Monday, January 12, 2009

The economic crisis and reparations for blacks

Wouldn't this be the perfect time for "reparations," i.e. huge payments of taxpayer money to blacks just for being black?

Um, no. How about ... never.

The author of the linked article argues, "Barack Obama's election certainly makes reparations more likely than they were under, say, Woodrow Wilson..." Actually, I hope reparations are even less likely under Obama than before (or than under Woodrow Wilson, for that matter). If you look past Obama's race and look at the content of his ideas, he's shown every indication of wanting to move past race-driven politics. ("There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.") Also, Obama's diverse background and his lack of roots in American slavery point out one of the absurdities of reparations -- on what principled basis could you decide who's really "black enough" to give the bonanza to?

So what's his argument that "now is the perfect time" for reparations? He says:

[T]he money will pay off mortgages, hopefully recapitalizing banks and stabilizing them. The money will go to buying new appliances. It will also go to higher education. Can you imagine how many people will return to school to finish degrees or get new ones? People will suddenly have the breathing room to do so. Crimes of a desperate nature will decrease.
When you list things like that, of course, they sound wonderful. Mortgages getting paid off and people getting the chance to pursue higher education sound great. But why should those goodies be slanted toward black people rather than people of any race?

If the idea is to help the poor, and the concern is that blacks are disproportionately poor, then why not just come up with economic policies that are targeted toward the poor -- not some preferred slice of the poor, but the whole poor -- and let the chips fall where they may? If blacks are so disproportionately poor, then won't poverty-directed policies automatically help blacks, without creating racial resentment among whites?

One more thing -- the author says:
The money will go to churches and finance new church building projects.
Did the author even consider that maybe more churches isn't the answer to our problems? Not to mention how unsavory it is to think that the government would choose to prefer one race over other races because the people of that race are seen as more Christian than people of other races.

UPDATE: I originally linked here, which doesn't work anymore. The article ("Reparations as an Economic Stimulus") still shows up in Google, but again it's a dead link. The Root, which is affiliated with the Washington Post, had posted that article a few days ago, but they apparently took it down, reworked it, and reposted it with a new headline and URL. Is it a good practice for a site like The Root to take down articles without a trace like that?


James said...

I enjoyed reading these thoughtful reflections on the merits of reparations for slavery.

If I understand you correctly, you raise two objections.

Your first objection is the absurdity of trying to identify the correct recipients of reparations payments.

This is a serious argument, and an important objection to cash payments for slavery. However, there are two ways it could be addressed.

The first would be to acknowledge that black Americans aren't suffering exclusively from the legacy of slavery, but also from the brutal discrimination of the century which followed, and its lingering effects in the last forty years. In that case, with a focus on how Americans are seen and treated, anyone who is treated as black in this society could be eligible.

The second way of addressing this objection would be to avoid cash payments to individuals. In fact, most of the reparations proposals I've seen do just this. By focusing on schools and other community institutions, job training programs, and so on, this objection disappears.

Your second objection is that it would be unfair and unwise to target reparations solely towards blacks, when there are other poor people in this country.

Again, there are two responses.

The first is that while our society has many problems, including poverty, the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination is a distinct problem deserving of its own solution.

Blacks have suffered uniquely in our nation's history, and labor under the legacy of that history to this day. We ought to confront our past and its consequences today, acknowledging and rectifying where we can.

More than this, the legacy of slavery and discrimination for the black community is not as simple as poverty, although poverty is surely one consequence. This legacy creates unique challenges for alleviating black poverty, and poses additional concerns for many blacks, even those who do not face poverty today.

The second response is one which you will probably find more satisfying. Reparations can be carried out in the context of helping those in poverty and who otherwise have been unfairly left behind. This wouldn't amount to helping people on the basis of race, but rather on the basis of need and the previous denial of opportunity.

In the words of Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School, a leading proponent of reparations:

What I hope to do is that whatever proceeds come from reparations should be put into a trust fund that a commission will dispense that will focus on the needs of what I call the bottom-stuck. Those African Americans who are descendants of slaves who have never truly benefited from integration and who have never benefited from affirmative action and other programs designed to help. And there are countless people who are living in situations that we would all find despicable and almost inhumane.

And if you think about that, whatever you think about reparations, if you think about if there’s a remedy that solves the problem of the poorest of the poor, that’s not a black remedy, that’s an American remedy.