(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Reparations for black Americans are essential and implausible -- a moral imperative inextricably tied to a political disaster.
The disjunction has made reparations a rather contentious topic over the past 150 years or so. The forces of morality seeking compensation for lives and labor stolen from slaves, and which continued to be stolen from slaves’ descendants long after slavery officially ended, have never matched the political power of a white majority that collectively prefers to retain the gains of slavery and segregation, however unevenly shared, under the theory that it all happened in a distant, hazy past about which white people don’t really want to be reminded anyway.
Nothing about our present politics – racialized, polarized, dysfunctional – suggests the issue will become easier to grapple with anytime soon.
Yet here come the Democrats. Presidential candidates and Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have in recent weeks all discussed policies that might be loosely associated with “reparations.” (See my colleague Noah Smith on what actual policies might look like.)
In February, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she supports establishing a commission to study and consider reparations for slavery. At this month’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, another announced presidential candidate, said, “I’ve long believed the country should consider reparations because of the atrocity of slavery.”
It’s hard to believe even this vague talk would be happening without Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose powerful 2014 essay in the Atlantic demanded, and won, a new hearing for reparations. Coates is a writer, representing a constituency of one. Unlike politicians running for president, he’ll bear no electoral burden for brilliantly reigniting this debate.
The politicians might, however. And given the need of candidates to differentiate themselves in a crowded Democratic presidential field, a single candidate could opt to make a signature proposal of reparations, thereby making life uneasy for the whole party.
If there is a compelling rebuttal to the moral argument for reparations I’ve not heard it. When police and prosecutors fudge evidence to railroad someone into jail, we expect the victim to be compensated with money drawn from our communal tax dollars. It’s unclear why the state-sanctioned exploitation of black Americans over four centuries, which produced gobs of wealth for others, should exist in a different moral universe, one that presumably bends away from justice.
Of course, if morality and justice dictated the course of U.S. politics, Donald Trump could not be elected to a town council. While we’re on the topic, just imagine what a man who transformed a decade of plummeting illegal immigration into “build-the-wall” hysteria could do with a political gift like reparations; it’s a demagogue’s dream.
Yet Coates’ essay may contain a way out of the political threat, as well as a way in. Very little of his essay actually concerned slavery. In fact, Coates devoted most of it not to the “atrocity of slavery” but to the more recent, and more geographically dispersed, racial atrocities of the 20th century.
Crimes of commission – lynching, government-instigated segregation, voter suppression, redlining, employment discrimination – were juxtaposed with crimes of omission, including the modern U.S. history of excluding blacks from those federal government programs that built the white middle class.
Whites gained financial security through Social Security and a broad range of support included in the G.I. Bill and federally backed mortgages for (white) home ownership. Blacks were blocked at every access point, in part because enacting such programs depended on the votes of segregationists who insisted that blacks must remain an impoverished, powerless, lower caste in the nation’s apartheid system.
A national discussion of this more recent history – as opposed to cataloging the brutality and wealth extraction of slavery – would still be tricky terrain for Democrats. But it would potentially pay dividends.
Historical knowledge is not Americans’ strong suit. Schools generally do a poor job teaching about slavery and the struggle for civil rights. It’s an awkward topic, especially in a classroom of racially diverse teenagers. The temptation to speed past the ugliest parts and wallow in bromides is strong.
But a debate – along with a fact-finding commission, as former Representative John Conyers long called for – that focuses on more recent ills would have the ancillary benefit of explaining to Americans exactly how the world’s most prosperous middle class was created in the mid-20th century. It was not through the benevolence of conservative “job creators.” Federal programs to promote higher education, entrepreneurship and home ownership played important roles then – and can again.
Exploring ways in which blacks were denied access to government programs that elevated whites into the middle class is likely to produce both a more valuable public education and better Democratic politics. White voters in the 21st century are highly unlikely ever to assume responsibility for moral crimes committed by (some of) their ancestors in the 19th century or even the 20th century. Immigrant voters, too, may well balk at paying reparations for brutality that predates their family’s arrival on U.S. soil.
But a discussion – even one reduced to clear historical bullet points -- of how blacks were excluded from the creation of the middle class would inform discussion about black opportunity and obstacles, while also opening a path to discuss how government promoted the general welfare, with exceptions, in the recent past and how it can do so more equitably in the future. That’s a discussion Democrats should welcome regardless of their stands on reparations.
Coates expressed disdain for precisely this sort of morally compromised, politically motivated mini-measure. Acknowledging systematic brutality and exclusion from opportunity is nothing like providing recompense for having long inflicted them in the first place. A commission, for the purpose of education, falls far short of compensation, for the purpose of redress. Meantime, blacks continue to suffer the consequences of longstanding injustice while still being expected to extol the national myth that everyone gets an equal shot (and woe unto the black man who kneels in defiance of it).
As Coates put it, “in America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”
Yet if the stabbing metaphor is apt, there remains a nagging question of when, if ever, the knife was withdrawn and dropped. It certainly wasn’t when the Civil War concluded in 1865. Let’s begin the investigation there. Then move on to what government and society can do to heal the vicious wounds.
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Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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