U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reparations Roundtable: A Final Recap

Today marks the end of the Reparations Roundtable. The week has provided some wonderful work, and I’d like to thank the following people for their valuable contributions to the roundtable: Kurt Newman, Andrew Seal, and guest blogger Ramsin Canon. Also, I’d like to thank everyone who commented on the roundtable pieces, and would continue to urge folks to add their comments if there’s something they’d like to add. Finally, the support the roundtable has received on Facebook and Twitter has been fantastic to see.

In many ways, each writer for the roundtable adhered to his strengths—I focused on the intellectual history of the late 1960s and the continued fracturing of the Left; Kurt Newman’s post probed deeply the intersection of intellectual and legal history in the 1970s, and the importance of Boris Bittker and his work at Yale University on law and race; Andy Seal focused on a work by famed novelist Sinclair Lewis that speaks to Lewis’ contributions to the burgeoning field of literary and sociological work on race in the late 1940s; and, finally, Ramsin Canon zeroed in on legal history and explained the potential of the Thirteenth Amendment, and other legal precedents, to begin a debate on reparations.

This roundtable began from a discussion between myself and Kurt Newman on Twitter about the Coates’ reparations piece. Immediately, we realized that the S-USIH blog would serve as a wonderful place to respond to the Coates essay, which begged for an intellectual history analysis. Coates himself has already acknowledged his debt to historians, whose research served as a bedrock for his work on reparations and many other aspects of his blogging and essay writing. A few final thoughts on the roundtable follow.

First, there’s a great deal to be said about the reparations argument in the 1970s and 1980s. While my post touched on the fallout from the original Jim Forman demand for reparations, and the debates across the Left that raged after his “Black Manifesto” was made public, a great deal more can be said about the aftermath of that conversation. For example, it must be remembered that the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the beginnings of a new Black political consciousness, embodied in National Black Political forums, the rise of African American mayors for major cities, and on-the-ground work done between Black Power advocates and traditional politicians. And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the bill that Coates has pushed for as an avenue to begin discussions of reparations: HR 40, submitted by John Conyers every year since 1989.

The Conyers bill, officially named “Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act”, came during a time in which questions about the direction of political and economic rights for African Americans were being asked with renewed vigor. The late 1980s and early 1990s serve as an era ripe for study, with the Conyers bill; the rise of cultural symbols of a rejuvenated Black nationalism such as the Public Enemy hip hop group; the early commemorations of the MLK Birthday as a holiday; the anti-Apartheid movement in the United States; and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots all serving as potential areas of study.

The international elements of the debate over reparations are also worth considering in-depth. In just the last year, several nations in the Caribbean have demanded reparations from Britain, the Netherlands, and France. The debate was raised in the House of Lords in Britain in 1996, and shows no signs of ending any time soon.[1] The relationship between the American government and its Black populace is different from that of, say, France or Britain and their Black populations, but it’s still worth considering how those nations discuss reparations to various Caribbean nations. And, of course, the links between peoples of African descent in the United States, United Kingdom, and France are both well-documented and could stand for still further research. While reparations debates will take different forms in different nations, the solutions of one nation may yet affect the arguments made in another.

Finally, it’s important to note the conservative take (or to be more accurate, takes) on reparations. I apologize for not being able to include a conservative voice on the issue of reparations, as I believe such a voice is important to also understanding the history of the debate over reparations. When Coates’ piece was first released, it garnered plenty of attention across the political spectrum. While many of the readers of this blog are probably, to some extent, familiar with those responses, I’d like to take some time to share a few links in case you’ve not had a chance to read them. Writers such as National Review’s Kevin Williamson, The Atlantic’s David Frum, or The American Conservative’s Noah Millman all presented a variety of responses to Coates and his call for a study of reparations. Their works serve as a reminder of the diversity of American conservative thought both in the present day and in American history.

Ultimately, the roundtable, like Coates’ essay, is not meant to be the end of the discussion about reparations. The posts from the past week were meant to illuminate facets of the reparations debate that may not immediately come to mind. In the process, we all also wanted to remind our readers that the reparations debate isn’t a recent matter, nor has it neatly divided into “for” or “against” camps. We must, instead, endeavor to understand how the reparations debate sheds a window into arguments over race, ethnicity, and what it means to be an American citizen in the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

On that note, we look forward to this week, and the long-awaited “U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left” roundtable, which I’m sure will include more wonderful posts and excellent comments sections.

[1] Reparations for Slavery: A Reader. Edited by Ronald P. Salzberger and Mary C. Turck, “The Official Record from Hansard of the Debate Initiated by Lord Gifford QC in the House of Lords of the British Parliament on 14th March 1996 Concerning the African Reparations,” p. 96-115. (New York: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers)

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks to Robert, Kurt, Andy, and Ramsin for this excellent roundtable. I think this kind of thing is one of the best uses of blogging: responding with historically analytical and careful essays to a contemporary debate, and unpacking its various dimensions through a set of different approaches and topics. We can’t really do this with the traditional forms of scholarly publication, with its long delay to publication time, but here the contributors have aptly demonstrated what intellectual history can contribute to this debate. Ben Alpers posted a meditation recently on whether blogging should be considered a form of scholarship. This roundtable is a real step toward an affirmative answer to that question. Thanks to you all!

  2. Thanks for the kind words and you’re exactly right—this is why we wanted to try such a roundtable. It made sense considering the debates that were swirling around the Coates essay.

    • Ah yes, I completely forgot about that one. I should have added a section about political responses beyond the traditional “left” or “right”–Friedersdorf’s was a good one, probably the best of the bunch.

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