The Case For Reparations ... in Portland

Jeff Alworth

In this month's Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes the case for reparations. It is an astounding article, and for regular readers of Coates, functions as a closing argument for a thesis he has been making in his writing for years. Coates makes the case, example by example, that the United States is a country built on white supremacy. We did not achieve our vast wealth and broad middle class in spite of a few moral fumbles along the way--slavery, segregation, black codes, fraud, Jim Crow laws, legal disenfranchisement, and lynching--we managed it precisely because of these things.

In a later post discussing the piece, he puts it more pointedly:

Racism, and its progeny white supremacy, is concerned with dividing human beings, on the basis of ancestry (which is very real) and slotting them into a hierarchy (which is an invention).... Reparations are not due because black people are black, but because black people have been injured. And the Anglo-American tradition has never been a system of "racial apportionment," but of racist apportionment.

He details the bill of goods for anyone who thinks this state-sponsored white supremacy stopped in 1863. It's a grim history, in part because Coates doesn't spend a lot of time on the most outrageous violence done in the Jim Crow south. Instead, he highlights on post-war era northern crimess that continued through the 60s:

These are only the beginning. Any American who wants to understand his country should read the article--most of the information in it will be new to most of the people who read it.

The notion of reparations, when considered as a legal matter, is irrefutable. These wrongs are not abstract or moral wrongs, they are legal and financial wrongs. Real laws were passed by our government so that rights, wealth, and property could be transferred from one group to another. That doesn't mean anything is likely to happen anytime soon in a country where one party is dominated by whites, though.

But here's the thing: it wasn't just the federal government. State and local governments were just as active in passing these kinds of laws. The state of Oregon and city of Portland were plenty culpable, too. If financial restitution is out of the political question in the US, shouldn't it be at least on the table in a blue city like Portland?

The case is every bit as strong here as it is in Washington DC. In fact, the city itself has a 28-page resource that summarizes these racist laws (including Federal laws). It isn't pretty reading:

These are just a few in a long history of racist laws targeted at nonwhites (Chinese, Japanese, and Native Americans were the target of a number of racist laws). Newcomers to the city often wonder why it's not only sapphire-blue but lily-white, and these laws tell that story. We live in a city and state that has long profited off the abuse of some of its citizens.

As Coates points out, these citizens aren't dead and buried--any more than the state-supported wrongs against nonwhites are. Recall that the incarceration rate for blacks is not only six times higher than whites, but it's rising. Note how the access to neighborhoods affects access to schools, and how blacks continue to live in neighborhoods with worse schools. Remember that as recently as the housing boom, banks were discriminating against blacks and Latinos. This is not an ancient problem--it's an ongoing one.

Just this week, the city of Seattle passed a $15 minimum wage, showing that cities may be the best vehicle for leadership. The city of Portland could do a lot to lead by paying up for decades of racism--by doing something more substantial than renaming streets.

For decades, the city kept blacks segregated in one portion of the city. When those properties started to see skyrocketing values a decade ago, the city did nothing to make it possible for long-time residents to stay. What about offering grants to families who lost their homes in the last 15 years for down payments on those newly-coveted old homes? The price for racism was paid in poor schools and worse opportunities after school. Couldn't the city offer grants and low-interest loans to start up new businesses? Imagine offering a free ride through graduation at Portland-area community colleges and at PSU? This is not a matter of class or wealth--it's a matter of injury. I'm not entirely sure what the manner of restitution should be--but it's a discussion the city should have.

This is not a matter of one group owing something to another group. It's not a matter of the wealthy giving to the poor. It's a matter of the city offering restitution to a group it wronged. When the city's water gets contaminated, citizens pay to have it cleaned up. When infrastructure collapses, we pay to have it fixed. In the course of operation, the city is responsible for decisions going back years and decades. The decisions made on the basis of race are a part of the city's history and,as residents, we are all responsible for the solution.

It would illustrate that the city of 2014 finally understands something that earlier versions did not. And it's long overdue.

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