In June 2015, when The Atlantic ran Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations , the timing was impeccable.1
Edward Bernays himself could not have done better.2
Coates’s upcoming book – Between the World and Me – was already in the promotional pipeline at Penguin Random House/Spiegel Graf. It was published one year later in July 2016, and the controversy sparked by Coates’s Atlantic article provided a perfect platform for his soon-to-be published book.
The massive 15,000-word article wandered all over US and local Chicago history, but its premise was simple: 250 years of enslavement and an undeclared “war” on black families and black people, had left profound consequences on African-Americans. Therefore, they were entitled to reparations from the US government.
Coates’s article repeatedly cited a congressional bill – John Conyers’s HR 40 – which would “establish a Commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present, and recommend appropriate remedies.3
By way of “appropriate remedies” Coates invoked The Case for Black Reparations – an earlier book by Yale Law professor Boris Bittker, which argued that reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population, by the difference between white and black per capita income. That number was $34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book. This “per capita income equality payment” could then be repeated each successive year, for at least one or two decades.
For Exhibit “A” Coates used North Lawndale, a black enclave in Chicago’s West Side where the homicide rate was 45 per 100,000, 43% of its people lived below the poverty line, and nearly everyone suffered from neighborhood redlining and home mortgage abuse. Coates declared that after 250 years of slavery, generations of systemic discrimination, and an undeclared yet ongoing “war” on black people and black families, the people of North Lawndale were entitled to racial reparations.
Assuming arguendo that Coates met his probative burden, then Puerto Rico must also get reparations: but theirs should be even higher per capita, and paid earlier, than those paid to African-Americans.
Here is why:
Numbers do not lie. US slavery commenced around 1618 and ended in 1868. Puerto Rico slavery began in 1494 and ended in 1873.4 That’s 379 years of slavery in Puerto Rico, versus 250 years of slavery in the US. So Puerto Ricans suffered 129 more years – 51.6 percent more years of slavery – than the US did.
The argument that “Puerto Ricans are not all descended from slaves, so they can’t all expect reparations” does not hold up for several reasons. Here’s just a few:
#1. All the original Puerto Ricans had a fate WORSE than slavery. They were exterminated.
#2. In addition to slavery every Puerto Rican – black, white, trigueño, criollo – was victimized by outright land theft*, a 40% currency devaluation, and flesh-eating loans.
Black slaves were imported to replace the exterminated Tainos. By the year 1840 there were 50,000 slaves in Puerto Rico,5 and the entire island population was roughly 400,000. In other words, 1 in 8 (12.5%) of Puerto Ricans were slaves.
This slave-to-overall population ratio in Puerto Rico was nearly identical to that in the US, with its 2.5 million slaves6 and an overall population of 19.5 million residents in 1840.7 These mainland numbers yielded the same ratio: 1 in 8 US residents were slaves in 1840.
#3 In Puerto Rico today, consumer prices are 15-20% higher for every product (food, cars, clothes, toiletries, computers, TVs, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes) than anywhere in the US mainland, due to Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act: aka the Jones Act. EVERY Puerto Rican – black, white, trigueño, criollo – has suffered from this law since 1920 till today.8
#4 There was no minimum wage in Puerto Rico until 1937. Every Puerto Rican family – black, white, trigueño, criollo – suffered from this wage discrimination.
#5. Puerto Ricans were declared “US citizens” in March 1917, just one month before the US marched into World War I. Oh my god…what a coincidence! For over a century its men have been drafted and wounded, and killed, in every US military conflict. This includes every color: black, white, trigueño, criollo.
#6. Every Puerto Rican – black, white, trigueño, criollo – is paying the highest sales tax in the US (12.5%), paying 200% more for their electricity, breathing toxic air, suffering from a crumbling infrastructure, reeling from 400 school closures, and staggering though island-wide blackouts: and all of these are attributable to the boundless appetite of Wall Street and Washington, DC.
#7 The island’s Legislature did exactly what the Wall Street creditors and bond rating agencies demanded…
As of 2010, it has laid off over 20,000 workers; raised prices for water, gasoline and electricity; increased property, sales and small-business taxes; cut public pensions and health benefits; raised the retirement age; and closed hundreds of schools.9
From 2013 to 2014, 105 different taxes were raised in Puerto Rico.10 Every islander – black, white, trigueño, criollo – is paying for the alleged $73 billion “debt” to Wall Street.
In addition to all the above pathologies – and the 51.6 percent more years of slavery in Puerto Rico than the US – there’s two more key points:
#1 USING COATES’S OWN NUMBERS, the misery index of Puerto Rico exceeds that of North Lawndale.
The homicide rate of North Lawndale was 45 per 100,000…but the homicide rate on the island is 622 per 100,000.11
43% of North Lawndale lived below the poverty line…and today, 45% of islanders live below that same line.12
The entire island suffers from redlining, mortgage abuse and predatory lending, in every level of its infrastructure.
