Over at Crooked Timber thehersch suggests a reading of Coates on reparations that hadn’t quite occurred to me. The reading is of this line:
More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
As you may recall, I was taken up short by that line because the founders in question accepted slavery in the union and many of them were slave holders. What kind wisdom is that?
Thehersch suggests that wisdom there is to be interpreted as “a current-day wisdom worthy, retrospectively, of the founders”. It’s not the founders wisdom, it’s our wisdom, about them, about the nation they founded, about us.
I hadn't thought of that. But if that's what Coates is up to, well, it feels like something he discovered in the course of writing that essay and hasn't fully assimilated. I note further that it's not so far from the reading I give his essay in, Felix Culpa: The Judeo-Christian Underpinnings of Coates’ Reparations Argument.
If I'd been Coates’ editor, I'd have asked for changes. Given all the criticism he has laid at the founders’ feet in that essay his statement as published isn't as clear as you think it is. Clarification would be helpful. I might have been satisfied with something like this:
More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of a childlike myth of its innocence into a hardwon wisdom worthy of the struggles of the founders.
But I'd have been happier with a bit more:
More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of a childlike myth of its innocence into a hardwon wisdom worthy of the compromises the founders had to make. Their understanding of humankind was inadequate and their need for agreement was urgent. They did the best they could. We have seen and suffered with the results of their decisions and our knowledge of humankind is deeper. To redeem their mistakes and validate the efforts they took to found the first modern democracy we must...
And there's the rub. We must what, exactly? Make reparations? But that's what the whole essay's been about. And all Coates has to say about that is that we should pass Conyer's bill, have this Congressional conversation, and maybe we'll write some checks, and maybe we won't. But we'll have aired the issue in an official way.
Corey Robins (at Crooked Timer) has said that Coates' current book, Between the World and Me, has no politics in it, that it makes no demands on the reader. Well, his case for reparations is pretty much like that. To the extent that it makes a demand of the reader it is (only implied) that you call your congressman and urge the passing of HR 40. That's not much of a demand, and it's not explicit. All that's really there is that we search our souls and have this national conversation on race in which we face up to the nation's flaws and contradictions.