully redress the deep psychological scars that countless many blacks endured, with blacks like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. Washington standing as quite remarkable and ever fortunate exceptions.

It is simply a fact that sheer monetary compensation is entirely compatible with the person or persons who are making such compensation not at all believing that the individual who is being compensated is worthy of that compensation. Indeed, even where monetary compensation is a matter of compliance with a court order, it is possible for a person to comply with that court order all the while believing that the individual who is receiving the compensation is entirely unworthy of it.


“Monetary compensation is entirely compatible with a person not at all believing that the individual who is being compensated is worthy of that compensation”


To be sure, there are countless cases where what is of the utmost importance is the compensation and not whether or not the person making the compensation deemed it ever so appropriate or morally decent for them to do so. Accordingly, the person who is being compensated monetarily may correctly believe that there is not an ounce of genuineness on the part of the individual who did the compensation. Thus, an indisputable reality is that it is not a logical feature of compensation that it is good enough in terms of restoring or bringing about a measure of goodwill. So in the end, it is really about whether only two people are involved or hundreds of thousands of people are involved.

Implicit in the remarks of the preceding paragraph is the simple truth that one of the profound characteristics of a just society is an immutable commitment on the part of the members of that society to acknowledging and affirming the moral decency of all the members of that society. In this regard, simple instances of non-verbal behavior can be ever so revealing. Here is a simple example cut from the cloth of reality:

Person Alpha (who is black) and person Gamma (who is white) are on the very same block walking towards one another. In countless many cases of this sort, the body language of each will reveal whether each is comfortable with having to pass the other. Quite simply, there is a non-trivial measure of affirmation that each experiences if it turns out that each can see that she/her is rightly recognized by the other as a morally decent individual—a point which holds all the more so for Alpha. Although we have a very simple instance of mutual affirmation in this case, that simple instance of affirmation is not at all trivial for Alpha.

The general demonization of black people has been a mighty impediment to any given non-black having a basic sense of decency with respect to blacks. Indeed, the systematic demonization of black people has surely resulted in sufficiently many blacks thinking less positively of themselves than they should. The point just made may seem absurd but its truth follows from the fact that human beings are social creatures by nature. We enter the world as infants with a need for affirmation; and there is a very straightforward sense in which we never lose the need for affirmation, which is one of the reasons why bonds of friendship and romantic love are so very important to human beings.

Now, it may be thought that so long as black people affirm one another, then it is utterly irrelevant that blacks receive affirmation from non-blacks. After all, surely whites have been utterly indifferent to receiving affirmation from blacks. What must be remembered though is that that is because whites deemed blacks to be ever so intellectually inferior that whites were able to deem as utterly irrelevant the affirmation of blacks. When different ethnic groups view one another as being on the very same intellectual and moral level, then it becomes very desirable for the different groups to receive affirmation from one another. This is especially so if it happens often enough that the members of the different groups routinely encounter one another.

I want to be clear: There is no denying the importance of money. However, there is a very deep and profound sense in which the majesty of genuine intellectual and moral respect shown to another, especially one that has been denigrated in the past, is without equal. And the mitigated truth is that such intellectual affirmation does not follow simply in the wake of being given money. Indeed, people with a considerable amount of money can at times be regarded as utter fools.

To recapitulate, the very essence of the racism against blacks in the United States has been fundamentally tied to the view that blacks are ever so intellectually inferior to whites. Reparations do not ipso facto correct that morally despicable view of blacks. Indeed, reparations are quite compatible with a kind of appeasement of blacks by whites that is based upon the view that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites—a very simple way of silencing black folks even as one continues to discount them.


II.The Injustice Of The Past & The Mitigating Factors Of The Present

With regard to the reparations for blacks that Coates has in mind, would the reparations be a significant catalyst for bringing about substantial goodwill between blacks and whites? Differently put: Would sufficiently many blacks experience a most profound affirmation of justice that is entirely without equal in terms of both its affirmation and majesty? Moreover, would sufficiently many whites be delighted on the grounds that they have explicitly and publicly acknowledged the racist wrongs of the past and have made substantial amends in that regard? More generally, would reparations constitute a moral gesture that mightily inspires the United States as a whole? Or would reparations be seen as simply a way of getting blacks “to stop complaining about racism”? Ta-Nehisi Coates does not address the concluding questions of the preceding paragraph. I wish he had done so. And I regard his not doing so as a glaring omission. [See Kershnar on other serious omissions and problems with Coates’ reparations essay.]


“The essence of racism in the United States is the view that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. Reparations do not ipso facto correct that morally despicable view of blacks. It is a very simple way of silencing black folks even as one continues to discount them”


Interestingly, the existence of a considerable number of poor whites in the United States suggests that things are more complicated than Coates allows. To be sure, the reality of poor whites does not in any way whatsoever negate the wrong of either the enslavement of blacks or the racism against blacks that persisted decades after slavery. Not at all. Just so, the very existence of a considerable number of poor whites in the United States makes it unequivocally clear that grand success in the United States has never been a logical consequence of being white. So, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that in the absence of racism the vast majority of blacks would have been successful.


