Reparations With A Glass of White Whine

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.

23 thoughts on “Reparations With A Glass of White Whine

  1. KP

    Well, take a look at other countries and see how they have handled it.. New Zealand for example…
    Since allowing claims from Maori tribes for wrongs suffered 150years ago all we have seen is a massive transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to the tribal elites, and more importantly, we have seen ever increasing claims put forward with no Govt able to put an upper limit on the burgeoning industry.
    I would’ve though you Americans have had enough of this with the Indian natives, but if you really want to crucify yourselves, take a look around first and see where this road leads.
    How about un-elected blacks being appointed to your local Govt with full voting rights and the power of veto over any developments?
    How about the development of a whole reparation industry, where savvy players come back time and time again to become multi-millionaires while the ‘average Joe’ gets nothing, and the whole system becomes a waste of time?
    I can think of nothing more racist than a payment based on skin colour.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Sounds pretty “civil” but on principle does it really beat the alternatives?

    Speaking of all that “earned money” out there who is benefiting from the great monetary throaty expansion theory again?

    P.S. It might be fun if you got into the weeds about war reparations on Monday, but I would settle for a little doddery about why the fuck no one bakes their own bread anymore. Biz hundert un tzfunsik….

    1. SHG Post author

      The debt clock would matter more but for climate change, which will make it irrelevant in 12 years anyway.

  3. Grant

    if, despite everything, the problems of mechanics of reparations prove to be surmountable, when the reparations bill comes due in Gage County, it will probably not go over well.

  4. Steve Brecher

    “Slavery was our quintessential moral failing, and we haven’t been much better since then.”

    To whom do “our” and “we” refer? Whites only? Whites descended from slaveholders? From whites living prior to emancipation?

    In my view, only individuals have moral agency and no group can have a moral failing unless it’s one shared by each member. To the extent this view is valid it supports the theme of this post — the impossibility of implementing reparations fairly.

  5. Black Bellamy

    I realize it’s way too late to bring my claims against Austria-Hungary and Prussia. However, I feel reasonably sure that if this reparations-based guilt eraser thing takes off, I have a very strong case against Russia and Germany as the latter still exist. Russia not so much, because they’re not capable of feeling too much guilt, but the Germans are a goldmine! My claim against the Swedes…well I’m actually sore at Gustavus Adolphus personally, and I really like ABBA and Bjorn Borg so I’ll let that one age out.

    1. SHG Post author

      If there are any Carthaginians around, the Romans owe them big time for salting their private property.

      1. Earl Wertheimer

        We were slaves in Egypt, let my people go. They’re still saying it, although there isn’t much talk about reparations.

  6. Renee

    The US paid reparations to the Japanese, Jewish and Native Americans. I didn’t do anything to them but they still received payment. Interesting, white people are playing dumb on how it’s done now. Burn in hell.

    1. SHG Post author

      There were some very discrete differences that applied in those instance, which would be obvious to anyone who had the capacity to grasp the obvious. But frankly, your “burn in hell” isn’t likely to endear the idea to anyone. Was that what you were trying to accomplish?

      1. David

        Pretty sure she was calling you racist for not giving her what she believes she’s entitled to.

        1. SHG Post author

          Pretty sure you’re right. And yet, I still think we should have a commission, even if some will try to reduce the “discussion” to the lowest possible level. There was never a chance that cries of racism wouldn’t be heard.

    2. David Nieporent

      If the US paid reparations to Jews (for what?) I must have forgotten to leave a forwarding address, because my check never arrived.

      1. SHG Post author

        Not to put words into Renee’s mouth, but I suspect she’s referring to reparations from Germany after WWII, and she’s just not good with facts and details. Or I could be completely wrong and she’s just a dolt or making stuff up.

  7. Neil

    An example of such a commission could be the ‘Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921’. A completed report has been available for some time. Unfortunately, I believe there are still ongoing efforts to locate mass graves associated with that event.

  8. Julia

    “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…
    Black Americans were shut out of all of this”

    There is a serious problem with logic here. Did all immigration stop in 1965? People outside of the country somehow benefited from its economy (including future immigrants from Africa, Latin America, communist countries, refugees etc), while people inside didn’t. But weren’t they equally out?

    13% of US population is foreign born. The same percentage is black. They overlap. Why should immigrants from Somalia pay to American borns which are better off? Most immigrants come from Mexico and Asia, how did they benefit from racism? Oh, I forgot, immigrants are supposed to come from Norway.

    And while I’m at it, why not to repent for colonialism and imperialism? White guilt (aka narcissism) has no borders. Scratch this festering wound.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are a great many insurmountable logical gaps in this concept of reparations. New immigrants, particularly those who share the problem of racism, present one such gap. There are others. Many others.

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