On June 19, 2019, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing on H.R. 40, a bill that would study the feasibility of and proposals for reparations for descendants of slaves in America.
That was also Juneteenth, a day celebrating the emancipation of black people and “reminding the country of its original debt, and the debts it has since accrued,” Vann R. Newkirk II wrote in The Atlantic.
What, exactly, do current and future generations of Americans owe for the long past transgressions of others against blacks? Have we all inherited our fathers’ guilt?
In Germany, the descendents of a Nazi sympathizer have been gtrappling with a similar question.
Acknowledging their father’s anti-Semitism, his Nazi sympathies and the abuses that took place at a business he owned in Germany during the Nazi era (that is now a multi-billion dollar holding company), Albert Reimann Jr’s children concluded they needed to make amends.
The New York Times recently reported that the Reimann children are donating to institutions that assist former forced laborers under the Nazis and doubling the budget of the family foundation to fund projects that “honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and of Nazi terror.”
“I have to do something,” said Martin Reimann, one of Albert Reimann Jr’s grandchildren.
Do Americans need to “do something,” to make amends for slavery and its ugly aftermath and, if so, should it take the form of reparations?
What should we do because of the sins of our fathers? How much culpability do living Americans have for the persistence of slavery in their country for so many years, for allowing the ideals of reconstruction to be undermined and tolerating racist practices to persist?
As far back as 1964, Whitney Young, Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, called for reparations of sorts, “a domestic Marshall Plan” for blacks comparable to America’s massive aid to Western Europe after WWII. “Disadvantaged for three centuries,” Young wrote, “American Negroes require compensatory benefits . . . “
Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, has argued, “To oppose reparations is to be racist. To support reparations is to be anti-racist. The middle ground is racist ground.”
“Only an expansive and expensive compensation policy for the descendants of the enslaved and relegated of the scale Lincoln proposed for the enslavers and subsidized could prevent the racial wealth gap from compounding and being passed onto another generation,” Kendi wrote.
There’s no question that the evils of slavery left a deep stain on America and that reconstruction and subsequent racist policies have done damage to American blacks. It’s also clear that this country must come to terms with its legacy of slavery.
But as Lance Morrow, a senior Fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, has said, a full-throated reparations debate in the United States will not be conflated with a positive and healing gesture; all it will do is “push the country to angrier extremes on either side, stimulating fresh antagonisms.”
Coleman Hughes, a black Quillette columnist, took a similar approach in testimony before the House subcommittee on June 19:
“If we were to pay reparations today, we would only divide the country further, making it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today; we would insult many black Americans by putting a price on the suffering of their ancestors; and we would turn the relationship between black Americans and white Americans from a coalition into a transaction—from a union between citizens into a lawsuit between plaintiffs and defendants.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-NH, has already taken a similar position.”First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil.,” he said in 2016. “Second of all, I think it would be very divisive.”
Even Barack Obama has questioned the feasibility and advisability of reparations.
“Theoretically, you can make, obviously, a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps,” President Obama said to Ta-Nehisi Coates in an Oct. 19, 2016 interview for The Atlantic. “That those were wrongs done to the black community as a whole, and black families specifically, and that in order to close that gap, a society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it’s not in the form of individual reparations checks, but in the form of a Marshall Plan, in order to close those gaps.”
“It is easy to make that theoretical argument,” Obama said. “But as a practical matter, it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence of historic wrongs, we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to make that right.”
An attempt to decide on the specifics of a reparations program would also be a nightmare. Who would even be eligible? If it’s individuals, who alive today has suffered as a direct result of slavery?
Coleman Hughes accepts the merit of reparations paid to Holocaust survivors, victims of internment during World War II, and victims of the Tuskegee experiments, for example, “but not reparations for “poorly-defined groups containing millions of people whose relationship to the initial crime is several generations removed.”
It’s unfortunate that so many of those competing for the Democratic presidential nomination have chosen to embrace reparations. It may enhance their appeal to the left wing of their party, but it likely alienates many more people. And now that the reparations cat is out of the box, everybody and their brother may demand reparations for past injustices.
An April 2019 Rasmussen poll found that just 21 percent of likely voters think taxpayers should pay reparations to black Americans who can prove they are descended from slaves.
A Fox News poll that same month found that 60 percent of Americans oppose paying cash reparations to descendants of slaves and only 32 percent support it. Even a July 2018 poll by Data For Progress, a progressive think tank, found that 68 percent were opposed.
But some of the Democratic candidates endorsing billions in reparations must figure that African-Americans will embrace the concept, and African-Americans are a good share of likely voters in South Carolina, one of the early primaries, and on Super Tuesday, March 3..
Frankly, buying votes was much cheaper and made more sense when they only handed out free beer at the polls.