The mainstream assumption is that slavery is in the past, and discrimination based on skin color is no longer an issue in the United States. Unfortunately, in reality, these problems remain and continue to cause disruptions in America. Dr. Leary and Ta-Nehisi Coates provide the foundation behind the claim that black people are at a substantial disadvantage compared to the white majority. Ascertaining the specific prerequisites for the current status of the black population is essential in raising cultural competence and promoting social justice.
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Concept of Reparations
American author and The Atlantic journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the article “The Case for Reparations”. Most of the article delves into the history of white supremacy in America, which the author traces to the time of the British Colonies. Coates (2014) writes that after the independence, “American law worked to reduce black people to a class of untouchables and raise all white men to the level of citizens” (p. 27). He proceeds to provide examples of numerous legal restrictions imposed upon non-white people, some of which included forced separation of families.
A key message of the article is that the abolition of slavery did not end the maltreatment of black people. The minds of many former slave owners still retained the image of non-white people as subservient and inferior populations. Descendants of former slaves had to endure public harassment and discrimination (Coates, 2014). Although officially, there was no difference based on color, African Americans had far worse living conditions than the mainstream Caucasian population.
The consequences of these historic injustices are still apparent today. Despite the official regulations, there is a financial, economic, and social gap between Americans of a different color. Coates argues that in order to restore the sense of moral righteousness, the United States should institute reparations for black people. Coates defines reparations as “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” (p. 57). Like Germany compensated Jews for the Holocaust, the US government can compensate black citizens for centuries of slavery and inappropriate treatment.
Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome
Dr. Joy Degruy Leary is an American researcher and promoter of social justice. In 2016, she gave a talk, in which she introduced the theory of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). Having spent considerable time and effort, Dr. Leary discloses the evidence for the existence of PTSS. The syndrome itself refers to the condition experienced by the descendants of slaves who have a negative outlook on their prospects, a propensity to anger, and a negative attitude towards their own identity.
The term “PTSS” is similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it has similar symptoms. PTSD involves a victim of a traumatic experience whose psyche has been severely affected. PTSS functions the same way, with the difference being that it is a result of multigenerational trauma rather than immediate exposure. Both conditions may result in self-destructive behavior, violent outbursts, and the prevalent feeling of helplessness.
PTSS is attributed to two factors – the indirect effect of trauma and social background. Dr. Leary posits that physical presence is not necessary to obtain PTSD. She refers to numerous Americans who reported signs of PTSD after 911 despite not being present in New York (Terrance Carney, 2016). Also, the more the family has been exposed to negative experiences, the more their consequences will manifest in offspring. Subsequently, even though they have never been themselves subservient, descendants of former slaves are traumatized.
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Both sources follow the viewpoint that black people are still considered inferior. Whereas Dr. Leary uses the methodology of clinical psychology, Coates applies factual data to prove social and economic data to prove the same point. Some black individuals deal with discriminatory hiring policies. Others have feelings of inadequacy that cannot be directly linked to a specific event in their lives. As a result, different life obstacles comprise the overall inequality, which constitutes the intersectionality of the black populace.
In my opinion, Dr. Leary’s PTSS directly stems from the historic context described by Coates. She explains that modern black people still suffer the mentality of the inferior race due to the long years of exploitation. Coates’s article explores the origins of the trauma without using the term “PTSS”. Systematic legal discrimination over centuries would severely affect the mental health of any ethnicity. It comes as no surprise that African Americans perceive their economic status as the result of white privileges and silence.
Reparations as a Means of Healing
The major suggestion that Coates makes in his article is that reparations to the black population would provide the capacity to heal not only the people affected by the legacy of slavery but also the entire American nation. Coates sees the problems of the black in strictly economic terms. His justification for blaming the white majority lies in stark economic inequality. Therefore, his understanding of compensatory reparations is also economic.
The purpose of reparations is to bridge the wealth gap between the races. Coates opts for two methods of compensation – financial and social work. The financial solution would be to implement a reparations program, which would provide black citizens with welfare benefits. For example, “a price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income” (Coates, 2014, p. 54). The social aspect would be realized by job training and public works, which would accentuate the inconveniences of the lives of black people.
The question of whether reparations will actually help American society heal itself is complicated. Coates points to the example of Germany paying reparations to Israel and the substantial economic boost they produced. Coates (2014) writes that German compensation “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” (p. 62). He wants to extrapolate this solution to the Unites States.
However, I think that, while the goal is noble, it does not take into account the consequences of such a decision. Firstly, Coates thinks that via reparations America will take responsibility for its historic fallacies. However, slavery is not the only American wrongdoing. Other minorities might also demand compensation for their mistreatment, like the native people, who already receive governmental support (Bicknell-Hersco, 2020). Either a government has to pay reparations to all who ask for compensation, or the black people will be seen as being valued more than other minorities, thus dividing American society even further.
Altogether, Coates and Dr. Leary underscore the important issue of American society is still plagued by racial discrimination. Coates provides the historic context, while Dr. Leroy showcases how centuries of servitude have led to the contemporary black people struggling with Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Coates believes that a policy of reparations will restore justice and heal society. This solution can help black people, however, it might cause more divisions in the long term. Overall, getting acquainted with Coates’ and Dr. Leary’s ideas increases one’s understanding of social justice and the actions necessary to implement it.
Coates, T. N. (2014). The case for reparations. The Atlantic, 313(5), 1-66.
Terrance Carney. (2016). Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary: Post Traumatic Slave Disorder [Video]. YouTube.
Bicknell-Hersco, P. (2020). Reparations in the Caribbean and diaspora. Caribbean Quilt, 5, 35-43.