David Frum, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Corey Robin, and the Ideology of loss: On Conservatism’s Opposition to Reparations For African-Americans

Before diving into a discussion on whether or not African-American reparations are satisfactory on their own for rectifying the crimes of the past, it is important that one first methodically analyze, dissect, and ultimately dispose of the nonsensical arguments put forth in opposition by individuals such as David Frum and the multitudes who will eagerly lap up his illogic in order to justify their own prejudice and bigotry.  Frum’s essay centers on the idea that racial restitution for African-Americans is an utter impracticality.  His reasoning, if one wants to call it that, is not only far from compelling but quite pompous and insincere.  Read between the lines and one begins to recognize that this author is masking a purely ideological opposition to reparations with completely nonsensical appeals to its unworkability.  To locate evidence of this deception one need look no further than this outrageous line, “The reparations idea-so long politically outlandish- has become thinkable today because of the gathering power of the Obama political coalition.  But nothing would blow that apart faster than the internal redistribution Coates contemplates from some constituencies to others.”[1]  Mr. Frum apparently forgets that Barrack Obama, while vying for the presidency back in 2008, stood firmly in opposition to African-American reparations, “I have said in the past-and I’ll repeat again-that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed.”[2]  In 2004, in the midst of his victorious run for the Senate, candidate Obama told the NAACP, “I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say, ‘We’ve paid our debt,’ and to avoid the much harder work.”[3]  There exists absolutely no evidence to suggest that reparations have become more politically palatable since Obama was elected president, not least because Mr. Obama, at all stages of his political career, has never wavered in his staunch opposition to this policy.  Perhaps Mr. Frum should step back and consider how a nation which continues to profit of white supremacy and Black oppression without a second thought can even begin to contemplate reparations intended to redress historical wrongs committed against African-Americans.  After pondering that bombshell, Mr. Frum should consider the meaning of this statement from Kibibi Tyehimba, co-chairwoman of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, “Let’s not be naive. Senator Obama is running for president of the United States, and so he is in a constant battle to save his political life.  In light of the demographics of this country, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect him to do anything other than what he’s done.”[4]  One can imagine that Kibibi Tyemhimba, if she were to read Frum’s article, would have a bit of trouble identifying the “Obama political coalition” that he claims has ostensibly infused new life into the palatability of reparations.  If candidate Obama had made reparations a key part of his platform in 2008 he most certainly would have lost the election.  The majority of liberal whites in this country do not look favorably upon reparations.  It is highly doubtful that the 2008 Obama campaign would have raised more money than the total amount of money raised by all the 2004 presidential candidates combined if Obama had revealed himself to be in favor of reparations.  So the question remains, why does David Frum peg Obama and his political coalition as being in favor of this radical policy when, in fact, all the evidence points to the contrary.  In short, the answer is ideology.  Even though Barrack Obama has proven himself to be quite the reactionary and run-of-the-mill corporate Democrat, many prominent Republicans and conservatives remain intent on portraying the President as an unabashed and uncompromising leftist with a tendency towards socialism.  In an interview with Micah Uetricht, a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine, Corey Robin, political scientist and author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin argues that “Conservatism is not simply a backwards-looking philosophy-it’s also future-oriented.  It’s not a simple, sunny philosophy; it’s a philosophy in which the vision of a brave future is embedded in and grows out of the experience of loss.”  Robin goes on to say that “Conservatism is about a very particular kind of loss-the loss of power.”[5]  In his previously mentioned book Robin argues eloquently that, “People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something.  It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner.  The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing.  It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small.  Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess.”[6]  So what did conservatives lose when Barrack Obama became President and what do they stand to lose if reparations becomes a reality?  Depending on who one talks to, Barrack Obama is either America’s first Black president or this nation’s first biracial president.  Either way conservatives have witnessed the end of a long succession of solely white Presidents of the United States of America.  That is a loss but it is not enough of a loss.  