Esther Cepeda: The reparations difference
CHICAGO -- In his 2004 book “The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America,” author Nicolas C. Vaca shatters the myth of a Rainbow Coalition among minorities.
Paraphrasing Latino activist Daniel Osuna, Vaca notes that though, in theory, “Latinos and blacks have parallel histories of suffering at the hands of white America, and that they also share a history of struggling to obtain social, economic and educational opportunities,” it pretty much ends there. “In the real world the ostensible moral and philosophical bases for coalition politics have largely fallen apart because of competing self-interests,” Vaca wrote.
Parallel, as in side by side, yes. But not exactly equivalent.
This distinction came to mind as I read Manuel Roig-Franzia’s Washington Post profile of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for The Atlantic and author of the blockbuster cover story “The Case for Reparations.”
Here’s the part that made my eyeballs bug out of my head:
“But what also has been notable is the reaction of like-minded readers to the piece, which took two years to complete,” wrote Roig-Franzia. “Everywhere he goes, Coates hears versions of the same plea: What about my group? What about Native Americans? What about Latino immigrants? What about me?”
Coates tells Roig-Franzia one morning at a Capitol Hill coffee shop: “You get here and people say, ‘Why can’t you do that for our community?’” Coates “calls the reaction ‘disrespectful’ but ‘not illogical.’ Disrespectful because he believes the experience of blacks in America deserves its own, focused examination. Not illogical because he can empathize with the desire of people who feel wronged.”
It is remarkably brave that a prominent African-American intellectual would buck the tyranny of political correctness and say, basically: Hey, let’s not compare apples and oranges here—a sentiment I heartily agree with.
“When I said ‘disrespectful,’ I didn’t mean to me, personally,” Coates told me in a telephone interview. “What I meant was disrespect to one particular people. I spent two years of my life studying this; it wasn’t some simple petition for reparations. It’s very much rooted in a specific African-American experience. It’s not simply about people who are not white, or people who are victims of oppression, but about a specific period of our history.”
Coates elaborated, “I could almost see Japanese-Americans make a case because of their internment [during World War II] or the Native Americans, but I just don’t know—I don’t have the knowledge about those experiences to understand those struggles.”
He understands the desire to get out the “big tent” but sees dire consequences for such thinking, even if others might see his hesitation as divisive.
“I think it comes from a right-headed, good-headed tendency on behalf of the progressive community to stress the commonality of struggle of women, of all races, of the gay equality movement,” Coates told me. “Drawing these parallels can be helpful to their causes but obscures the significance of those who struggled through what African-Americans struggled through.”
I couldn’t agree more. Hispanic activists like to couch their fight for immigration reform in the language of the African-American civil rights movement. Immigrant advocates and conscientious objectors to deportation rules have had a tendency to speak of “integrating lunch counters” and the “Mexican Rosa Parks” and use the terms “disenfranchisement” and “equality.”
But such allusions have done little to move the needle on immigration reform and certainly haven’t done much for relations between blacks and Hispanics. The news tends to describe them most often in economic terms, which has the effect of pitting these two groups against each other for the highest unemployment rates, lowest high school graduation rates or lowest net worth, reinforcing the notion that self-interest tends to be competitive.
Make no mistake: Hispanics have historically experienced much bigotry, roadblocks and flat-out cruelty—like so many other groups starting with the shipped-off-to-boarding-school Native Americans and on to the much-reviled Germans, the excluded Chinese, interned Japanese, marginalized women and, for that matter, Jews, Muslims, neglected military veterans and on and on.
But it doesn’t help to compare or piggyback those injuries onto a discussion about the nature of black racial discrimination that deserves what Coates calls an “airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts.” This makes sense—Coates notes America won’t truly understand its diverse population until it has had an honest reckoning with its original sin of slavery.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.