“The very existence of a considerable number of poor whites in the United States makes it unequivocally clear that grand success in the United States has never been a logical consequence of being white”


With regard to the point just made, there is the reality that in general blacks in Africa who have never known slavery do not stand as a great model of success. Thus, although any number of blacks who were born and grew to adulthood in the United States could wish that they had been born or now lived in (some part of) Africa, there is no reason for any such black to believe that had she or he been born and raised in a country in Africa (as opposed to the United States), then it would have been ever so likely that she or he would be living a life that in terms of self-fulfillment far surpasses the life she or he is currently living in the United States.

The proof of the point just made is that notwithstanding the frequent use of “African-American” nowadays as a form of self-appellation on the part of black Americans, as well as the claim by blacks—including Coates, that there is still a considerable amount of racism in the United States, there is absolutely nothing resembling a major movement on the part of black Americans to move to a country in Africa. Recall George Yancy’s New York Times op-ed essay entitled “Dear White America” (24 December 2015) in which he talks about the ways in which whites continue to perpetuate a racist society. At no point in the essay does Yancy suggest that it is time for black Americans to start thinking about moving to Africa. The exact same thing can be said regarding the views of Coates.

Has Coates nonetheless made a convincing case for reparations on behalf of American blacks? Interestingly, there is a non-trivial sense in which he has substantially missed the mark on several points. First, he fails to consider mitigating factors in the crafting of a sound case for reparations on behalf of descendants of black slaves. One factor that Coates does not consider is that the idea of equality that we now embrace and take as a self-evident truth was deemed all but incomprehensible centuries ago. In book I of his work Politics [1], Aristotle claims that it is natural that there should be slaves; though, to be sure, he did not think for a moment that it was natural that the slaves should be black. And then there is the reality that there was slavery among African nations. Indeed, there were white slaves in Africa as Serge Bilé discusses in his book Quand Les Noirs avaient des Esclaves Blancs (When Blacks had White Slaves, 2008) [2]. Moreover, African nations initially played a major role in blacks becoming slaves in the United States. Finally, in this regard, there were blacks in the United States who owned slaves, as Larry Koger discusses in his book Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790—1860) [3].

Furthermore, there is a fundamental difference between the wrong of the enslavement of blacks and the wrong of the racism against blacks that has continued well after slavery ended. Ta-Nehisi Coates may hold that the wrong of slavery has always been a self-evident moral truth. However, as I have already indicated, that view of slavery is simply not supported by the facts of history, including the history of blacks themselves. I fully hold that owing to the wrong of black slavery and the wrongful racism that continued after slavery was abolished, blacks are owed and deserving of a tremendous measure of genuine affirmation—affirmation that treats the humanity of blacks with both depth of sincerity and depth of purity of heart. But as I have explained earlier, with monetary compensation, it is way too easy to say “We have made up for the wrongs of the past that your people have suffered at the hands of our people. Now get the hell out of our faces”. Whereas I hold that blacks are entitled to a profound measure of moral and social healing. After all, the horrific wrong of racism in America has never resolved around whether black people are poor or not. Rather, the decisive character of racism has been that black people are morally and intellectually inferior. Of course, there is no denying that slavery is considered today to be a moral evil despised everywhere in the world. However, it was not so before, and should not be taken to be self-evidently wrong.

While there can be no doubt whatsoever that the enslavement of blacks in the past did cast a very long shadow on American society, and the social status of blacks in particular, there is absolutely no reason to hold that nowadays blacks are still living in the shadow of the American enslavement of blacks. And this point holds even though, as Coates points out with quite poignant examples, there are whites nowadays who clearly treat blacks unjustly. An example of the kind of mistreatment that Ta-Nehisi has in mind is the difficulty blacks sometimes have in owning a home in a “white neighborhood”. While there is no denying that reality, there is also no denying the reality that by-and-large affluent blacks with good credit ratings have no problems with being able to live in the neighborhood of their choice. And just as it can be said that whites are not always accepting of blacks, it can also be said that blacks are not always accepting of whites. Things are entirely different with poor blacks and poor whites, who still seem to be quite opposed to, or any rate extremely uncomfortable with, one another. This should come as no surprise.  Well off blacks hardly want to live in a neighborhood with hoodlums, be they black or white or whatever.  And that point holds mutatis mutandis with respect to whites.

More importantly though, a marvelous sign that things have moved in the right direction is that an increasing number of people are entirely unfazed by the ethnicity of the individual with whom a person has formed a deep bond, whether we are talking about friendship or romance. To a truly tremendous degree, the configuration of the American society at this point in history (a multicultural nation) underwrites the moral standing of black citizens to no less of a degree than the American society underwrites the moral standing of all American citizens.

Turning now to Coates’ actual talk about reparations for blacks, I must confess that I am truly puzzled. For in terms of timing alone, it would seem that the moment for reparations has come and gone. Upon the ending of slavery, surely a plausible case could have been made for the view that former black slaves were deserving of reparations. And no doubt such a case could have been made for several decades after slavery. But I do not see that the case for reparations for blacks can be made at this point in time. This is simply because the reality as we know it is that in the past 50 years, there has been a tremendous effort on the part of the United States, as well as private institutions, to make it possible for blacks to achieve tremendous personal advancement. In particular, the practice of affirmative action is one of the ways in which the United States has been concerned to enhance black lives. This practice bestows a tremendous advantage upon blacks whose social standing and educational background has been adversely affected by a society that mightily failed to accept blacks as being intellectually equal to whites. Without putting blacks under undue pressure, affirmative action is a considerable intellectual good that is offered to blacks.

