• Will Reparations Change the Future?

    July 9, 2019

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    Posted in: Democracy, Trump

    Though the idea of slavery reparations was first proposed in 1865, Congress held a hearing this month on the topic. There’s a campaign against Donald Trump after all.

    The hearing featured intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates and second tier celebs like Danny Glover laying out a long history of horrible actions by the government and dark elements of our society. What was missing was what has been missing since 19th century efforts to pay freed slaves directly failed: how handing out money now fixes anything. It will not change the past and no one has made clear how it will positively affect the future.
    Reparations in their earliest form were proposed after the Civil War, when the federal government sought to give 40 acres of land and a mule to each freed slave. That idea died with Lincoln, as his successor canceled the program.  The concept never really went away (old age pensions were considered for former slaves in the 1880s), but took on new life when, in every Congress from 1989 until his retirement in 2017, John Conyers introduced a bill, HR 40, concerning reparations. The fanciful numerical designation itself was a reference to the original failed attempt with those 40 acres.
    Now nearly every 2020 Democratic candidate (but not Joe Biden) supports some version of the bill’s basic goal, a commission to hold hearings to study the idea of reparations. Any actual payments are a long time coming. But in a campaign all about Not Trump, spotlighting divisive racial issues no one will have to actually act on is a key strategy. Expect the issue of reparations to be wielded in the Democratic primaries and then disappear under the cloak of electability in the general election.
    At the most recent hearings, Ta-Nehisi Coates was the key witness, framing the need for reparations around the moral imperative of the continued impact of slavery: “Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.” Coates became famous writing “The Case for Reparations” in 2014. It is cited by candidates as a foundational text, and as such formed the core of his recent testimony. Upon examination today it seems more intent on prioritizing moral purity and ideology via indignity above making any “case.” It conflates historic lynchings with modern notes of “land taken from black families has become a country club” where the reader is left to assume blacks are not welcome. Generalizations and stretches to irrelevance always makes a weak argument.
    Coates believes most of all in our current day “black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth” and says “whites” (everyone from an alcoholic homeless guy to Bill Gates) are doing better. He dismisses any personal responsibility on the part of blacks as  “cultural pathology” and mocks statements like those from African-American Michael Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia, scolding black men: “Too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of” as “trenchant racism.”
    Coates and others in this debate find an awful lot of racism in a country that just a few years ago elected a black man twice to the presidency.  But to explain away Obama, whose existence upsets an otherwise continuous recalibration of suffering from plantation days to the “virtual lynching” of Colin Kaepernick, Coates claims without example “In the contest of upward mobility, Barack and Michelle Obama won by being twice as good and enduring twice as much.” No details about Barack enduring “twice as much” while growing up in the suburbs, attending Hawaii’s most expensive private prep school, then Columbia, then Harvard, then the Senate. Somebody is going to have to pick up that ball for Kamala Harris, who with a Jamaican dad and Indian subcontinental mom, both with Phd’s from Stanford, and who lived her teen years in Canada, and married to a white Jewish attorney, will need to rewrite her own middle class suburban experience into something much more tragic.
    We get it. Coates’ America is and has always been based on black and white, even as he and others sometimes strain to connect the horrors of the Middle Passage with whatever struggles they imagine guys like Obama went through at Harvard. But Coates’ essay is “The Case for Reparations.” You would expect it to make such a case beyond the simplistic “our relatives suffered a lot, we still suffer in ways connected to all that, so white people give us something.”
    But Coates stops there, angry as hell, as do others who argue for reparations today. Coates’ attempts to move from the emotional and ideological to something concrete — exactly what would paying reparation accomplish — dead-end.  Anyone can have thoughts, many content themselves with strong feelings, but what matters is thinking critically. At one point Coates claims reparations would close the wealth gap between blacks and whites, a naive statement in a nation where since 1980 incomes of the very rich (the .1%) grew faster than the economy, about a 400% increase, while the other 90% (of all races) fell behind. Whether your housing is subsidized via a mortgage tax deduction or Section 8, you’re still depending on the people in charge to allow you a place to live.
    Coates has also tried the abstract, to redefine reparations as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” Another proponent mused about the “liberating power that can be unleashed by this kind of introspection.”  A Ken Burns-Spike Lee Netflix series could fulfill those reparations with no government involvement, but no one is demanding that.

    If reparations are really some sort of delayed moral rebalancing, the idea is cheapened when it comes with an Amazon gift card (others have suggested things like zero-interest loans for black home buyers, free college tuition, money to black-owned businesses, elimination of cash bail, etc.) The amateurs are also at play through a website where blacks make financial requests for whites to fulfill as “a way to counteract their privilege.” Organizers of a “Reparations Happy Hour” invited POC to a bar and handed them cash donated by white people who were asked not to attend. The aim was to make attendees “feel as if their pain were valued and understood.” Georgetown University today giving preferential admissions treatment and scholarships to African-American kids, funded by an increase in tuition, all to make up for the school once owning slaves seems aimed more at making Georgetown feel less guilty (and silencing the critics) than any righting of historical wrongs.

