It began as a fringe proposition favored by the politically extreme. But the idea that taxpayers should pay reparations to black Americans for the damages of slavery and segregation is no longer a fixation of the political margin. It is fast becoming the next big "civil rights" thing.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has already introduced legislation to set up a commission that would examine the impact of slavery as a foreordained prelude to some kind of legislated payback. (Conyers will become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if Democrats win back the House.) A coalition of African-Americans is claiming a debt of $4.1 trillion. A coalition of African nations is claiming a debt of $777 trillion against an assortment of governments including the United States.
Distinguished black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates have given the idea their imprimatur, while Randall Robinson, who led the successful boycott movement against South Africa a decade ago, has written a strident, anti-white, anti-American manifesto called "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," which has become a bible of the reparations cause.
Nor is it just in the realm of ideas that the payback demand is gaining ground. Last week, the Chicago City Council voted 46-1 in favor of a reparations resolution. The lopsided nature of the vote persuaded Mayor Richard Daley to apologize for slavery (in Chicago?), thus joining what has become a familiar and unseemly ritual of contrition for the Clinton-era left. The primary sponsor of the resolution, Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman, has announced she is going to organize a "national convention" to push the issue of reparations in the coming year.
So what is wrong with the idea? In truth, just about everything. Examined closely, the claim for reparations is factually tendentious, morally incoherent and racially incendiary. Logically, it has about as much substance as the suggestion that O.J. Simpson should have been acquitted because of past racism by the criminal courts. Its impact on race relations and on the self-isolation of the African-American community is likely to be even worse.
If the reparations idea continues to gain traction, its most obvious effect will be to intensify ethnic antagonisms and generate new levels of racial resentment. It will further alienate African-Americans from their American roots and further isolate them from all of America's other communities (including whites), who are themselves blameless in the grievance of slavery, who cannot be held culpable for racial segregation and who, in fact, have made significant contributions to ending discrimination and redressing any lingering injustice.
1. Assuming there is actually a debt, it is not at all clear who owes it. Tillman articulated the argument for the existence of the debt this way: "America owes blacks a debt because when we built this country on free labor ... wealth was handed down to the white community." Robinson reaches back in time even further: "Well before the birth of our country, Europe and the eventual United States perpetrated a heinous wrong against the peoples of Africa and benefited from the wrong through the continuing exploitation of Africa's human and material resources."
To sustain this claim, Robinson's book devotes entire sections to the alleged depredations of whites against blacks hundreds and even thousands of years before the "eventual United States" -- i.e., the government that is expected to pay the reparations -- was even created. It is necessary to insert the qualifier "alleged" because, like so many who wave the bloody shirt, Robinson makes little effort to establish causal responsibilities, but invokes any suffering of blacks where whites were proximate as evidence that whites were to blame.
Slavery itself is the most obvious example. It was not whites but black Africans who first enslaved their brothers and sisters. They were abetted by dark-skinned Arabs (since Robinson and his allies force us into this unpleasant mode of racial discourse) who organized the slave trade. Are reparations going to be assessed against the descendants of Africans and Arabs for their role in slavery? There were also 3,000 black slave owners in the antebellum United States. Are reparations to be paid by their descendants too?
2. The idea that only whites benefited from slavery is factually wrong and attitudinally racist. By accusing the U.S. government of crimes against black people in advance of its existence, Robinson reveals the ugly anti-white racism beneath the surface of many arguments for reparations, especially his. According to this line of reasoning, only white Americans are implicated in slavery, just as only whites are the presumed targets of the reparations payback. Both presumptions, however, are wrong.
If slave labor created wealth for all Americans, then obviously it created wealth for black Americans as well, including the descendants of slaves. Free blacks in the antebellum United States surely benefited from the free labor of slaves, along with whites. Are they to be exempted from payment of the debt just because they are black?
But if the "free labor" argument of the reparations claimants is correct, even the descendants of slaves have benefited from slavery. The GNP of black America (as black separatists constantly remind their followers) is so large that it makes the African-American community the 10th most prosperous "nation" in the world. To translate this into individual realities, American blacks on average enjoy per capita incomes in the range of 20 to 50 times those of blacks living in any of the African nations from which they were kidnapped.
What about this benefit of slavery? Are the reparations proponents going to make black descendants of slaves pay themselves for benefiting from the fruits of their ancestors' servitude?
3. In terms of lineal responsibility for slavery, only a tiny minority of Americans ever owned slaves. This is true even for those who lived in the antebellum South, where only one white in five was a slaveholder. Why should the descendants of non-slaveholding whites owe a debt? What about the descendants of the 350,000 Union soldiers who died to free the slaves? They gave their lives. What possible morality would ask them to pay (through their descendants) again?
