I’m going to disappoint a lot of my regular readers today on two points. Most often my Sunday article deals with the biggest American political event of the week just ended. I write political op-eds therefore readers expect me to express a definitive opinion. Today I will do neither; but I will still ask you to continue to explore with me.
Today I’d like to address the topic of reparations. Currently it is somewhat of a hot topic in the Democratic contest. I have to admit it is one I have given considerable thought to over the past decade or so but – spoiler alert – I haven’t reached a definitive conclusion. I have been and very much continue to be open to discussion.
A few months ago I was having a conversation with an African-American former state legislator with whom I have been friends for years. Reparations came up and I told her that my mind was unresolved on the topic but that if I were running for president I would promise that if elected I would appoint a commission to study the issue and report back to me. Furthermore I would beg Ta-Nehisi Coates to serve on that commission.
In my opinion Coates is one of the most brilliant Americans alive today. He is especially knowledgeable on the topic of reparations as evidenced by his June 2014 essay in The Atlantic entitled The Case for Reparations. I do not always agree with everything Mr. Coates says or writes but it has all proven to be well worth reading; this essay is no exception. Even where I question or disagree with Ta-Nehisi I find his work well researched along with being backed up with facts and history. He is not someone who just bellyaches about how unfairly they have been treated.
Coates has also lived in several social-economic classes during his life. He has seen poverty and the inner city. His success did not come fast or at a very early age. Today he leads an upper-middle class life and is well respected. Yet he still suffers the racism that being a black male in America entails. Unlike the prejudice some white Americans may feel they occasionally suffer because of ethnic or social-economic background Ta-Nehisi and other black Americans can never escape it because they “wear it”.
The main idea of reparations is to compensate for the wealth that was not accumulated in black families over the decades. That wealth gap is real. The current median wealth of a black American household is about $17,000. The current median wealth of a white American household is about $170,000.
The two big questions I see with reparations are who receives them and what form do they take. In fact those two questions may be effectively a single question. The simple answer is that we cut the victims a check. Well, let’s go a bit deeper; who gets a check? The harm goes beyond slavery but that is still the root sin. What if your ancestors didn’t come over on a slave ship but still lived under the oppression of Jim Crow? Going further, there is a saying among today’s African-Americans speaking of themselves that “We are the last to get hired and the first to get fired.” Is that really much less oppressive? How do you accumulate and pass down wealth in that situation? Borrowing from Michelle Alexander, how about the effects of mass incarceration? It is impossible for a black man to accumulate and pass down wealth from inside a jail cell. Those are just a few examples, but you get the idea.
The students at Georgetown University recently discovered that at one point in order to stay financially viable the school sold some of the slaves it owned. They have traced the vast majority of their decedents to a single impoverished region in Louisiana. Who to compensate in this case is rather clear cut; but not all cases are either that apparent or well researched.
Any major social change requires public support. From recent American history we have the lessons of the 1960’s civil rights struggle. It was only after it became a mainstream issue and public opinion saw the unfairness with which particularly southern blacks were being treated that legislation was enacted. Currently less than one-third of Americans favor reparations. Clearly more attention needs to be brought to this issue.
With the importance of black voters in the Democratic Party it is natural that this should become an issue in the current primary battle. However without popular support don’t expect it to be a rallying cry for the eventual Democratic nominee in the general election. Furthermore with Donald Trump as the probable Republican nominee and his base largely comprised of racists you can’t expect him to raise the issue unless he wants to motivate the racists and use it against the Democrat.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker probably had his best week yet of his presidential effort because he was among the first to speak on this issue and has been a vocal supporter of HR 40 which calls for a commission to study reparations. While I certainly support the bill don’t expect it to see the light of day in the Mitch McConnell controlled Senate.
McConnell is among those who have tried to justify their racism with the asinine argument that anyone involved in slavery is long dead. As far as I can ascertain most of my family came to America around the turn of the last century. They certainly didn’t come over on the Mayflower and weren’t in North America during the Civil War. Does that mean I can just wash my hands and ignore the problem? Of course not, when you are privileged to be an American that means along with all the benefits you share responsibility for the repercussions of the sins (which I already stated lasted long past the Civil War).
I don’t have a plan to resolve the situation but only a fool or someone with a not so hidden agenda would refuse to study it. By the way, I have never called McConnell a fool.
Note: The Case for Reparations is included in Coates’ book We Were Eight Years In Power which is on the Recommended Reading List.
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