Little to Gain, Much to Lose
Should African Americans, as a matter of national policy, receive reparations for the historical crimes of slavery and Jim Crow segregation? That question is being asked with growing intensity across America. But it is the wrong question at the wrong time. In my view, we Black Americans have little to gain and much to lose from making “Reparations Now” the next civil rights rallying cry.
Consider the timing. It is no coincidence that demands for reparations have intensified just as support for affirmative action has begun to wane. Advocates seem to think that if Americans are not moved by appeals for diversity and inclusion, then they might yet be persuaded to pay compensation for historical wrongs. But, this is wishful thinking. Opposition to reparations is no less intense among non-Blacks than is hostility toward racial preferences, for the good reason that both programs suffer from the same political flaw: Their benefits accrue to a racially defined minority, but their viability depends on the support of a transracial majority.
Consider the political demographics. When it comes to race in America, “them times, they are a-changin.’ ” We are no longer a nation of Blacks and Whites — far from it. Some 30 million newcomers, mostly of non-European origins, have arrived on our shores since the height of the civil rights movement. These new Americans and their children have a claim to the national narrative no less surely than do Blacks. It’s their country, too. Of course, new immigrants are obligated as citizens of this republic to shoulder their share of the nation’s responsibilities, including the discharge of any obligation the nation may have to correct for historical wrongs. But, the fact remains that a racial reform movement built around the theme of reparations can never truly engage them. It is a backward-looking slogan in what has increasingly become a forward-looking country.
Consider the tone of reparations advocacy. At the deepest level, it’s not even about the money. The demand is largely symbolic — America should acknowledge past wrongs and make amends. I agree with this sentiment. But, I also think that it is rather late in the day for African Americans to be satisfied with a politics of symbolism. Substantive political gains for today’s descendants of slaves require forging coalitions with those non-Blacks who can see the need to extend greater opportunities to every American now being left behind. This means appealing to people on the basis of universal ideals, and proposing programs with benefits that are available in principle to all who need them. I can see no way to fight Black poverty, Black imprisonment, inadequate Black health care or deficient Black education without, at one and the same time, fighting the poverty, imprisonment, poor health care and failed education that afflicts non-Black Americans as well. Nor can I see any real justification for doing so.
Slavery’s consequences will be minimized only when we have established a regime of social provision that affords every American the chance to live a full and satisfying life. We Black Americans simply cannot attain this goal on our own. To gain reparations without attaining this goal would be to win a false victory. For then, when the horrible consequences of our troubled racial past persist in the blighted lives of millions of poor Black people, skeptical onlookers will be able to say, “We’d love to help, but you Negroes have already been paid.”
— Dr. Glenn C. Loury is a professor of economics and director
of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University.
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