What Will Reparations Resolve?

Though the idea of slavery reparations has been discussed since 1865, Congress again held a hearing June 19 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 horrors. 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 government sought to give 40 acres of land and a mule to each freed slave. That idea died with Lincoln, though the concept never really went away (old age pensions were considered for former slaves in the 1880s.) Reparations 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 study the idea of reparations. Any actual payments are a long time coming. But in a Not Trump campaign, spotlighting divisive racial issues no one will have to actually act on is a key strategy.

At the most recent hearings, Ta-Nehisi Coates framed reparations around 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 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.

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 the plantations to 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 ‘burbs, attending Hawaii’s most expensive private prep school, then Columbia, then Harvard, then the Senate.

But we get it. Coates’ America is and has always been based on black and white, even as he and others strain to connect the horrors of the Middle Passage with whatever struggles they imagine Obama went through at Harvard. But Coates’ essay is “The Case for Reparations.” You would expect it to make one beyond “our relatives suffered, 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. Coates’ attempts to move from the emotional and ideological to something concrete — exactly what would paying reparations accomplish — dead-end. At one point Coates claims reparations would close the wealth gap between blacks and whites, a naive statement when since 1980 incomes of the very rich (the .1%) grew 400% faster than the economy while the other 90% (of all races) fell behind.

Coates also tries to define 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” as if calling for a Ken Burns-Spike Lee Netflix series.

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 zero-interest loans for black home buyers, free college tuition, money to black-owned businesses, etc.) Yet Georgetown University giving scholarships to African-American kids, funded by a tuition increase, all to make up for the school once owning slaves seems aimed more at making Georgetown feel less guilty (and silencing its critics) than any significant righting of historical wrongs. A token gesture?

The idea is further cheapened when people argue against anything due anyone else, how this must be a black thing or nothing. So leave out others who sleep on a mountain of bones: Chinese 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, and Hispanics relegated to inner city slums.

Crudely expressed as “My ancestors didn’t own slaves and yours 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. The majority of Americans had nothing to do with slavery, and many 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 all 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 economy. This is despite the U.S. having spent $22 trillion by 2014 on War on Poverty programs. “But some are more unequal than others” is an awkward cornerstone of the reparation argument.

Tallies of suffering aside, we are 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 will help heal us, restorative justice. The 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, 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, 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 is 3.5 times higher than for others, due to high rates of poverty, substance abuse, and unemployment.

There was also the 1948 Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act, which paid for property lost when the owners were forced into internment camps, and a second piece of legislation in 1988 which paid out $20,000 with an apology to each direct survivor. What good was done by these gestures years after the offenses remains open to discussion; it certainly has not stopped George Takei from making a post-Star Trek career as a professional victim.

There’s nothing wrong with moral gestures per se, but when you’re opening the public purse to 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 bartering victimhood into entitlement quit? If we accept black leaders’ judgment there is an ongoing de jure and de facto impact of slavery today do those also go away? Or do we just drift back into “tough conversations” about race, having spent money in search of a solution it can’t provide? The cynicism which accompanies such conclusions is only part of the problem, however. The worst is how reparations are a damaging distraction.

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, 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?”

Before you decide I’m a racist, 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.

Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.

Author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan and WE MEANT WELL: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts + Minds of the Iraqi People

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