4. Most Americans living today (white and otherwise) are the descendants of post-Civil War immigrants, who have no lineal connection to slavery at all. The two great waves of American immigration occurred after 1880 and after 1960. Is there an argument worth considering that would, for example, make Jews (who were cowering in the ghettos of Europe at the time) or Mexicans and Cubans (who were suffering under the heel of Spain) responsible for this crime? What reason could there be that Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, Armenian victims of the Turks or Greek, Polish, Hungarian and Korean victims of communism should pay reparations to American blacks? There is no reason, and no proponent of reparations has even bothered to come up with one.
5. The historical precedents generally invoked to justify the reparations claim -- that Jews and Japanese-Americans received reparations from Germany and the United States, respectively -- are spurious. The circumstances involved bear no resemblance to the situation of American blacks, and are not really precedents at all. The Jews and Japanese who received reparations were individuals who actually suffered the hurt.
Jews do not receive reparations from Germany simply because they are Jews. Those who do were corralled into concentration camps and lost immediate family members or personal property. Nor have all Japanese-Americans received payments, but only those whom the government interned in camps and who had their property confiscated. The reparations claims being advanced by black leaders seem to imply that the only qualification required for reparations is the color of one's skin. Robinson's book is pointedly subtitled "What America Owes to Blacks." If this is not racism, what is?
6. Behind the reparations arguments lies the unfounded claim that all blacks in America suffer economically from the consequences of slavery and discrimination. It would seem a hard case to prove over a 150-year (or even 50-year) gap, and the only evidence really offered by the claimants is the existence of contemporary "income disparities" and "inequalities" between the races. No actual connection (as far as they're concerned) need be made. On the other hand, African-American success stories that contradict the conclusion are abruptly dismissed.
Thus, to take the most obvious case, Oprah Winfrey may have been a sharecropper's daughter in the most segregated of all Southern states, but -- victim of slavery and segregation or no -- she was still able to become one of the 400 richest individuals in America on the strength of her appeal to white consumers. This extraordinary achievement, which refutes the reparations argument, is echoed in millions of other, more modest success stories, including those of all the prominent promoters of the reparations claim, even the unhappy Robinson. No wonder the only argument against these obvious counterfacts is that all successes must be exceptions to the (politically correct) rule.
But the reality is that this black middle class -- composed exclusively of descendants of slaves -- is also a very prosperous middle class that is now larger in absolute terms than the black underclass, which is really the only segment of the black population that can be made to fit the case. Is this black middle-class majority -- numbering millions of individuals -- really just a collective exception of unusual people? Or does its existence not suggest that the failures of the black underclass are failures of individual character, hardly (if at all) impacted by the lingering aftereffects of racial discrimination, let alone a slave system that ceased to exist well over a century ago?
West Indian blacks in America are also descended from slaves, but their average incomes are equivalent to the average incomes of whites (and nearly 25 percent higher than the average incomes of American-born blacks of all classes). How is it that slavery adversely affected one large group of descendants but not the other? And how can government be expected to decide an issue that is so subjective -- yet so critical -- to the case? The fact is that nobody has demonstrated any clearly defined causal connection between slavery or discrimination and the "disparities" that are alleged to require restitution.
And how, by the way, are blue-collar whites and ethnics expected to understand their reparations payments to these African-American doctors, lawyers, executives and military officers who make up the black middle class?
7. The renewed sense of grievance -- which is what the claim for reparations will inevitably create -- is neither a constructive nor a helpful message for black leaders to be sending to their communities. Virtually every group that has sought refuge in America has grievances to remember. For millions of recent immigrants the suffering is only years behind them, and can be as serious as ethnic cleansing or genocide.
How are these people going to receive the payment claims from African-Americans whose comparable suffering lies in the distant past? Won't they see this demand as just another claim for special treatment, for a rather extravagant new handout that is only necessary because some blacks can't seem to locate the ladder of opportunity within reach of others, many of whom are even less privileged than they are? Why can a penniless Mexican, who is here illegally and unable even to speak English, find work in America's inner cities while blacks cannot? Can 19th century slavery or even the segregation of 50 years ago really explain this?
To focus the social passions of African-Americans on what some Americans did to their ancestors 50 or 150 years ago is to burden this community with a crippling sense of victimhood. It is also to create a new source of conflict with other communities.
A young black intellectual wrote the following comments about reparations: "I think the reparations issue will be healthy. It will show all Americans (white, Hispanic, Asian) how much blacks contributed to helping build this country." Actually, as Robinson's book makes clear, what it will accomplish is just the opposite. It will provide black leaders with a platform from which to complain about all the negative aspects of black life -- to emphasize inner-city pathologies and failures, and to blame whites, Hispanics and Asians for causing them.
How is this going to impress other communities? It's really just a prescription for sowing more racial resentment and creating even greater antagonism.
8. This raises a point that has previously remained off the radar screen, but will surely be part of the debate to come: What about the "reparations" to blacks that have already been paid? Since the passage of the Civil Rights Acts and the advent of the Great Society in 1965, trillions of dollars in transfer payments have been made to African-Americans, in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences (in contracts, job placements and educational admissions) -- all under the rationale of redressing historical racial grievances.
