Ta-Nehisi Coates has done a public service with his essay “The Case for Reparations,” and the service he has done is to show that there is not much of a case for reparations. Mr. Coates’s beautifully written monograph is intelligent and sometimes moving, and the moral and political case he makes is not to be discounted lightly, but it is not a persuasive case for converting the liberal Anglo-American tradition of justice into a system of racial apportionment….
Mr. Coates does not make the case so much for reparations as for a South Africa-style truth-and-reconciliation commission.
Coates engages in what certainly feels like a little misdirection. Responding to the very fair criticism that public policy designed to help the disadvantaged should distinguish between, say, the Obama daughters and those without their advantages, Mr. Coates is having none of it: “In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much.” The truth or untruth of that claim can only be ascertained by asking the question that Mr. Coates is committed to ignoring: “Compared with whom?” Did Barack or Michelle Obama inherit disadvantages that forced them to perform twice as well, and bear twice as much, as a white woman born into horrific poverty in Appalachia? A white orphan? A white immigrant escaping the Third Reich? A racial disadvantage is only one of many kinds of disadvantages that can be inherited — why should it be the one around which we organize ourselves?