Barack Obama explains why he doesn't think reparations to black people are practical

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tags: reparations

An interview in the Atlantic with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Barack Obama:  ...  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. It is easy to make that theoretical argument. But as a practical matter, it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence of historic wrongs, we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to make that right. You can look at examples like postwar Germany, where reparations were paid to Holocaust victims and families, but—

Coates: They lost the war.

Obama: They lost the war. Small population, finite amount of money that it was going to cost. Not multiple generations but people, in some cases, who are still alive, who can point to, “That was my house. Those were my paintings. Those were my mother’s family jewels.” If you look at countries like South Africa, where you had a black majority, there have been efforts to tax and help that black majority, but it hasn’t come in the form of a formal reparations program. You have countries like India that have tried to help untouchables, with essentially affirmative-action programs, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the structure of their societies.

So the bottom line is that it’s hard to find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts. And what makes America complicated as well is the degree to which this is not just a black/white society, and it is becoming less so every year. So how do Latinos feel if there’s a big investment just in the African American community, and they’re looking around and saying, “We’re poor as well. What kind of help are we getting?” Or Asian Americans who say, “Look, I’m a first-generation immigrant, and clearly I didn’t have anything to do with what was taking place.” And now you start getting into trying to calibrate—

Coates: Isn’t there just—not to cut you off—isn’t there, and this is out of the role of U.S. president, I’m almost speaking to you as a law professor now, an intellectual, in fact—

Obama: Well, that’s how I was answering the question, because if you want me to talk about politics, I’ll be much more blunt about it.

Coates: I figured that. I thought that was what I was getting.

Obama: I was giving the benefit of playing out, theoretically, how you could think about that.

Coates: And I appreciate that. And the question I would ask is in that situation, to the immigrant who comes here, first generation, and says, “I didn’t do any of this,” but the country is largely here because of that. In other words, many of the benefits that you will actually enjoy are, in fact, in part—I won’t say largely—in part here because of the past. So when you want the benefits, when you invoke the past, that thus you inherit the debt, too—

Obama: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I guess, here’s the way—probably the best way of saying it is that you can make a theoretical, abstract argument in favor of something like reparations. And maybe I’m just not being sufficiently optimistic or imaginative enough—

Coates: You’re supposed to be optimistic!

Obama: Well, I thought I was, but I’m not so optimistic as to think that you would ever be able to garner a majority of an American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kinds of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people. So to restate it: I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability, to mobilize the American people around a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country than I am in being able to mobilize the country around providing a benefit specific to African Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow. Now, we can debate the justness of that. But I feel pretty confident in that assessment politically. And, you know, 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—...

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