The Reparations Primary

Senator Kamala Harris (D, Calif.) speaks at Politics and Eggs at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., February 19, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

There is a strange political conversation under way as the 2020 Democratic presidential primary gets under way, and it goes like this: One group of Democrats proposes something daffy, vague, and impractical, and another group of Democrats says, “Of course that’s daffy, vague, and impractical — but at least they started a conversation!” This is said in the tone kindergarten teachers use with toddlers who test the maxim that there is no such thing as a dumb question. It’s something to see: a political party condescending to itself.

None of the Democratic 2020 contenders currently talking up reparations for slavery is serious about the project. Those of them who are serious about anything are serious only about winning the party’s nomination and the role that flattering a small but influential congregation of left-wing intellectuals might play in that.

Call it the Ta-Nehisi Coates primary.

It’s an unserious proposal, but we’ll do its authors the courtesy of offering a serious answer, anyway.

Paying reparations for slavery is a terrible idea because there is no one to pay reparations and no one to pay them to. There are not any slave-owners left among us and haven’t been for some time. There aren’t any liberated slaves, either. Slavery was a terrible crime and, like all such enormities, it was carried out by real people who inflicted unconscionable suffering on real people — specific people, individuals.

Our progressive friends like to talk about their high regard for “diversity,” but they are blind to the real thing: Neither the white population of the United States nor the black one is homogenous; relatively few living white Americans are the heirs, however distant, of slave owners, and a significant and growing population of black Americans has no link to antebellum slavery at all. Some of them, like Barack Obama, are the offspring of more recent African immigrants; others are immigrants from the Caribbean and elsewhere who may have family links to slavery but not to American slavery. The question of what it means to be an “African American” grows more complex by the day.

Such considerations are significant if we are to avoid sinking into the morass of willful racism as a public-policy criterion, insisting upon collective racial culpability and collective racial entitlement. These ideas are alien to the fundamental American creed of individual rights and individual liberties — indeed, we have been at our very worst on racial issues when we as a nation have failed to live up to those ideals, as unfortunately has been the case all too often in our history.

None of this diminishes the unique evil that was American slavery, or the ways in which African Americans have been — and, in some cases, remain — systematically disadvantaged both by formal policy and by ordinary private prejudice. And it is not the case that all of these disadvantages are the result of poverty and hence easily addressed by policies that take no account of race, racism, or the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. But neither is it the case that these persistent problems are likely to be solved by a series of cash transfers administered by self-seeking political entrepreneurs.

To insist that our public policies do not entrench collectivist racial politics is not the same as naively pretending that the world takes no notice of race or that it does not matter. And we should be willing to consider uncomfortable questions related to that: Why is it that black students are comparatively ill-served by our public schools even where per-student spending matches or exceeds that in largely white schools? Why is it that local authorities in cities such as Philadelphia and Los Angeles tolerate so much more public disorder and dysfunction in black neighborhoods? Talking about reparations is, in part, a way to avoid talking about that, because it’s of no help in the Ta-Nehisi Coates primary.

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