Politics & Policy

Reparations for Slavery: Just More Symbolism over Substance

Sen. Elizabeth Warren waves to supporters in Lawrence, Mass., February 9, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The proposals are not intended to mitigate evil. They are intended to make Elizabeth Warren . . . or Kamala Harris, or Kirsten Gillibrand . . . president of the United States.

The French people recently completed paying out about $60 million to non-French victims of the Holocaust and their survivors in a program administered by the United States, a reminder that the United States’ central role in the rehabilitation and rebuilding of postwar Europe never quite came to a conclusion.

This settlement, which is separate from the reparations paid to French victims of the Holocaust, recognizes the French collaboration in transporting non-citizens to Nazi death camps on French trains. Most of those receiving the reparations are now Americans or Israelis.

The terms of the payments are specific, limiting the reparations to the survivors themselves, their spouses, their children, their grandchildren, or legal heirs. Forty-nine survivors were paid about $400,000 each; 32 surviving spouses of those deported received about $100,000 each, along with a larger number of heirs and estates.

Across the Atlantic, the 2020 Democratic primary already is under way, and it is happy hour at Chalmun’s Cantina as the contenders look not only to out-radical one another in 2019 but also to out-radical Bernie Sanders’s 2016 performance on the theory that it did not establish the outermost bound of politically potent left-wing radicalism in today’s Democratic party. Senator Elizabeth Warren, formerly promoted by her employers as a woman of color, has ’fessed up to being as white as Rachel Dolezal waltzing with the ghost of George Plimpton as snow falls gently on Vienna, has endorsed the payment of reparations to African Americans, a position held by Senator Kamala Harris but forsworn by other Democrats, Barack Obama notable among them, and rejected by Senator Bernie Sanders, the Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate and who is seeking the Democratic nomination even though he does not belong to the party.

This is, needless to say, another case of symbolism-over-substance Democratic politics. Democrats who gave a good goddamn about the lives of black Americans have had a great many years to do something about the schools in Philadelphia or the police department in Chicago, the so-called war on drugs, and a passel of economic policies that help to keep blacks poor — including such Democratic favorites as the Davis-Bacon Act, which explicitly was designed partly for that purpose — “superabundance of Negro labor,” and all that.

But doing the hard work of responsible governing doesn’t have the juice these hustlers are after.

Slavery, and the systematic subjugation of African Americans that followed it officially until the day before yesterday, was evil. Its legacy is evil. Its surviving remnants are evil. It is not an evil that is unique in the world — savagery and horror being the natural state of H. sap. — but it is an evil that is unique in the context of the United States of America. Its consequences remain very much with us, as anyone with eyes to see can discern for himself.

Reparations are the wrong way to mitigate that evil. One reason for that is that reparations proposals are not intended to mitigate that evil. They are intended to make Elizabeth Warren, “professor of color,” president of the United States. And, if not Warren, then Senator Harris, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, or some other tedious mediocrity.

Unlike the case of the Holocaust, an American reparations program would necessarily be amorphous, there being few if any specific legal relationships by which eligibility and liability could be established. There is no Confederate treasury to seize or extant antebellum plantations to appropriate. The few corporate relationships that endure are now at many degrees of removal from slavery. There is the United States government, the record of which is not spotless on the question of slavery; the people represented by that government overwhelmingly oppose reparations (more than two-thirds report against in most polls), in part because many of them believe that their government justified itself at Gettysburg, and paid its debt.

But it is more complicated than that. White Americans are the most strongly opposed to reparations, and not without reason. It is not obvious that an American whose ancestors arrived here from Ireland or Poland after the Civil War has sins of the father to bear and atone for on this score. And, without diminishing the evil of slavery, Americans of Jewish, Catholic, Southern European, Eastern European, and other historically denigrated ancestries can point to discrimination and exclusion, too. To ask white Americans with no personal connection to slavery to accept guilt for it by virtue of their being white is to ask them to accept an idea that is fundamentally alien to our political culture.

Nor is it obvious that African Americans such as Barack Obama, who is not descended from slaves, has a valid claim. Indeed, the term “African American” is increasingly useless as a meaningful social signifier as well-to-do immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean slide easily into the upper ranks of American society while black citizens of more ancient American ancestry continue to founder. The American sense of fairness is prickly and defensive — and central to our political culture. To present reparations as a means to justice, from that point of view, is to beg the question.

And so the Democrats have a problem, not least of which is that the largest racial group in the country opposes reparations with something not very far short of unanimity.

And then there are the Republicans.

The deformed political alliance that still enjoys proclaiming itself the “party of Lincoln” from time to time suffers from its own deficiencies on this matter, some of them more obvious than others. On the one hand, it rightly rejects on classical-liberal ground the politics of collective categorical racial guilt and entitlement. On the other hand, it is the partisan home of the politics of white resentment and white anxiety. Mostly, the Republican party has since Thaddeus Stevens’s departure from the political scene endeavored to identify a date or an episode at which point it might declare the issue of African Americans’ social and political status concluded and return to its preferred full-time agenda of cutting taxes. But the question is far from concluded.

If our project is the full integration of African Americans into the main stream of American society — meaning a situation in which slave ancestry correlates no more exactly with socioeconomic position than does Italian ancestry — then we owe it to ourselves and to our fellow citizens to admit that a program of simple cash transfers is not going to get that done. It would almost certainly lead to an even uglier and bitterer species of racial politics than the one we already have. Reparations would likely prove to be as effective in incorporating African Americans as Indian reservations have been for incorporating Native Americans. “But reservations weren’t meant to bring Native Americans more fully into American life,” you might respond. “Just the opposite.” And, of course, you’d be right. Think on that.

There are a million and one things that could and should be done in the cause of justice and prosperity for African Americans as such — not simply as people who just happen to be over-represented among the poor, the incarcerated, and the murdered. (Here, the tragedy of the subordination of the NAACP and other like-minded groups, which effectively have been reduced to mere organs of the Democratic party, is terribly apparent.) Pursuing that reform agenda would be a blessing to the nation as a whole, and it is to the nation as a whole that national politics must in the end address itself, even as we take into account the unique situation of African Americans.

But that is not how you win a Democratic primary.

And so here we are.

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