    The idea is further cheapened when people argue against anything due anyone else, how this must be a black thing or nothing. Somebody has to be The American Victim in the hierarchy of victims, with the power that commands in what’s become a nation of church ladies, so leave out the others who sleep on a mountain of bones: Chinese held as effective captives in the western desert and worked to death building the railroads, Irish laborers killed by malaria in the New Orleans swamps, Jews denied asylum and sent back to the Holocaust, Italian child laborers in the textile mills, Appalachians poisoned in the coal mines, generations of underpaid women denied the vote, Hispanics relegated to inner city slums, and Asians chased away by Ivy League schools. If you prick them Ta-Nehisi, do they not bleed?

    Crudely expressed as “My ancestors didn’t own slaves and your’s didn’t pick cotton,” the reality is the horrors of slavery were committed by a limited number of whites. Only about 5% of the slaves taken from Africa ended up in America. Less than one-quarter of white Southerners held slaves, with half of those holding fewer than five in bondage. The vast majority of Americans had nothing to do with slavery, and many American trace their lineage to people who arrived after any of the discriminatory acts Coates testified on.

    The modern-day rebuttal, everyone is in on it because slavery was the prime mover to discrimination of blacks and whites have profited from that is betrayed by reality. While today percentage-wise more blacks live in poverty than whites, that means little in terms of actual lives when the mouths to feed are counted: twice as many whites are impoverished in America, some 14 million, than blacks. It is hard to claim “white privilege” is spread broadly across our unequal economy. “But some are more unequal than others” is an awkward cornerstone of the reparation argument which holds all whites profited.

    Yet all that aside, we are always still left with the core question: what is the value of paying reparations, to one group or all of them? The self-referential truth is reparations something something heal us. History is far less clear.
    Following World War II Congress created the Indian Claims Commission to pay reparations for seized land. Any good intentions were lost among the lack of accurate records showing who owned what when, and in the end the Commission produced 43 volumes of decisions which showed they paid out less than $1,000 for each Native American. But double, triple, x10 the amount, the unfair part. Could you argue those reparations would have changed much about the state of Native Americans? Percentage-wise more Native Americans today live in poverty than blacks. The suicide rate for Native Americans was more than 3.5 times higher than for others, due to high rates of poverty, substance abuse, and unemployment. What did reparations fix?
    There was the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948, which paid for property lost when the owners were forced into internment camps, and a second piece of legislation passed in 1988 which paid out $20,000 with a formal apology to each Japanese-American survivor. The money went to anyone who spent any time in an internment camp but not to the relatives of internees who died before the legislation was passed. What good was done by this moral gesture years after the offenses remains open to discussion; it certainly has not stopped actor George Takei from making a post-Star Trek career out of being a victim.
    (Though more complex, Holocaust reparations from Germany are largely limited to direct survivors. Though I lost relatives in the Holocaust and can share family stories of suffering passed down, I have no standing to make a reparations claim against the present German government.)
    There’s nothing wrong with moral gestures per se, but when you’re talking about opening the public purse, a little practicality is in order. If you’re going assign a dollar value to righteousness, it’s reasonable to ask what the money buys. Does racism end in America? Do angry whites quit hating blacks? Do people who relish their victimhood trying to barter it into entitlement? If we accept black leaders‘ judgement there is an ongoing de jure and de facto impact of slavery today do those also go away? Or when it is all said and done, do we just drift back into “conversations” about race, and the outrage machine shifts to promoting something else as a ideological purity test? Does anything really change in return for a sociological, financial, and political event on the scale of reparations?
    No. The political reality is reparations for slavery in 2019 are a medigenic feel-good solution driven by progressive vote pandering seasoned with whytepiople guilt, money in search of a problem it won’t solve. Reparations are an easy way to silence critics — see, we did something, leave us alone (looking at you, Georgetown.) Yet the cynicism which accompanies such conclusions is only part of the problem.

    Talk about reparations that have no chance of coming to be is an excuse to avoid the much harder work of enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing, the much harder work of making sure schools are not separate and unequal, the much harder work of rehabilitating young men coming out of prison every year, and the much harder work of lifting millions Americans of all races out of poverty. Those challenges will not go away with reparations. Focus on the issues that will directly address those problems. Alongside that, it is hard to find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for reparations. America is complicated, as this is not just a black/white society, less so every year. So politically how do Latinos feel if there’s a big investment just in the African American community, and they’re looking around and saying, “We’re poor as well. What kind of help are we getting?”