After all, every American, whether or not they want to admit it, is perfectly aware of the fact that over the course of Obama’s presidency, the Black population of this country has experienced negative improvement in nearly all if not all social and economic indicators.  The system of white supremacy which is as American as apple pie has flourished under President Obama.  So the question remains; what did conservatives lose when Barrack Obama became president?  Simply put, they lost the battle of campaign rhetoric.  The majority of Americans, even those who did not vote, appreciated that candidate Obama was calling for the wealthy to pay their fair share in taxes.  Their ears perked when candidate Obama called for an end to tax breaks for companies which ship jobs overseas.  Their eyes widened when candidate Obama called for the creation of millions of new, “Green Collar,” American jobs.  Of course all of this pontificating turned out to be mere empty campaign bluster and showmanship, but that is irrelevant.  What matters is that candidate Obama was able to rally large swathes of the population to vote for him by convincing them that, if elected, he would implement one of the most radical redistribution of wealth programs this nation has ever experienced.  The fact that he was elected on such a message scared Republicans and the conservative intelligentsia, because it signaled to them that a Republican will most likely never become President of the United States again unless they 1) campaign on the same rhetoric of growing income inequality or 2) succeed in their efforts at voter suppression as they did in the election of 2000.  President Obama may not have governed as a progressive liberal, however both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns did tap into that desire among the general populace for policies which would increase the general economic welfare of ordinary Americans.  So what did conservatives lose besides the near certainty that a Republican will never be elected president again?  They lost the ability to appeal to the majority of this country with the rhetoric of “class warfare,” the idea that in order for those lower on the economic and racial totem pole to experience social and economic mobility, the wealthy as well as the white working class will have to concede power and privilege.  One can easily identify the reinforcing ideological undertones of class warfare, racial warfare, and white supremacy embedded in Frum’s essay.  He decries racial restitution as an inevitable internal redistribution of wealth from some of Obama’s political constituency to others, “Does the Fujianese delivery man pedaling through the brownstones of Fort Greene owe a debt to the people whose food he carries?  How much?”[7]  It is blatantly obvious that Frum fear mongers not only in order to drive a wedge between Latinos and other disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities who voted for Obama and the Democratic Party but also because this “divide and conquer” strategy is absolutely central to the appeal of conservative ideology to some folks.  Pit the rabble against each other so they do not direct their righteous anger towards the true masterminds of their misery, the power elite.  Instill in one sector of the rabble with relative privilege, the idea that such privilege is threatened by the agitation of those lower on the totem pole.  As Corey Robin so astutely argues “Conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something.”  He nonetheless recognizes that conservatives do not have the best interests in mind of the subject classes to whom they are appealing, “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of the animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.  It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity.  Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.”[8]  So while conservatism survives and thrives on the fear generated by convincing one sector of the subordinate class that it will lose power if another, perhaps less privileged and less wealthy sector of the subordinate class gains power, the goal of this ideology is two-fold, the preservation of economic and social hierarchy and the preservation of the outrageous power and wealth of the elite.  One will strain to explain Frum’s case against reparations outside of such a framework.  His arguments rest on no semblance of logic.  He is banking on purely their potential to gin up a deep sense of envy in the populations he is trying to reach, the Fujianese delivery man for instance who is struggling to make ends meet and presumably would not want his hard-earned money going to pay for reparations for African-Americans.  But the question begs why does the money intended for reparations have to come from the Fujianese delivery man.  That money could just as easily come from the corporations which profited from slavery, most of which are still raking in huge profits today.  These companies include Aetna, New York Life, Lehman Brothers, JPMorgan Chase, Wachovia Corporation, E.W. Scripps and Gannett which is the parent company of USA Today, rail company CSX, Brown Brothers Harriman, and the list goes on.  The fact that Frum does not even contemplate such an elementary conclusion, especially given the fact that Mr. Coates article identifies several corporations which were complicity in maintaining white supremacy, speaks volumes about his intentions with this article, and only serves to strengthen Coate’s argument that “the problem of reparations has never been practicality.  