In fact, reparations advocates already have an answer to this argument, and it is a revealing one. Here is how Robinson refers to this massive gesture of generosity and contrition on the part of the white political majority in America during the past 35 years: "It was only in 1965 ... that the United States enacted the Voting Rights Act. Virtually simultaneously, however, it began to walk away from the social wreckage that centuries of white hegemony had wrought." Take that, white, Hispanic and Asian America! If a trillion-dollar restitution and a wholesale rewriting of American law and fundamental American principle in order to accommodate racial preferences and redress injustice are nothing, then what will fill the claimants' bill?
9. And this raises another question that black leaders might do well to reflect on: What about the debt blacks owe to America -- to white Americans -- for liberating them from slavery? This may not seem like a serious question to some, but that only reveals their ignorance of the history of slavery and its fate.
Slavery existed for thousands of years before the Atlantic slave trade was born, in virtually all societies. But in the 1,000 years of its existence, there never was an anti-slavery movement until white Englishmen and Americans created one. If not for the anti-slavery attitudes and military power of white Englishmen and Americans, the slave trade would not have ended. If not for the sacrifices of white soldiers and a white American president who gave his life to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks in America would have remained slaves indefinitely.
If not for the dedication of Americans of all ethnicities and colors to a society based on the principle that all men are created equal, blacks in America would not enjoy the highest standard of living of blacks anywhere in the world, and indeed one of the highest standards of living of any people in the world. They would not enjoy the greatest freedoms and the most thoroughly protected individual rights. Where is the gratitude of black America and its leaders for those gifts?
10. The final and summary reason for rejecting any reparations claim is recognition of the enormous privileges black Americans enjoy as Americans, and therefore of their own stake in America's history, slavery and all.
Blacks were here before the Mayflower. Who is more American than the descendants of African slaves? For the African-American community to isolate itself even further from America would be to embark on a course whose consequences are troublesome even to contemplate. Yet the black community has had a long-running flirtation with separatists and nationalists in its ranks, who must be called what they are: racists who want African-Americans to have no part of America's multiethnic social contract. This separatist strain in black America's consciousness has now been joined with the anti-Americanism of the political left to form the animating force behind the reparations movement.
In this regard, Robinson -- himself a political leftist -- is a movement archetype. Anti-white sentiments and anti-American feelings stand out on every page of "The Debt," including a chapter he devotes to praising Fidel Castro, one of the world's longest-surviving and most sadistic dictators. A rhapsody for Fidel Castro's Marxist police state would seem a bizarre irrelevance to a book on reparations for American blacks, except that for Robinson, Castro is a quintessential victim of American "oppression." Robinson despises America that much. "Many blacks -- most perhaps," he asserts in his discussion of Castro, "don't like America." Is Robinson saying they prefer Castro's gulag?
This unthinking, virulent anti-Americanism is the crux of the problem the reparations movement poses for black Americans, and for all Americans. The reparations idea is about not liking America. It is about an irrational hatred of America. It is about holding America responsible for every negative facet of black existence, as though America were God and God had failed. Above all, it is about denying the gift America has given to all of its citizens through the inspired genius of its founding.
To Robinson, Thomas Jefferson, author of the proclamation that "all men are created equal," was merely "a slave owner, a racist and -- if one accepts that consent cannot be given if it cannot be denied -- a rapist." The fact that Americans still honor the author of the Declaration of Independence makes his personal sins into archetypes that define America. Robinson: "Does not the continued un-remarked American deification of Jefferson tell us all how profoundly contemptuous of black sensibilities American society persists in being? How deeply, stubbornly, poisonously racist our society to this day remains?"
This hatred for America and, specifically, for white America blinds Robinson -- and those who think like him -- to a truth far more important than Jefferson's dalliance with Sally Hemings, which may or may not have been unwilling. (Contrary to Robinson, consent obviously can be given, even if it cannot be denied.) For it is the words Jefferson wrote, and that white Americans died for, that accomplished what no black African did: They set Robinson's ancestors free.
For all their country's faults, African-Americans have an enormous stake in America and above all in the heritage that men like Jefferson helped to shape. This heritage -- enshrined in America's founding and the institutions and ideas to which it gave rise -- is what is really under attack in the reparations movement. This assault on America, conducted by racial separatists and the political left, is an attack not only on white Americans but on all Americans -- African-Americans especially.
America's black citizens are the richest and most privileged black people alive -- a bounty that is a direct result of the heritage that is under attack. The American idea needs the support of its African-American citizens. But African-Americans also need the support of the American idea.
Dredging up a new reason to assault this idea is not in the interest of African-Americans. What would serve the African-American community better would be to reject the political left as represented by people like Robinson, Jesse Jackson and every black leader who endorses this claim. What African-Americans need is to embrace America as their home and to defend its good: the principles and institutions that have set them -- and all of us -- free.