The reparations problem

  • 11 April 2019
  • NormanL

The increasingly crowded Democratic presidential field broadly agrees on policy. One item in particular, though, could shake up the field: reparations for slavery.

The idea of making cash or other payments or programs available to the descendants of slaves isn't a new idea. But it has gained attention as Democratic contenders have endorsed the idea. It may be a deeply cyncical approach, as National Review's Kevin Williamson wrote in February.  And it has also won the support of the New York Times' David Brooks. But in the wider field of political debate, reparations remains a niche issue.

As Stephen Greenhut writes, it should stay on the intellectual sidelines, for the country's sake:

Reparations are not supposed to be about redemption, reckonings or reconciliation. We can try those things—and address glaring problems, such as inequities in our nation's criminal-justice system—without running up another year's worth of public debt. The only possible rationale for paying reparations is to help African-Americans close the financial gap they have with other Americans. Yet the idea fails on those terms, as well.

Advocates for this proposal are far less persuasive at explaining how reparations would permanently level the playing field than they are at detailing some of the ugliest parts of our nation's history. These folks rarely even tout a specific policy (What type of payment? Who is eligible? How much?).

It's in those undefined the specifics where the greatest trouble awaits:

Most reparations proposals range from creating new social programs to giving out bonds to newborn African-Americans to providing direct cash handouts to each adult African-American. It's not hard to predict the political battles and ugly social-media flurry that would follow. The first idea would not satisfy those who demand redress—and the other two ideas will tear the nation asunder.

Officials will engage in bean-counting to determine who is eligible for payments. How many drops of blood prove a person's compensable lineage? Suddenly, everyone will unearth some African heritage. Do recent immigrants from Africa qualify? Imagine the lawsuits over DNA, the bitter feelings, the anger that racists will exploit. How likely will this solve anything rather than become a starting point for escalating demands? We know how things work in America.

Other hyphenated Americans will lobby for their share of public money, too, given the demonstrable discrimination against members of their group. White Americans whose families arrived after the segregation era will wonder why they must pay for the sins of other people's ancestors. Instead of solving problems, everyone will fight over money. It will end up only being about the money. This is not how to help a nation reckon with its past.

The appalling evil of slavery remains the greatest single failing of the nation's founders. They allowed the practice to survive and fester -- until the nation's blodiest war brought it to an end. Refighting that conflict, even if it's rhetorically, and over dollars and cents rather than land and bodies, will solve nothing. Yes, we still need to have an open, honest and thorough accouting for our past. We welcome such a discussion because it should lead to deeper understanding, and a greater dedication to protecting the rights and liberty of all Americans.

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