So when Coates declared that 250 years of slavery and an ongoing “war” on black people entitled the people of North Lawndale to racial reparations, the exact same argument applies to the people of Puerto Rico – but the Puerto Rico reparations should come first: since their slavery commenced over a century before that of the US and officially lasted 51.6 percent years longer…plus their land was stolen, their currency was devalued by 40 percent, their wages were unconstitutionally suppressed, and the war against all Puerto Ricans continues to this day.
#2 THE ARGUMENT THAT SLAVERY DID NOT EXIST in Puerto Rico when the US purchased it from Spain, and thus the US is “not responsible” for any prior harm inflicted before 1898, is completely without merit.
Here is some basic property law:
Whenever you buy a building, bridge, boat or corporation – any piece of property – the buyer assumes all the assets and liabilities of that property: including any antecedent liens, claims or debt.
And so, when the US purchased Puerto Rico, they not only assumed the island’s wealth. They also assumed responsibility for all of its antecedent debt. If the US owes reparations on the mainland for injuries inflicted by slavery, it must owe the same reparations for the depredations of slavery in Puerto Rico.
In addition, the US cannot claim any defense of “surprise” or “latent defect” in the Puerto Rican psyche and character since they – the US – were entirely on notice: they knew the public record of prior slavery in Puerto Rico. It was a fully disclosed historical fact, and the consequences of that fact run with the property. They are completely assumed by the buyer: in this case, the US. Accordingly, I do not resent Coates’s cry for racial reparations. I welcome it. Because by every conceivable measure, and using the same yardsticks, the crimes committed against Puerto Rico are more pervasive, pernicious and permanent, than the crimes committed against Afro-Americans in the US.
If and when the US starts ladling out those reparations…
Puerto Rico belongs at the front of the line.
1Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
2 Author of the 1928 book Propaganda, Edward Bernays lived a long and influential life. When he died at age 103, his New York Times obituary named him “the father of public relations.” See “Edward Bernays, ‘Father of Public Relations’ and Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103;” The New York Times, March 10, 1995.
He was also named one of the “100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century” by Life Magazine. See Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin; Chapter One: Visiting Edward Bernays (New York: Basic Books, archived from the original on Sept. 5, 2008). See also: Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 1998)
Bernays’s corporate clients included CBS; Procter & Gamble; the American Tobacco Company; United Fruit; Cartier, Inc.; General Electric; Dodge Motors and the NAACP. Individual clients included Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and Al Jolson.
Bernays pioneered the linkage of large-scale cultural movements and political events, with the presentation and sale of consumer products. For example – ever-mindful of tectonic shifts in US popular opinion – he drew energy from the women’s suffragist movement by arranging for a contingent of beautiful ladies to march and smoke “Torches of Freedom” (i.e., cigarettes) during the 1929 Easter Sunday Parade in New York City. The resulting publicity led to an immediate spike in female smokers throughout the US.
Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and frequently corresponded with him. This may account for his acute awareness and mastery of the use of psychology, to influence mass behavior.
3 House Resolution 40, “Commission to Study and Develop Preparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” 115th Congress (2017-2018), https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/40
4 Francisco A. Scarano, Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico, 1800-1850 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984) 5-23; Jose Curet, From Slave to “Liberto”: A Study on Slavery and its Abolition in Puerto Rico, 1840-1880 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974) 37-48; Jorge Chinea, “Race, colonial exploitation and West Indian immigration in nineteenth-century Puerto Rico, 1800-1850,” Americas, Vol. 52, Num. 4: 1-10.
5 Francisco A. Scarano, Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico, 1800-1850 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984) 5-23; Jose Curet, From Slave to “Liberto”: A Study on Slavery and its Abolition in Puerto Rico, 1840-1880 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974) 37-48; Jorge Chinea, “Race, colonial exploitation and West Indian immigration in nineteenth-century Puerto Rico, 1800-1850,” Americas, Vol. 52, Num. 4: 1-10.
6 Leon F. Litwack (1958), “The Federal Government and the Negro, 1790–1860”, Journal of Negro History, 43 (4): 261–78, 263–68 and additional sources cited therein.
7 U.S. Census, “1840 Overview,” https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/overview/1840.html
See also: Online Records and Indexes: U.S. Census; “1840 U.S. Federal Census”; https://www.cyndislist.com/us/census/1840/online/
8 Nelson Denis, “The Jones Act: The Law Strangling Puerto Rico,” New York Times, September 25, 2017.
9 Nelson Denis, “Free Puerto Rico, America’s Colony,” New York Times, August 6, 2015.
10 Nelson Denis, “Taxing Puerto Rico to death,” Orlando Sentinel, January 10, 2018.
For a history of the War Against All Puerto Ricans, read the book…