Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to create a commission to study how to address the issue of reparations, which has garnered the attention of some Democratic candidates for president.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), suggested that action on a reparations measure sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) is all but certain, with Democrats now in control of the lower chamber and the idea gaining prominence on the national stage.
2020 hopefuls including Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are backing the legislation. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), another presidential candidate, is a co-sponsor.
And on Wednesday, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) endorsed the idea, a pivot from his earlier statement of opposition to reparations payments.
It’s not a new idea by any stretch. In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates made a compelling argument for reparations, not just for America’s “original sin” of slavery, but for all that’s followed as well. And long before, Christopher Hitchens made the case for a moral debt that remained unpaid, wherein his “white whine” hit home.
The Republican reaction to the proposal was, unsurprisingly, dismissive for the same reasons proffered since Hitchens took to the stage. It’s ancient history. We never owned slaves. Heck, we didn’t show up here until a week ago last Tuesday, so why should I have to pay?
“I don’t think anybody ― black or white, man or woman, whatever your nationality ― is responsible for what somebody else did, somebody else, black or white, did 150 years ago,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said Wednesday.
As seems to be the wont these days, Kennedy conflates two separate issues, which compassionate conservative Avi Woolf deconstructed.
This argument has some merit when it comes to slavery and individual immigrants and latecomers, but it still has two problems. For a start, reparations would necessarily come from the government, and the American federal and state governments owe a profound moral debt to Black Americans — not just for perpetuating and allowing slavery but also for either enforcing the Jim Crow rules or allowing them to exist contrary to the explicit purpose of the 13th-15th amendments to the American Constitution.
There can be no serious argument that slavery was not a wrong perpetrated upon a race, and that since the putative end of slavery with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15 Amendments to the Constitution, African-Americans have suffered a litany of official, quasi-official and unofficial consequences based on their race, much of which inured to the benefit of everyone but blacks.
Second, the later immigrants did not just benefit from the economic jump-start America enjoyed from slavery, but also from the explicitly segregated system in place from 1865 to 1965. This especially includes the entire New Deal system which gave Americans a huge social and financial boost — Social Security, easy loans for good housing, favorable zoning of neighborhoods, grants for higher education (and indeed just education funding in general).
Black Americans were shut out of all of this (and in some cases they still are), so even if we accept that later immigrants should not be held accountable for slavery, the demand for reparations is for America’s entire sorry record of legal and extra-legal abuse of their fellow citizens, which directly benefits most of them, and which most did not seriously protest.
Much as appeals to morality are usually suspect, this point goes so far over the edge of dispute that it cannot be reasonably questioned. Slavery was our quintessential moral failing, and we haven’t been much better since then. To deny that this was our national tragedy then, or since, is intolerable. To be black in America is to labor under the cloud of racism. While the detriment may be improving, it’s not there yet, even though slavery ended more than 150 years ago.
But that answers only the first part of the question. The second part is what to do about it, and that too is a two-part question. What are the wages of past sin? How to address it going forward.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is the first African-American senator to be elected from the South since 1881, the end of the Reconstruction Era, also said he didn’t support the “concept” of reparations.
“Essentially a conversation about reparations is just something that’s not even a realistic possibility, so it’s something I don’t think we spend any time conversing on,” Scott told HuffPost on Wednesday.
The mechanics of reparations present problems that are likely insurmountable. As lawyers, we view damages as consequential, provable, ascertainable. A person claiming to be damaged must prove their case and the extent of their loss. They must prove who damaged them, as we don’t permit damages in the ether. As Avi notes, damages would necessarily be paid by the government, but we are the government’s purse, from the descendant of the plantation owner to the grandchild of a Ku Klux Klan member to Barack Obama.
Who would get reparations? What would they get? Would that restore the injured as best we can to the status they would have without slavery and consequent racism? Would a federal commission to address these questions be worthwhile or, as Sen. Scott suggests, a waste of time since reparations are “not even a realistic possibility.”
But as Avi argues, within the concept of facing the moral question is the notion of “reconciliation.”
More importantly, we can show that coping with the dark past does not mean that America does not deserve a future, or that accepting the hard facts means we must agree with every remedy the left proposes. We can help work together to create a common ground on which to debate and engage — not just with Democrats in general but most importantly with Black Americans themselves, who are after all the subject of this story.
The conservative view is that everyone is entitled to equal opportunity, not equal outcome. The problem is that we have yet to achieve equal opportunity, or come anywhere near it. It’s unlikely that monetary reparations, even 40 acres and a mule, will come of a commission, but even those who question the efficacy of reparations need to come to grips with the fact that if we don’t deal with this festering wound, and the pervasive racism that persists in American society, none of us can move beyond the unpaid debt.
There may be no financial solution in store, but there must be a future where no one suffers a detriment due to the color of their skin. We need to face it and deal with it. And then we need to move past it and make good on the promise of equal opportunity for all. Only then can we sit down and share a glass of white wine. Or red. And talk to each other like people.