Obama Makes Final Case for Reparations in Race-Centric Interview

“My President Was Black,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Atlantic’s resident racial justice “expert” Ta-Nehisi Coates just published his second interview with President Barack Obama from his series “My President Was Black.” In this installment, Obama makes one of his strongest arguments yet for racial reparations in America.

It’s no surprise that the entire interview was based solely on skin color; it’s kind of expected whenever either of these two people is talking. Coates announced the topic at the beginning of the interview: policy. But specifically policies that will help fix “these gaps that we see between black and white America.”

To summarize Obama’s lengthy response, he posits “a three-legged stool” which starts with universalist programs such as wage increases and early-childhood education for African Americans. Next would be a “somewhat race-specific” policy of “making sure that institutions are not discriminatory.” Third, the president said personal responsibility inside the black community would be necessary to rise out of poverty (not a popular idea among Black Lives Matter activists), but not without those federal programs in place first:

“[I]t is my view that if society was doing the right thing with respect to you, [and there were] programs targeted at helping people rise into the middle class and have a good income and be able to save and send their kids to school, and you’ve got a vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, then I have confidence in the black community’s capabilities to then move forward.”

But even that’s not enough to eliminate “all vestiges of past discrimination” to help blacks move forward. That’s where reparations come in:

“Theoretically, you can make, obviously, a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps. That those were wrongs done to the black community as a whole, and black families specifically, and that in order to close that gap, a society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it’s not in the form of individual reparations checks, but in the form of a Marshall Plan, in order to close those gaps.”

Obama framed his argument from a lawyer’s perspective but said his political perspective realizes singling out one race to receive “investments” will discriminate against Hispanics or Asians. And so, instead of calling it reparations, per se, Obama the politician repackages it as “a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country.” 

“I think that part of my optimism comes from the belief that we as a people could actually, regardless of all the disadvantage of the past, regardless of the fact that a lot of other folks got a head start in the race, if we were able to make the race fair right now, and we were able to make sure that it stayed fair for a long time and that children going forward were not encumbered by some of that same bias of the past, I think it would not take long at all, because we are a talented, resourceful people,” he said.

The president invited Coates to join in a “thought experiment:”

Imagine if you had genuine, high-quality early-childhood education for every child, and suddenly every black child in America—but also every poor white child or Latino [child], but just stick with every black child in America—is getting a really good education. And they’re graduating from high school at the same rates that whites are, and they are going to college at the same rates that whites are, and they are able to afford college at the same rates because the government has universal programs that say that you’re not going to be barred from school just because of how much money your parents have. So now they’re all graduating. And let’s also say that the Justice Department and the courts are making sure, as I’ve said in a speech before, that when Jamal sends his résumé in, he’s getting treated the same as when Johnny sends his résumé in.

Now, are we going to have suddenly the same number of CEOs, billionaires, etc., as the white community? In 10 years? Probably not, maybe not even in 20 years. But I guarantee you that we would be thriving, we would be succeeding. We wouldn’t have huge numbers of young African American men in jail. We’d have more family formation as college-graduated girls are meeting boys who are their peers, which then in turn means the next generation of kids are growing up that much better. And suddenly you’ve got a whole generation that’s in a position to start using the incredible creativity that we see in music, and sports, and frankly even on the streets, channeled into starting all kinds of businesses. I feel pretty good about our odds in that situation.

In summary, the solution to all of the blacks’ ills is more government — the same big government programs that have kept them exactly where they’ve been.

But this isn’t just the vision Obama has for America; he has it for his daughters, too. He said he’s raising them not to focus on individual achievements but to realize “they have a responsibility to the larger community and the larger nation, that they should be sensitive to and extra thoughtful about the plight of people who have been oppressed in the past, are oppressed currently.”

Already, this interview is generating plenty of heat for Coates and Obama, but not from whom you’d expect. It's coming from a fellow Atlantic writer. In his rebuttal, William A. Darity Jr. views President Obama as a "failure" who “never pursued policies bold enough” to help black people:

“Having a black president oppose reparations does not help the cause, particularly when that black president makes the case that an important source of black disadvantage is black folk’s own behavior. But black America should have paid attention to the experience of post-colonial black Africa and the Caribbean; leaders who look like you do not necessarily act in ways that benefit you. So be it. The struggle for reparations—and for black lives and justice—must and will continue, with or without Barack Obama in the fold.”

For Darity, and many other black activists who see reparations as the only way, the fight for racial equality is far from over.