A Further Perspective

Reparations and the Great Unmentionable

Race history à la carte from the Atlantic.

By 5.29.14

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Call it American history à la carte. Over at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the magazine’s national correspondent, has written a long and instructive piece titled “The Case for Reparations.” In which Coates supports Congressman John Conyers’s H.R. 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.

Let me start here by saying I don’t doubt Mr. Coates’s sincerity. And since one of his objectives is doubtless to launch a serious discussion on the issue of race and specifically the issue of reparations, I’m happy to oblige. This is a long and serious article. Yet for all of the facts and passion, Coates never gets around to the Great Unmentionable. He begins with this subheadline: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” 

After a Bible verse on slavery (Deuteronomy 15: 12-15), a quote from John Locke’s Second Treatise, and a third anonymous quote from 1861 — “By our unpaid labor and suffering, we have earned the right to the soil, many times over and over, and now we are determined to have it” — Coates moves on to the story of Clyde Ross.

Instantly the article goes off track. Clyde Ross is a black man born in 1923 Mississippi. Writes Coates:

In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote — a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state. “You and I know what’s the best way to keep the nigger from voting,” blustered Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi senator and a proud Klansman. “You do it the night before the election.”

Stop. Who, exactly, were the people playing all these racial politics with the life of Clyde Ross? What’s missing right from the get-go — and repeated throughout — is a fact that has vanished from American history. Here are more examples from Mr. Coates. See if you can spot the Great Unmentionable.

• “The state’s [Mississippi] regime partnered robbery of the franchise with robbery of the purse.”

• “When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes.”

• “It was in these early years that Ross began to understand himself as an American — he did not live under the blind decree of justice, but under the heel of a regime that elevated armed robbery to a governing principle. He thought about fighting. ‘Just be quiet,’ his father told him. ‘Because they’ll come and kill us all.’”

• “In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for Clyde Ross. The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated ‘A,’ indicated ‘in demand’ neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked ‘a single foreigner or Negro.’ These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated ‘D’ and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion.”

• “They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled.”

• “‘The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,’ John C. Calhoun, South Carolina’s senior senator, declared on the Senate floor in 1848.” 

• “In the aftermath of the Civil War, Radical Republicans attempted to reconstruct the country upon something resembling universal equality—but they were beaten back by a campaign of ‘Redemption,’ led by White Liners, Red Shirts, and Klansmen bent on upholding a society ‘formed for the white, not for the black man.’”

• “In the early years of the 20th century, Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman used to amuse himself by releasing black convicts into the surrounding wilderness and hunting them down with bloodhounds.”

• “President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office.” 

What is the pattern here — a very telling pattern? Everything was perpetrated by some vague “Mississippi” or, when named, a collection of people with titles like “governor” (Vardaman) or “senator” (Bilbo and Calhoun) or “Red Shirts” or “Klansmen” or just plain “Woodrow Wilson.” 

The Great Unmentionable in the Coates article is…the Democratic Party. Progressives. Democratic political fortunes were built on racial politics. Yet they show up in only a brief Coates nod — in passing:

Plunder had been the essential feature of slavery, of the society described by Calhoun. But practically a full century after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the plunder—quiet, systemic, submerged—continued even amidst the aims and achievements of New Deal liberals.…

“The Jim Crow South,” writes Ira Katznelson, a history and political-science professor at Columbia, “was the one collaborator America’s democracy could not do without.” The marks of that collaboration are all over the New Deal. The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net “a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.”

Coates is right: The entire New Deal came into being because the Democratic Party used racism to get elected in the first place. John Calhoun was not just the “Senator from South Carolina,” he was a Democrat — and for a while vice president to Andrew Jackson, considered by modern historians as the co-founder of the Democratic Party. It was Jackson, of course, who put his own attorney general on the Supreme Court as chief justice. That was Roger Taney, would later write the infamous Dred Scott decision. So, too, was the entire state of Mississippi run by Democrats. Senators Vardaman and Bilbo? Yes indeed. Serious movers and shakers in the Democratic Party. Bilbo was a big supporter of Social Security and, yes, he was a Klansman. Both Bilbo and Vardaman spent their entire careers doing exactly what progressives do this minute — mobilizing the poor against the rich by, according to Bruce Bartlett in Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, “appealing to their racism.”The Klan, this not mentioned by Coates, being “a military force serving the interests of the Democratic Party,” according to Columbia’s Eric Foner. As University of North Carolina historian Allen Trelease calls it, the Klan was the “terrorist arm of the Democratic Party.”

So why is any of this relevant now? Let me answer with a quote from Coates himself: “One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors…” If the subject of reparations is to be opened by Congress, as Coates is proposing, the committee should explore the role of the Democratic Party in paying these reparations. As noted in this space long ago, there were some 26 platforms of the party that supported slavery and segregation.

Race, as said here many times, is in fact the foundation of the American Left, along with class warfare. It is used today by the Obama administration, by Attorney General Eric Holder, by the likes of Al Sharpton and, of course, by leftist Latino leaders to achieve political ends. Just as political ancestors like Woodrow Wilson used it for his progressive New Freedom and FDR for his progressive New Deal. Race is today at the root of the Congressional Black Caucus and the structuring of all the segregated districts its members represent — the difference between the bad old days of segregation and the bad new days being only that black leaders demand black districts and refuse political integration.

Mr. Coates wrote an impressive piece. But until the Left is willing to put an end to its obsession with exploiting race for political gain, the Conyers proposal will go nowhere. Not least because there is not the slightest indication the American Left will demand money from itself.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.