• Will Reparations Change the Future?

    July 9, 2019 // 13 Comments »

    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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    Posted in Democracy, Trump