The German regime known as the "Nazis" killed an awful lot of my extended family - one time some relatives of mine tried to make an extended family tree, but it ended up looking like its branches had been burned in a fire. I guess I could be mad about that. Some people still are. But I'm not. To me, it's water under the bridge - I like Germany, I have good friends whose grandparents were Nazis (actual Nazis, in the SS), and I'm not at all upset about the Holocaust. Ancient history. A cautionary tale for the world, but nothing more.
But how would I feel if my grandpa hadn't blown up all those sleeping Germans?
If "Germany" was one tribe and "Noah's extended family" was another, and if World War 2 was a fight between those tribes, then between that grandpa and all my other relatives of that generation who fought in the war, my tribe clearly killed more of them than they killed of us. And if "The Allies" is my tribe, then the asskickery was even clearer. If I ever read about the Holocaust and did get mad, I could just say "Well, motherfuckers, see what you get! What's up now, huh?"
But suppose there had been no World War 2? Suppose that the Nazis had instead been taken down in a civil war, by Germans opposed to the Holocaust? And suppose that for centuries after the Nazis lost that civil war, anti-Jewish policies remained - no death camps, just a steady stream of official discrimination and vigilante intimidation. And suppose that even after the vigilantism had been quelled and the official discrimination removed, there were German people who went around saying that the Nazis had had it right, that Jews could never be real Germans, etc. And suppose that the German police continued to harass Jews, and normal German people continued to connive to keep Jews out of their neighborhoods, despite official laws on the books that were supposed to stop that kind of thing.
And most importantly, suppose I lived in that Germany, instead of in the United States.
Then, I think, I might have a very different outlook on the evils of the past.
I imagine that this is a bit how Ta-Nehisi Coates feels, when he studies the history of all the bad things that the United States has done to African-Americans. I don't really know, of course, but I imagine it's a little bit like that.
Coates wants "reparations", but he's not clear on what "reparations" means. The dictionary definition of "reparations" is:
the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.So whatever specific policies Coates sees "reparations" as entailing, it seems like a backwards-looking thing. The idea of "reparations" is for America - as an entity, as a collective, as an institution - to somehow make amends to African Americans for slavery, for Jim Crow, for lynchings, and for redlining. Maybe that would involve cash payments, maybe other kinds of wealth transfers. Maybe it would involve pro-active integration programs, big anti-discrimination efforts, or affirmative action-style attempts to boost African Americans to greater economic equality. But whatever "reparations" would be, the point of it would be to make up, at least partly, for the harms of the past.
But I think this is not the right attitude to take. Yes, America did bad things to African Americans in the past, and no, it never paid the price the way Nazi Germany did. But I think that no matter what "reparations" we do, it will never seem to have righted the wrongs of the past.
Reason 1: Because there will always be assholes in America who say that slavery was good, that black people are inferior, etc. etc. (A couple of these scum will probably show up in the comments section of this post.) That means that even if the American government tries to make amends, the totality of the American tribe will never declare, in one full-throated unified collective voice, that America did wrong and that it's sorry.
Reason 2: Because African-Americans, by definition, are still here. One key, essential reason that I don't feel bad about the Holocaust is that I don't have to live in Germany - I am in no way, shape, or form beholden to the German state. But African-Americans, by definition, still live in the country that historically persecuted them. And that will never allow them to have the kind of closure that you get if you live far away from the place where all the bad things happened.
Reason 3: Because good things can never make up for bad things 100%. I think this is just how human psychology works. If your parents beat you and then buy you ice cream and apologize then no matter how much ice cream they buy you, or how much they apologize, there will always be that memory of them beating you.
So I think that "reparations", whether the policy ideas end up being good or not, is the wrong way to frame the issue, because the past can never be fixed. And I didn't even mention all the negative effects of a real effort at "reparations" - the fact that many Americans are descended from immigrants who never participated in any atrocities against African Americans, and who feel that they have never personally benefited in any way from past or present discrimination against black people. Asking people to pay, or even to apologize, for other people's misdeeds might salve some old wounds, but it creates new ones at the same time. American society needs to heal, not to be torn apart by well-intentioned efforts to fix the past.
So what's the alternative?
I think the alternative is just to focus on improving the lives and the situation of African Americans going forward. That means material improvement - more wealth, more income, more security, better living conditions. It means ending discrimination by police and judges. It means making African Americans feel that they have a stake in the institutions of the country.
Those policies might be very similar to what Ta-Nehisi Coates would call "reparations", or they might be different. I don't know. The point is that the framing is different. Instead of looking backwards, look forwards.
And maybe we shouldn't focus so much on all that unpleasant history. George Santayana said that "those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." But something isn't right just because George Santayana said it. Maybe focusing too much on history is what condemns us to repeat it. I don't mean we should erase anything from the history books, but I think we should do our best to realize that history is...well, history. It's in the past. It's done. The only really important thing is what happens from now on.
Over the years, I've come to realize this: Escape is the only true revenge. If African Americans can live good lives, and can be fully incorporated into the fabric of American society and American institutions, then the bad guys lost.
And that's got to be good enough. Or else nothing will be.