Like many Jews growing up in a white suburb, I understood poverty in terms of liberal disappointment.
It went something like this: Blacks had gotten a bum deal under slavery and Jim Crow, which is why we support civil rights and affirmative action. But African-Americans weren’t the only ethnic group to be discriminated against, as we Jews well know. So why have the Jews (and the Irish, and the Italians) been able to leave the inner city for a better life in the suburbs, but not the blacks?
Perhaps, “in the ghetto, a lot of mothers don’t appreciate the importance of schooling,” as I heard former New Republic owner Martin Peretz say at a panel on black-Jewish relations in 1994.
Or maybe “Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people,” as the amateur social philosopher Donald Sterling told Anderson Cooper. “Some of the African-Americans, they don’t want to help anyone.”
What we didn’t talk about is that, in 1934, Congress crafted legislation that explicitly excluded black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.
“Red-lining” was not an invention of greedy real estate agents or corrupt banks, but the result of a Federal Housing Administration rating system that rendered neighborhoods where blacks lived ineligible for FHA backing.
It was the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that insisted upon — not just allowed — restrictive “covenants” that blocked the sale of property to non-whites and created permanent ghettoes.
Nor did I learn that Social Security and unemployment insurance, implemented under the New Deal, excluded farmworkers and domestics, leaving 65 percent of African Americans ineligible.
Or that in the absence of subsidized mortgages, black families seeking a piece of the American dream of home ownership entered into predatory “contract” agreements in which payments are made to the seller.
Contract sellers did not thrive in a “culture of poverty” — they created one, by exploiting black people who had the means to make a down payment without the benefits or protection of a federally insured mortgage.
A fresh accounting of these policies and their legacy is contained in a stunning article in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In “The Case for Reparations,” Coates reaches back 350 years to describe how bondage created the “economic foundation” for American democracy.
But he also details what he calls “the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success,” a legacy as fresh as 2010, when Wells Fargo was charged by the Justice Department with steering black home buyers toward subprime loans.
Coates proposes a conversation on reparations not just in financial terms — although he does cite those who have put a price tag on the systemic plunder of black assets, beginning with their forced labor.
He wants a “national reckoning” that will force Americans, liberals and conservatives alike, to confront our history of and responsibility for the huge gap between black and white opportunities.
“Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” writes Coates.
“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.”
It seems to me Jews have a lot to contribute to this conversation.
Coates cites the example of German reparations to Israel, and how they were violently resisted not only by Germans themselves but by Menachem Begin and other Israelis.
He writes of the enormous impact of German reparations — some $7 billion in today’s dollars — in jump-starting the young state’s economy and infrastructure.
“Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis,” he writes.
“But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.“
Jews understand what reparations mean, in practical, material, and even spiritual terms.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) is the author of a bill — a perennial nonstarter — calling for a congressional study of slavery and reparations.
Coates acknowledges the political and financial obstacles.
“But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion — and that is perhaps what scares us,” he writes.
An amnesiac majority on the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, and has the Fair Housing Act in its sights. Jews have been victims of discrimination, beneficiaries of American opportunity, and willing or unwilling collaborators in America’s “preferential treatment of white people.”
Imagine if we were to put some of our organizational muscle behind Conyers’ bill. We have the political savvy, academic expertise, and organizational know-how to lead or at least urge such a discussion.
The question is whether our organizations have the courage and vision to do so in what we are constantly being assured is a “post-racial” world.
Fittingly, Coates’ article begins with a passage from Deuteronomy, in which God commands the Hebrews to compensate a freed slave: “And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.”
Coates is also asking us to remember, and act.