Reparations And Recognition

When asked about the hearings to be held on H.R. 40 in the House of Representatives, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell offered his facile response, “telling reporters he does not favor reparations ‘for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible.'”

Reparations. Even President Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates that he didn’t think reparations would work.

Now, does that mean that all vestiges of past discrimination would be eliminated, that the income gap or the wealth gap or the education gap would be erased in five years or 10 years? Probably not, and so this is obviously a discussion we’ve had before when you talk about something like reparations. Theoretically, you can make, obviously, a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps.

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. 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.

Yet, hearings were held.

It is that bill, titled the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” and now sponsored by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, that the subcommittee has before it. It would authorize $12 million for a 13-member commission to study the effects of slavery and make recommendations to Congress.

This is my fourth try at writing a post about reparations, the ultimate point of which was to say that there can be no legitimate argument against the formation of a Commission to address our national sin of chattel slavery and its continuing consequences. Each try devolved into meandering Gertruding and side issues, all off-point and yet necessary for what ought to be a reasoned discussion in favor of this bill.

I tried to do so without evoking the wrath of the unduly passionate because, well, I am an old white man so anything less than exuberant support was, by critical theory definition, racist. Every attempt to avoid that fate rang empty. Much as I am painfully cognizant of what racism has meant for my friends, my clients, my family,* I fell short.

It wasn’t until I saw a twit that I realized why I was incapable of getting anywhere.

Coleman Hughes is a black guy. He was called as a witness by the Republicans and spoke against the idea of reparations. For this, he was called a “coon.” If Hughes can’t express his views without being publicly called a “coon,” what conversation can there be?

This has become the nature of raising issues under the guise of “we need to have a conversation” to face historic problems that have been swept under the rug. We do, but only if it’s a conversation, and to have a conversation, everyone gets a chance to have their say. That won’t happen.

The same voices that cry for a conversation want others to hear their plight, which is fair enough, but won’t tolerate any reply. Hughes was a “coon.” I would be a racist to raise any question or to do anything less than enthusiastically embrace any demand. Obama can disagree with Ta-Nehisi Coastes. I cannot.

Reparations may technically be the right word, but it’s not helping matters. Just as the word allowed McConnell to dismiss the idea for the wrong reasons, it gives rise to a visceral reaction that it’s just another transfer payment that will neither end the issue, address racism or prove any more “fair” for the mass of Americans who were neither Sons of the American Revolution nor the Confederacy, as our ancestors got here a generation ago without a dime in their pocket. And yet, our success in the new world didn’t require us to overcome our skin color and the baggage that comes with it.

But this can’t be the discussion without it devolving into a frenzy of cries of “racist” if you’re white or “coon” if you’re black. We need to come to grips with our legacy of chattel slavery and it’s less-understood, to those who don’t have to face it, consequences. So this Commission should happen, must happen? Only if we can all speak without being demonized for anything other than obsequiousness.

If Coleman Hughes is a “coon,” even for a day, because he questions the efficacy of reparations, then this Commission will not work, and what would otherwise be critically important is rendered a functional impossibility. Either people can express their views without ad hominem villification or not. And at this moment in time, there appears to be little chance that anyone who raises a question won’t be demonized, whether as racist or “coon.”

We need this Commission, but we can’t have it until everyone at the table gets to speak without being attacked for being evil. This isn’t a new problem in our communications, and I’ve been taken to task for raising it before. But much as I will fight for the right of every person, regardless of race, gender or whatever other characteristics are on the front burner of the moment, I will fight for my own right to speak as well. Once we can all talk, this Commission should happen. Until we can all talk, this Commission is a sham.

*Bet you didn’t know that, but it’s none of your business and shouldn’t matter.

27 thoughts on “Reparations And Recognition

  1. Bear

    There is much good that could come from a commission on reparations, regardless of whether it endorsed payments or not, such as education about slavery, it’s causes and its impact carrying through today. But having childish people “carrying signs saying hooray for my side” would make its efficacy doubtful. I’m still in favor of it, hoping the positive would outweigh the negative.

    I do appreciate your argument though.

    1. SHG Post author

      If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Playing both sides isn’t exactly a brave or useful position.

  2. Lee Keller King

    Progressive Dictionary: “We need to have a conversation” = “sit down, shut up, and let me tell you why you’re an evil racist.”

  3. Howl

    I’m not trying to be snarky, and if I’m out of line you’ll let me know, but your asterisk – if it’s none of our business and shouldn’t matter, why bring it up?

    1. SHG Post author

      I struggled with that question. The asterisk wasn’t in my original post, but then I added it in a few minutes later because there’s some merit to the argument that I, old white man that I am, can’t possibly grasp what it means to be a minority and therefore can’t possibly offer anything but my old white guy racist perspective. I succumbed to the asterisk of Gertruding, that I’m not quite as distant from the problem as one would assume.