Throughout much of society, there has been a tremendous positive transformation in the way in which blacks are treated nowadays and the ways in which blacks were treated some 75-years ago. So much so that there is an indisputable respect afforded to blacks today that was not afforded to blacks living in the shadow of the racism of yesteryear. Indeed, there has been such a positive change that it happens often enough that a black individual has more social leverage with a white person than the individual has with a black person. Institutions of higher learning are a marvelous illustration of that. For instance, the vast majority of white professors are going out of their way to make sure that they are not in any respect open to the charge of racism by black students; whereas the typical black professor does not have that concern.

Blacks students have a leverage with white professors that white students do not at all have with black professors. In general, I see countless many white individuals—including white police officers—going out of their way to be respectful to blacks. Quite simply, the concern that so very many whites have to be viewed as decent and non-racist individuals in the eyes of blacks constitutes a leverage and power in the hands of black people that no amount of money can buy.

A most significant and ever so positive point is that this leverage and power in the hands of blacks rarely occasions resentment on the part of whites. By contrast, it is way too easy for whites—poor whites, in particular—to feel a deep measure of resentment and a horrific degree of jealousy over blacks receiving reparations in the form of money. And this point holds all the more so when one considers that at this point in the history of the United States, the racism of yesteryear vanished to such a degree that it is simply not the case that at this point in time blacks are even living in the shadow such racism.

Just as no talk about the evil of American Slavery should ever result in us denying the extraordinary success of a black person who was born a slave, namely Frederick Douglass, it is also the case that the concern to make America a better place for all blacks should never be an excuse to ignore the reality of blacks who flourished notwithstanding the despicable forms racism all around them. And across the globe, there have been some truly wonderful and extraordinarily inspiring examples of black success and black courage. Three obvious individuals are Maya Angelo, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela.

Finally, the approach that I am suggesting has the virtue of not requiring a distinction between blacks who have made it. Quite the contrary, all blacks can play a significant part in making American society an ever so morally wonderful place for all blacks. That is very nice. And surely that is just the way it should be. It is my considered judgment that with the rare exception, materialism does far more harm than good.



So to bring this essay to a conclusion, let me reiterate the essential points I have raised throughout this essay. The wrongs of the past should never be denied. An immutable commitment to giving blacks the encouragement and insight that will enable them to mightily flourish is a moral gift like none other that ever so splendidly underwrites and promotes both the sense of self-worth and the psychological well-being of blacks, which in turn enables blacks to command with grace and goodwill the respect of others across the globe.

The utter evil of racism in America is the horrific determination on the part of whites not to take blacks seriously as moral equals. An absolutely unquestionable and established truth is that the gift of money as such does not entail taking a person seriously. Indeed, doing so is ever so compatible with waiting for utter self-destruction on the part of the person who received the monetary offer. Indeed, an offer of money is quite compatible with a morally despicable expectation of financial mishandling by the black recipient. By contrast, when it is the case that with depth of sincerity and purity of heart we sumptuously underwrite and reinforce the capabilities of another to be the author of their life, then we in essence give that person an ever so dignified measure of affirmation. I say this because the reality is that the very nature of human beings is such that nothing is more critical to any human being living a successful life than such affirmation.

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Caser for Reparations” stands as one of the most moving and informative readings of my career. There is perhaps a measure of agreement between us, namely that blacks in the United States are not yet being taken as seriously as they should be. Alas, the evidence is overwhelming clear that money as such is not now—nor has it ever been—the key to any person taking herself or himself morally seriously at the most fundamental level of being a human being.

Indeed, with extremely rare exception, the key to any individual coming to take themselves seriously is that the individual has been taken seriously by others in just the right manner through a significant part of their life while growing up.

Monetary compensation to blacks will never take the place of non-blacks truly believing in blacks and taking blacks seriously. Needless to say, the substance of this point equally holds whether we are talking about black people or any other race or ethnicity. No doubt Coates and I see the condition of American society and the prosperity of blacks in particular, quite differently.

But the genuine affirmation by non-blacks of the tremendous excellences of which blacks are capable would be a gift like none other. One that would be a profound and fundamental source of inspiration for blacks. It would be a gift to blacks that no amount of money can replace.

Footnotes & References

[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book I. Saunders, T., Politics: Books I and II, Translated with a commentary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[2] Serge Bilé, Quand Les Noirs Avaient des Esclaves Blancs (Saint-Malo: Pascal Galodé, 2008).

[3] Larry Koger, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1985).

Laurence Thomas
Laurence Thomas
Laurence Thomas is Professor Philosophy and Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University and Affiliate Professor at Haifa University (in Israel). He is the author of more than 100 articles and the books (1) Living Morally; (2) Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust; and (3) The Family and the Political Self.
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