    Does that make me a racist? Before you answer, the last paragraph isn’t my words. It’s what Barack Obama had to say about reparations. He wasn’t invited to the latest hearings and his thoughts are very much missing from the dialogue today.

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Joe said...

      1

      Well played with final two paragraphs IMO. Though some people will still call you a racist, since Obama is an accomplished African-American (& thus allowed to have opinions like this) while you’re just a Caucasian (& therefore have no right to an opinion about this issue, unless it supports the likes of Coates etc.). So perhaps instead of “well played,” “nice try” might be more appropriate in today’s political climate.

      07/9/19 1:26 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      2

      While we are giving away money, how about paying the Vietnamese too? Everybody who paid taxes to fund the mass murder has blood on their hands.

      07/9/19 5:02 PM | Comment Link

    • J.L.Seagull said...

      3

      tl;dr: $1000 is too low

      07/9/19 7:37 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      4

      A repeat of my counterfactual reparations musings. Hm….. what would I demand as a European African today had the African continent been the more advanced civilization 500 years ago and sailed to Europe trolling for slaves. My ancestors would have danced their minuets and quadrilles singing madrigals while clearing dense jungle growth under the lash of a black master/owner? I’d still be suffering the indignity of black athletes sometimes playing in white face for laughs. Maybe a VMax or Hayabusa and throw in a Dexibell VS7 for good behavior since I’ve never been arrested or incarcerated.
      Slavery has nothing to do with race. It is just one group taking advantage of favorable circumstances over another group.

      07/10/19 3:54 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      5

      Yo, JP, can’t you share some of your pension with the Vietnamese families you helped to kill?

      Speaking of sexual slavery reparations, didn’t just one of the young girls have a father who had a baseball bat to smash that sick fuck Epstein in the balls?

      07/10/19 6:55 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      6

      Bauer- you’ve got your wars mixed up. The war you are forced by older males to fight is not your war-it is your father’s war. My father thought WWII was his war but his war was Vietnam- the one where he was the adult while younger males were sent overseas to fight. My war was not Vietnam even though I was drafted and luckily served stateside. The Iraqi War was my war for I as the adult failed to stop the madness. I owe the Iraqis not the Vietnamese.

      07/10/19 9:18 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      7

      JP,

      You missed your calling. You could have made a fortune making pretzels with your twisted thinking. What did you do to protest against the murder of thousands in Vietnam? You served stateside? You abetted the murder of the innocent. Come on, help the thousands in Vietnam who still suffer from Agent Orange and unexploded bombs Instead of contributing to the NRA.

      07/10/19 9:40 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      8

      Bauer you are ranting – What was my MOS since you infer you knew what I was doing or not doing in the late 60s regarding the Vietnam War. I don’t give money to the NRA- never have. Do you just make up stuff out of anger?

      07/10/19 11:25 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      9

      JP,

      Don’t give up so easily. Did your father give up when the Germans attacked Pearl Harbor? Get off your fat ass and protest the blood money the MIC makes off your taxes.

      07/11/19 4:42 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      10

      For Joe Said: My counterfactual musing engendered no discussion. I’ll have to research if August Wilson had any thoughts on the subject. I doubt Denzel Washington wants or needs compensation personally. I assume he’d donate his share of reparations to the less fortunate.

      07/11/19 11:12 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      11

      Joe? Joe Stalin?

      07/11/19 12:46 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      12

      You don’t have to be black to be sold out to slavery

      Putin’s kleptocracy has made Russia the planet’s most unequal large country. Dawisha reports that between 1991 and 2011, Russia’s super rich doubled their wealth, while in 2011 the bottom 20 percent of Russians were earning 55 percent of their 1991 income in real terms. While growing inequality is an issue in many countries, Russia’s inequality is extreme. Dawisha cites Credit Suisse data that while globally billionaires control 12 percent of total household wealth, Russia’s 110 billionaires possess 35 percent of the country’s wealth.

      The massive increase in total wealth in Russia since 1999, overwhelmingly due to the increase in world hydrocarbon prices, has not produced public goods or the economic diversification that is needed to ensure stable growth in the future. In May 2008, Russia was more dependent on hydrocarbons than it had been when Putin took office.

      So Moscow Mitch and his Russian trolls may want to consider slavery is a modern day problem. Maybe it is time for another Russian Civil War. JP would definitely support that war.

      07/11/19 1:00 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      13

      It would be a short war. Less than 200 oligarchs control Russia. One Steinway would suffice to supply the piano wire.

      07/11/19 1:04 PM | Comment Link

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