Picture the scene: A young man walks into a congressional hearing to offer witness testimony. His grandfather was barbarically brutalized by people who are now long dead. The nation in which he resides built its wealth of his grandfather’s brutalization. The question: Should his fellow citizens pay the young man his overdue inheritance?
He begins his speech by honoring his grandfather’s suffering: Nothing he will say is intended to lift responsibility from those who caused it. But he goes on to say that he does not believe he should collect on his grandfather’s debts, because he does not want justice for the dead at the price of the living. He sees millions of people in his country struggling to afford the means to survive, and others’ lives being wasted as they languish in prison cells. He sees citizens shooting each other on the streets as police numbers dwindle, and schools too poor to offer their students the chance to succeed. These injustices, he argues, are more pressing than his own grievances. He comes from a privileged household in the suburbs and attends an Ivy League school. Many of those who would be forced to pay him deserve his compassion, not his financial demands.
This congressional hearing occurred on Tuesday, June 20, 2019. What I did not mention was that the young man happened to be black, and that he did not only speak on his own behalf, but on behalf of the estimated 15 million black Americans who share his view. His name was Coleman Hughes, and he argued that his country should not pay reparations for slavery — that debts should be paid to those who were once affected by Jim Crow, but not to those who have suffered no harm. For this, he was booed, but he persisted through the taunts. He has since been labelled a traitor, an Uncle Tom, and a coon.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was one of those asked to testify for the opposing view. The accomplished writer contended that reparations are the only way that the United States can come to terms with its stained history. Every one of its institutions stole from the African American community. The nation’s financial accounts are not bound by generations, but by a collective enterprise. If a person has benefitted from America’s shores, he has a duty to help the descendants of those whose exploitation created them. Reparations are tantamount to a thief returning his stolen goods.
Coates’s testimony was treated with a round of applause in the room. He has since been hailed as a courageous hero who dared speak truth to power. The people who have not praised Coates include those who are currently homeless, starving, incarcerated, or uneducated. Because, even if they received reparations, those facts would remain the same.
When he stepped into the room, Coleman Hughes knew what he was doing. He knew that many members of his country would accuse him of defending white supremacy, and that he would leave the room with fewer friends and numerous life opportunities closed. But he delivered his testimony because he was asked to state what he believed. He delivered his testimony because he did not want millions to be turned into victims and perpetrators without their consent.
One can debate the merits of the arguments for and against reparations. One can label them impractical, immoral, previously paid, or pressingly necessary. But one must never debate whether a person’s skin color ought to determine his view. Because nothing — I repeat, nothing — could be more disgustingly racist.