It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.”  Frum appeals to the same potential for loss here as he did with the Fujianese delivery man, “And if the idea is that the new arrivals to America will be persuaded to accept paying reparations as a cost of immigration-or that new Americans can be cajoled to pay a symbolic something because the bulk of the burden will be carried by the dwindling white majority (a majority that already feels ever more culturally insecure and economically beset) well, that’s a proscript for an even more dangerous political explosion.”[9]  The section of this sentence in parentheses, referring to the white majority that is struggling both culturally and economically, is completely unnecessary unless one views this essay within the framework of conservative ideology.  Unless this man actually believes in his heart of hearts that there is something called white culture and that such a culture contains positive and redeeming qualities which are being threatened by the loss of the white majority in this country and that reparations would threaten this culture to an even greater degree, then Frum should have foregone the parentheses and all the words that he dared to place within them.  The problem is that Frum did not forgo publishing such a thought, and therefore one can only conclude that his belief system made the publishing of such a thought not only possible but favorable within the context of discussing reparations.  White supremacy is a form of racial hierarchy which has consequences for the economic and political hierarchy of this nation.  Conservatives are intent on preserving all forms of social, racial, political, and economic hierarchy, and white supremacy stands as one of the foremost among those systems of hierarchy they view as integral to the proper functioning of this nation.  David Frum may not want to believe that he is a white supremacist, but by virtue of this line of reasoning he certainly reveals himself to be just that.  He willfully ignores the fact that whiteness is a social construct, not a biological characteristic.  Whiteness, so far as it manifests itself in skin tone is not a color with any inherent meaning or value.  The idea of whiteness or the concept that individuals with lighter skin tones are inherently superior to those with darker skin tones was constructed and has persisted so that individuals with lighter skin tones could qualitatively differentiate themselves from individuals with darker skin tones in order to justify the domination and oppression of the latter group for economic gain.  If one was to distill the essence of so-called white culture as if such a practice could be attempted as a science experiment, one would end up with the constituent elements of domination, hierarchy, and profit motive.  From a moral standpoint, none of those elements are worth preserving.  If one wants to, however, preserve the manmade hierarchy of white over Black or light skin over dark skin, then subtly calling on white people or lighter-skinned people of color to fear and prevent the loss of white culture, otherwise known as white supremacy, is perfectly logical.  Doing this within the context of discussing one’s opposition to reparations makes even more sense.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently states in his reply to David Frum, “The problem of reparations has never been practicality.  It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.  A fear of ghosts has sometimes occupied the pages of the magazine for which David and I now write.  In other times banishment has been our priority.  The mature citizen, the hard student, is now called to choose between finding a reason to confront the past, or finding more reasons to hide from it.  Evidently Mr. Frum chooses the latter simply because he is a conservative.  The implementation of reparations would surely begin the process of eliminating white supremacy in this nation, but Mr. Frum, however much he may argue that he is in favor of its elimination just as candidate Obama was ostensibly in favor of the wealthy paying their fair share in income taxes, desires its preservation.  If one is unwilling to admit that reparations could be a part of the cure and that methods of implementation have not yet been adequately studied, then one is simply not in favor of the end result.

[1] Frum, David. “The Impossibility of Reparations.” The Atlantic. June 3, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2015.

[2] “Obama Stands Firm against Reparations.” Washington Times. August 3, 2008. Accessed May 7, 2015.

[3] “Obama Stands Firm against Reparations.” Washington Times. August 3, 2008. Accessed May 7, 2015.

[4] “Obama Stands Firm against Reparations.” Washington Times. August 3, 2008. Accessed May 7, 2015.

[5] “My Interview with Corey Robin on “The Reactionary Mind”” Micah Uetricht. November 10, 2012. Accessed May 7, 2015.

[6] Robin, Corey. The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 58

[7] Frum, David. “The Impossibility of Reparations.” The Atlantic. June 3, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2015

[8] Robin, Corey. The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 7

[9] Frum, David. “The Impossibility of Reparations.” The Atlantic. June 3, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2015

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