Stuck on Oprah

Earl Ofari Hutchinson sets up a straw woman to knock down my arguments against reparations, and he fails.

By David Horowitz

Published June 12, 2000 7:11PM (EDT)

Earl Ofari Hutchinson begins his reply to my article on reparations for slavery with the straw man question: "Does Oprah need reparations?" I mentioned Oprah in passing to highlight a problem with one of the central claims of the reparations' camp -- that blacks alive today still suffer significant damage from a system of slavery that was ended 135 years ago, and from the regime of segregation that was brought to a close 35 years ago, so severe that other Americans should pay them compensation.

I invoked Oprah only to point out what should be obvious: The existence of millions of very successful, middle-class African-Americans refutes the idea that the deprivations of the black underclass are, in fact, caused by any historical forces like slavery and segregation.

Hutchinson ignores most of my arguments, and distorts many others. He contends, for instance, that I claimed only "a handful of Southern planters were responsible for and profited from slavery." Actually, I didn't make this claim at all. Instead I argued that if America's wealth was built on the free and exploited labor of black slaves, as reparations-proponents claim, then those blacks who are alive today (and are thus the proposed beneficiaries of reparations) are also the beneficiaries of slavery and slave labor.

Identifying slave-owners as a small cohort in the population was intended to demonstrate that the vast majority of living Americans who aren't black, but who were not the descendants of slave-owners are in the same boat, morally, as the descendants of slaves -- both are innocent of the crime of slavery, and both have benefited from the fruits of slavery. The attempt to ignore this fact (as Hutchinson does) is a form of racism. Why are only whites supposed to pay reparations, since the benefits they allegedly received from slavery are no different from the benefits that blacks enjoy when they participate in the bounties of Americas wealth?

Hutchinson doesn't even deal with the point that there were more than 3,000 black slave-owners, and no one is proposing to deprive their descendants of reparations payments, or to make them pay reparations. His statement that whites and non-whites who came after slavery (and therefore had no role in it) did not experience "racial terror and legal segregation" is not even a half-truth.

Discrimination -- and job discrimination in particular -- against Jews, Poles, the Irish, Asians and Hispanics (to cite a few minorities) certainly caused significant economic hardship to these groups and put significant obstacles in their path. Hutchinson's dismissal of their suffering is just an example of the narcissism and self-pity that reparations proponents promote.

Both slavery and legal segregation, as reparations-proponents tend to ignore, was confined to the South. To make a case that these historic outrages led to a permanent handicap of blacks alive today, one would have to conduct a sociological study to show a significantly greater economic deficit among blacks and the descendants of blacks who were subjected to legal segregation. Nobody appears to have done this. Nor is there any other sociological study or comparable evidence provided by reparations proponents to support any of their claims.

Instead, there is rhetorical bombast like this: "Through the decades of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, African-Americans were transformed into the poster group for racial dysfunctionality that Horowitz giddily reminds the world of." Of course this is simply false. The 80 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate in the inner city -- to take one important example -- is a post-1960s phenomenon that has no links to slavery or segregation. Black families were 90 percent intact in the 1940s, and as late as 1965 were 75 percent intact.

Hutchinson's version of my next argument is an amalgamation of several arguments, all of which he muddles and misrepresents. I raised the fact that slavery is so far in the past to point out that those who claim that it still has effects on present generations have a heavy burden of proof, which none of the proponents -- Hutchinson included -- has even attempted to provide.

He then imputes the claim to me that "blacks are living better than ever." As usual, I never made the claim. Some blacks -- the majority -- are indeed living better than ever. But others - inner-city blacks in particular -- are worse off. Those who are living better show that history, even a history of suffering is not necessarily an obstacle to success. Those who are worse off, are suffering the effects of welfare dependency, drugs and other urban ills that have nothing to do with slavery or segregation. I also pointed out that very poor Mexicans and Vietnamese come to America and despite immense language barriers and ethnic prejudice do better than inner-city blacks. Hutchinson does not even address this argument.

