Feb 3, 2023

My response to your criticism...

Today, I'm responding to some impassioned readers with very strong opinions.

In the last week or so at Tangle, the issues we’ve published have driven some of the most passionate feedback that I've seen since I started this project.

I think that is due in part to our coverage of a few pretty divisive topics. Namely: A reparations proposal in San Francisco, the African-American studies course rejected in Florida, and the death of Tyre Nichols.

Every now and then, when I comb through the hundreds of reader emails responding to "My take" in sensitive newsletters like these, I realize there is a lot more meat on the bone than I anticipated. I’ll often realize that I didn't properly articulate my position, or that maybe I was wrong, or that I could have made my position even more strongly than I did.

And in your feedback to these sensitive topics, I've noticed some recurring elements. When there’s a pattern in your criticisms, questions, or feedback, I get really interested in it. So today, I'd like to directly explore some of the feedback that came in.

Below, you'll find — in bold — either verbatim reader feedback and questions (indicated by quotation marks) or my most succinct distillation of a batch of similar criticisms, and then my response. I do this kind of reader feedback edition every few months, and my hope is that by responding to this feedback publicly, I can walk the walk on having difficult dialogues like this in a productive way. And, of course, I also hope to add some nuance or improved understanding of the issues we’ve covered here and my positions on them.

Right now, there are Jews in Germany who are getting reparations for the Holocaust. Presumably, given your Jewish heritage, that is something you support. How do you reconcile supporting that, but not reparations for slavery?

The major difference between what happened in Germany and the proposal in San Francisco is that Germany's government is giving money directly to survivors of the Holocaust. This is recent enough history where some people who survived the atrocity are still alive, as are some perpetrators of that violence.

When I criticized the reparations proposal in San Francisco, I made the point that the fundamental questions of "who should get this money?" and "who should foot the bill?" were far more complicated than people made it seem, and — I think — essentially impossible to answer. Along with the reparations being on a much smaller scale and much more targeted, that is simply not the case in Germany. I'm not necessarily opposed to forms of reparations, but I did not find the specific proposal in San Francisco, in that context, particularly compelling.

"Being able to now say 'we shouldn't pay for the sins of our fathers' feels like we're culturally saying it's OK to favor yourself at the expense of others with greedy policies, so long as you die before the pendulum swings back the other way and so your kids that also benefited can't be punished. That doesn't feel right."

I see your point, and I certainly agree that the threshold for justice should not simply end when the perpetrator of some great evil dies. I don't mean to imply that. But this response feels like a head fake, where you are redefining the argument of not being responsible for the sins of our fathers in order to make it easier to attack. I'm not making the case that dying should absolve any group of repercussions for what they've done, or that slavery amounts to a greedy policy.

What I am saying is that — specific to the crime of American slavery — the basic reality of where we are in time makes a theoretically simple lump sum reparations proposal incredibly complicated. The basic question of who in today's society was directly harmed by slavery is not that easy to answer, and the basic question of who in today's society's ancestors perpetrated that harm is also hard to parse (I’m going to address this more thoroughly in a moment). This is, of course, because our society has undergone a great deal of assimilation, interracial marriage, immigration, and all sorts of other great things that are "antidotes" to the mindset behind slavery (in my opinion).

A few people wrote in with an analogy to make a similar point I think you are making against my position. They said something like, "if you found out that your father stole $1 million dollars from someone, and that you benefitted from that inheritance, and then the child of the person he stole from arrived at your house with irrefutable proof your dad stole his family's money and gave it to you... wouldn't you feel some kind of responsibility to return it? And why is that moral position different from this?"

I think there are a lot of ways that the contours of this analogy change the premise. For one, in this hypothetical, I know that my father took the money and I know the family he took it from. Two, stealing is a societally rejected idea today just like it was in my father's generation. This, however awful it is for us to reconcile, is not true of slavery. Three, there is a clear and direct monetary harm here, which makes it easy to say the solution should be monetary as well. If my dad stole $1 million, then his children owe $1 million.

Why should reparations look like cash? And what is the price tag on slavery? This is my central argument. I'm in favor of societal reckoning with the present-day impacts of slavery (and the Jim Crow era that was born out of it). I just don't view writing $5 million checks as the best way to do it.

"I have a question. I’ve been seeing lately in the media that when referring to ‘Black Americans’ the ‘b’ is capitalized, while the ‘w’ in ‘White Americans’ is not. How can this do anything to solve racial disparity? To me, it seems unequal, as if we are still choosing to elevate one race over the other. Why not capitalize both or neither?"

That's a good question. Tangle doesn't have an official "style guide," which is what drives most newsroom decisions around language. It is something we are building out as we speak. For now, we just aim to be as neutral as possible. However, as a starting point, we consult the Associated Press style guide, which is what many newsrooms use.

The AP (and many other style guides) explain this choice by noting that Black is similar to an ethnic group (like 'Jewish' or 'Slavic'), while white is more of a generic term that fits better with a cultural identity (like 'religious' or 'single') than an ethnicity. Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, or European would all be capitalized, but white would not.

This is not an open-and-shut case, though. A number of organizations, including the National Association of Black Journalists, prefer to capitalize both. But the Associated Press capitalizes Black and not white, and their style guide is the one that we most frequently use to guide our choices. It's not something I feel particularly strongly about, but might be a change we make in the future.

You can read more about the AP’s decision here.

It's frustrating to read a take from a white person who is making the case against reparations, given your obvious biases and conflict of interest (i.e. not wanting your own tax dollars or wealth to go to a racial group that isn't you).