The best way to begin to repair the damage wrought by our nation’s troubled racial history is to dump the politically toxic word “reparations.”
Even casual students of history know that black Americans were disadvantaged by slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination and segregation, and that those disadvantages resulted in a wound that has yet to heal and seems unlikely to heal on its own.
We must use our resources to attempt to remediate the undeniable damage done by this awful legacy. Even those of us whose ancestors arrived here well after abolition and who have ourselves advocated for racial equality owe a debt to those from whose subjugation we benefited.
Problem is, the word “reparations” generates more heat than light these days. It conjures up the image of a white working-class family dipping into their meager savings to write a personal check to Oprah Winfrey, and it implies the acceptance of cultural culpability that many people don’t feel.
On June 19, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on a bill for a commission to “study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.”
Such proposals are vague and include Marshall Plan-style efforts to rebuild blighted inner-city neighborhoods, robust jobs programs for unemployed African Americans and targeted investment in education at all levels for African Americans.
But in the absence of specifics, the most prominent proposal associated with reparations is some form of cash payment to descendants of slaves, a political nonstarter.
A 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN survey of nearly 2,000 adults found 77% overall opposition to the government making such payments.
A 2016 Marist poll of 1,200 adults found 72% opposition. An April Huffington Post/YouGov poll of 1,000 adults found 59% opposition, and a poll of 1,000 likely voters by the conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports found 66% opposition.
Opponents of the idea of direct remuneration raise a number of practical objections — How would the government establish who qualifies? How much will it cost? What about mixed-race descendants of slaves, slave owners, recent immigrants and so on? — as well as conceptual objections — When we start directly compensating the victims of history for losses, where does it end?
Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren perhaps inadvertently strengthened this latter objection last Thursday when she introduced the Refund Equality Act, to allow same-sex couples to receive IRS refunds for years they were together but denied the tax advantages of being legally married.
The focus on payments and practicality conjured up by the word “reparations” seems likely to make it a campaign attack word for Republicans on the order of “socialism.”
It obscures the point made by Ta-Nehisi Coates in “The Case for Reparations,” a essay in the June 2014 Atlantic that ignited the debate.
“America was built on the preferential treatment of white people — 395 years of it,” Coates wrote. “Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate ... we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion — and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper — America’s heritage, history and standing in the world.
“Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” Coates wrote. “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal ... a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
Reconciliation. Renewal. I’d add recognition to the R-words that belong in line ahead of “reparations.” From them will spring a determination to somehow set things right.
Eric Zorn may be contacted at email@example.com.