Instead he invokes a "poll" by the National Conference for Community and Justice that finds that "blacks are still overwhelmingly the victims of racial discrimination." What is this supposed to mean? Who was polled? What evidence was provided that most blacks are discriminated against? If most blacks are discriminated against, and most carry with them the legacy of slavery and discrimination, how come some black communities are economically thriving while others are not?

According to Hutchinson, one result of "the hideous legacy of slavery" is that blacks make up more than half of the 2 million prisoners in American prisons. Come again? When young black males form gangs in the inner city and shoot other young black males, are we to understand that slavery made them do it? Why didnt they do it in the 1920s, when the KKK had 20 million members? Why did they choose the era following the triumph of the civil rights movement -- the 1970s and '80s -- to launch these homicidal assaults? In Hutchinson's hands, obviously, "slavery" is no longer part of a rational argument, it is a magical incantation invoked to explain every ill and pathology suffered by inner-city blacks. Which is pretty much what I said about the logic of reparations proponents, generally, in my article.

Hutchinson claims I argued that "reparations will make everyone hate blacks more." Once again, I never said this. I did say that the reparations claim will be racially divisive and will self-isolate blacks even more than they already are. I specifically singled out the separatist -- racist -- currents in the black community and said that this grievance-mongering coupled with the attack it represents on blacks' American heritage will have a destructive effect on the black community itself.

Hutchinson is right when he says that most Americans agree that slavery was morally wrong. I would add the obvious fact: Most Americans agree that racial discrimination was and is morally wrong. But that's very different from agreeing that we should make everyone responsible for slavery, and guilty for slavery -- especially those of us who abhor and oppose it, which is exactly what the reparations claim does. How much more resentment do black leaders want to create?

Hutchinson also claims I said, "There's no precedent for paying blacks for their suffering." Once again this is a thorough misrepresentation of my argument. I said the precedents invoked by reparations claimants were inapt, because they involved payments to people who were directly harmed. The victims of the Tuskegee experiment were actually surviving victims of the Tuskegee experiment.

Since Earl Ofari Hutchinson is not a slave, he is not an obvious "victim" of slavery in any actionable sense. Since he has provided no evidence that he has suffered actual damages from slavery (e.g., that he would be earning more money now if his great grandparents -- or is it great-great-grandparents? -- had not been slaves), why should I or Lola Martinez, or Nguyen Van Troi pay him reparations? This is the actual argument I made and that Hutchinson hasnt answered.

Finally, I disagree with David Ben Gurion on the question of "collective reparations" for past suffering. Insofar as the past involves the dead, its injustices cannot be redressed. Moreover, the attempt to do so is likely to cause problems for the living that are incalculable and that extend into the future.

At the same time, the relationship between Germany and Israel is very different from the relationship between the African-American descendants of slaves and America. The German government -- a government elected democratically and overwhelmingly supported by the German people -- set out to exterminate the Jews. In a few years, they succeeded in exterminating virtually all the Jews of Europe. Israel is a country that was created specifically to provide a refuge for the survivors of this holocaust that no other country would. Therefore, a collective guilt is certainly attributable to the German government and its people, particularly since in 1952 the members of that government had all been adults during the years in which the extermination was carried out.

America, by contrast, did not create slavery. Moreover, America designed itself as a nation dedicated to the propositions that all men are equal and should be free. Over the course of four-score and 20 years America did in fact fulfill this promise. As of 1807, America outlawed the slave trade, in which it had been a participant, and helped to destroy the slave trade internationally. In a civil war that cost the anti-slavery free states of the North 350,000 young men, African-Americans were freed. They were freed in America before they were freed in Africa. The present government of the United States is lineally descended from the free states of the North, not the slave South. So the analogy and the Ben Gurion quote are inappropriate in this case.

Unfortunately, Hutchinson has chosen mainly to ignore what I wrote in my article and to invent a series of other arguments to "refute." In addition to the above, he has ignored the entire corpus of arguments I put forward as to why the reparations claim is 1) bad for blacks and 2) racist, too. Was this an oversight? A failure of comprehension? I wouldnt know. But his obtuseness does not bode well for the course of this debate.

David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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