      Was I wrong to do so? Probably. It shouldn’t matter, and I let it matter.

      1. Black Bellamy

        “All sentient beings developed through natural selection in such a way that pleasant sensations serve as their guide, and especially the pleasure derived from sociability.” — Charles Darwin

        How long before asterisks have asterisks?

      2. M Tadros

        For what it’s worth, I thought it was valuable. People who rely on stereotypes seem to forget that the world is much more layered and complex than they present. I often see issues placed in terms “Men vs. Women” and find myself thinking: “As if men don’t have sisters and mothers and aunts and wives and nieces and daughters that they care for more than anyone else in this discussion.”

        It shouldn’t matter, and to most it won’t, but to those to whom it would, it serves as a nice reminder to take care with their assumptions.

  4. Casual Lurker

    Get real. Neither a commission, nor reparations, will change a damn thing, and are more likely to inflame the unduly passionate while raising the deficit. Regardless, any such bill is DOA at the Senate. The sole purpose of the House bill is to buy ‘woke’ votes ahead of the primaries.

    Granted, the problems are real, systemic, and growing. But nothing coming out of D.C. is likely to vector the trend in a useful or positive fashion… Certainly not in my lifetime.

    For the time being, can we all just sing a few rounds of Kum Ba Yah and be done with it?

    1. SHG Post author

      I keep thinking about that scene in West Side Story where the Sharks and the Jets realize they’re just killing each other for nothing. Then I remember it’s just a movie, an old movie, and here we are.

  5. B. McLeod

    19th Century Americans addressed the national sin of chattel slavery by expenditure of an estimated $5.2 Billion and 300,000 lives, in an undertaking sometimes referred to as the American Civil War.

    1. SHG Post author

      And by you raising this, and me posting your comment, do we now begin the death spiral of tit for tat? What else could there be?

      1. B. McLeod

        Mind you, I am not suggesting that descendants of slaves should have to pay special taxes to recover the tremendous costs of a war that specially benefited them (and left citizens burdened with an income tax). I am simply pointing out that chattel slavery was taken care of by the mid-1860s, through a national effort backed by the citizens present at that time, and it benefited the former slaves who were present at that time, which benefit has, of course, also extended to all their descendants. So, as I see it, the check has been paid by the people concerned, and there is no reason those of us who were not present and had nothing to do with chattel slavery should be asked to pay “reparations” 150 years later.

  6. Pedantic Grammar Police

    “Either people can express their views without ad hominem villification or not.”

    Haven’t you heard? Ad hominem isn’t a fallacy anymore.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s one of the “racist” retorts against it, that there are others who were similarly harmed and similarly deserving of reparations. So why are they left out of the discussion? I’m not sure this is a good argument for either side to make.

      1. Turk

        I wasn’t making an argument. Merely pointing out that America has two original sins. And to discuss one without the other could well be seen as an insult to the other.

        Overall, we haven’t done well as a nation restoring communities that were impoverished due to our founding conduct.

    2. Jardinero1

      They don’t get a voice. They are treated as children under federal law. Maybe when the feds decide to fully emancipate them they will get a voice.

  7. Ben

    Everyone’s ancestors did bad things. All are born in sin. That’s the point of original sin as a doctrine, that no one should be despised because of how they came into the world, whether as a product of rape, of prostitution, or of adultery, or the child of a murderer, of a swindler, or of a slave owner. If you were not conceived in sin, your father was a wicked man, or his father, or grandfather, and so on. There is a reason to hate every baby before it opens its eyes. The reason to forgive it is that it is a baby.

    What do the Normans owe the Britons? What do the Britons owe the Picts? What do the Danes owe the descendants of the slaves trafficked through Dublin in AD 870? There is no one alive whose ancestors didn’t benefit from slavery, dispossession and murder, nor whose ancestors didn’t suffer from it. Who owes what to whom? Who can do that calculation?

    Mr Coates ought to remember that he too has ancestors, and who knows what evils they committed? What genocide, how much enslavement and rape is attributable to them? Nobody can trace the victims of Coates ancestors, because they wisely didn’t leave written records, but we can be sure they left a trail of blood and tears, because all our ancestors did. All are born in sin.

    At some point you have to forgive the debt, or it becomes rancid, and festers, as the Balkans festered. That time is long past.

    Which brings us to the point: If he thinks that reparations are not a good idea, why shouldn’t Coleman Hughes say so? Who could object to that? What do they want to achieve by it? Are they not trying to whip up a new hatred from an old crime?

    * As far as I can tell, Gertrude, my ancestors were mostly the ones having their faces ground into the dirt, but I am sure they quick to join in the grinding when they got the chance.

    1. Gregory Prickett

      Assuming that you accept the heretical Roman and Protestant doctrine of Augustinian original sin instead of the Orthodox and correct view of ancestral sin.

      Oh, and most of Oklahoma was stolen from the tribes…. see Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, 187 U.S. 553 (1903).

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