On Thursday, June 19, the subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee met to shape recommendations on payment of reparations by white Americans to black Americans. Specifically, the bill introduced by Sheila Jackson Lee, Democratic Congresswoman from Texas, would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and discrimination in the American colonies, later in the United States, and “any form of apology and compensation” by whites to blacks.
This question has been around for a long time. John Conyers, Jr., then a Congressman from Michigan, proposed the bill three decades ago and reintroduced it in every session of the House until 2017, when he retired. It got nowhere. But now, it offers potential for political advantage as two dozen Democratic presidential candidates vie for attention in the presidential primaries. For these members of the party of identity politics, pitting races against each other for political gain, the question of reparations has become the litmus test for Democratic candidates.
Two candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, propose legislation to “narrow the racial wealth gap,” not necessarily by writing reparations checks. After a two-mile jog along the Hudson River in New York City with men and women of the LGBT “community,” Congressman Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke headed to his next identity politics stop in South Carolina. On Saturday, June 22, a forum of the Black Economic Alliance was attended by several candidates.
In Beaufort, South Carolina, O’Rourke pledged his support for reparations for descendants of slaves when he addressed members of the Gullah Geechee Nation, African American descendants of slaves living in the coastal island, and low-lying areas of South Carolina and Georgia. The New York Times, on Sunday, June 16, headlined its lead story in the Weekly Review “Black and Green.” Just that. The new junior varsity colors of the Democratic Party. In his speech, O’Rourke addressed the two issues, reparations for descendants of slaves and the alleged perils of global warming and sea rise for low-lying coastal regions. (Some 60% of the State’s Democratic electorate is black and the state votes early in the primaries.)
He took a crack at explaining reparations as he endorsed them. “The answer is yes. The path there, though, has to come through telling, learning and sharing this American story with everyone. Then I think you’ll find what reparations look like in order to make that repair.”
The argument for reparations rests upon a single, persistent, inescapable fact of American life. Since 1865, when approximately 4 million slaves were freed after more than 100 years of slavery in America, some eight generations have passed. During that time, black Americans have been the only identifiable racial or ethnic group in the United States that has failed to become part of the vast national “average” of American economic life. They are the only identifiable group that never has closed the gap between their economic starting point in America and their average economic status today. In the same way, they are the only ethnic or racial group that never has attained the average educational achievement. It is not, as often put—too loosely—that black Americans never have “caught up” with the broad average of white Americans. They have not caught up with Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, or any other racial or ethnic group. There is interesting recent evidence, however, that the basic racial gap in achievement may apply primarily to black men. Black women and white women who start with the same family economic status seem to differ little in their economic status and success.
What characterizes Black Americans, uniquely, is the chattel slavery of their ancestors in America. And the aftermath of slavery, too, which left the widespread conviction, in the North as well as the South, that blacks are inherently unequal to whites and others and never could be fully integrated into society. It was an oft-stated conviction even of President Abraham Lincoln, and, at the time, not cause for surprise.
The chief argument today for the racial gap and for reparations is economic. In an interview with NPR, Congresswoman Lee explained: “Cotton was king. It was an economic engine of the entire United States. And so, the prominence of the United States today in the 21st century is grounded on the free brutal labor that Africans gave and their descendants.”
The argument in both economic and historical terms is illiterate, of course. For some years, cotton was the overwhelming cash crop in the South and as the notion of rebellion grew, its partisans said the world economy would be staggered if cotton were withheld. Therefore, European countries would put intolerable pressure on the North to yield—or even would enter the war on the side of Dixie. None of it happened. As a few far more insightful Southerners warned repeatedly: The North had the powerful economic engine that would make defeat of the South, whatever their gallant cavalier tradition and courage, inevitable. And it did, of course. And immediately after the war, experiments in the South with growing cotton using free labor astounded the former plantation slavers with its efficiency and profitability.
What cotton and the feudalistic-agrarian economy of the South achieved was the economic backwardness of the South—for many, many decades after the end of the Civil War.
What is considered the iconic contemporary case for reparations appeared in The Atlantic in 2014 with the title “The Case for Reparations.” Its author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, scheduled to testify before the Congressional subcommittee on reparations, argued that discrimination deprived African Americans of the ability to achieve wealth or even economic stability.
It certainly is true that the aftermath of slavery in the South for decades, and significant racial discrimination in both South and North, which has not vanished, today, was an economic headwind for black Americans. They did steadily gain in economic terms, however, at least until the 1960s. That appears to have been when their progress slowed and the racial gap widened once again. The decline seems counterintuitive, given the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the sustained American cultural pushback against racism for decades—culminating in the election of an African American president of the United States in 2008.
One factor cited for the widening gap is the burgeoning welfare state created by President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and an even more advanced welfare state in cities like New York. The other factor is affirmative action and the accompanying passionate conviction among blacks and left-liberals that black Americans are victims, crippled by discrimination, helpless to advance on their own, mired in failure because of exploitation by the dominant white race.
Practical results of those trends, against which some warned at the time, have included the destruction of the black family in America, so that today some three quarters of all blacks, born out of wedlock, many never get to know a father or have an intact family life. (In 2011, three-quarters of black babies were born to unmarried mothers. By 2015, it was almost four-fifths.) Another practical result has been that first affirmative action and now outright, determined, widespread discrimination in favor of blacks has come to dominate American higher education. The story is told in excruciating detail in The Diversity Delusion by Manhattan Institute senior scholar Heather Mac Donald.
Whatever the causes, the statistics seem to show that since the late 1960s, the economic and educational progress of black Americans first slowed, then reversed, and the “wealth gap” has been reopening. But to return to a point made above, this difference is much greater between black men and men of other races than black women and women of other races. That suggests that an often-suggested explanation for the racial economic gap may be closer to the truth: black male culture. If so, then apparently the burden of slavery’s legacy weighs far less on black women.
The proposal today for payment of reparations to black Americans by white Americans is plainly and unambiguously racist. Perhaps that is why it seldom is put in that form. In fact, when stated that way, it gets rather tepid support from black American voters (as contrasted with politicians of both races in the Democratic Party).
A poll of black Americans, in anticipation of the Black Economic Alliance forum, asked respondents to rate a list of 14 economic policies according to how much they thought such policies would help the black community. None of the policies had to do with such ideas as economic freedom, capitalism, deregulation, and lower taxes. All 14 were “progressive” (i.e., interventionist/welfare statist): more paid leave, more work benefits, higher minimum wage, federal job guarantees—and reparations for descendants of slaves. A majority of Black Americans did favor all of these policies, but in terms of what would help the black community, a higher minimum wage was at the top (70%) and in very, very last place, slavery reparations (50%).
Reparations rest on the moral principle that when your crime committed against me leaves you identifiably richer, I have a valid claim to a return of that economic value. And, of course, I can pursue that claim in a court of law. Certainly, in some instances, my heirs can pursue that claim against you or your heirs. If the criminal dies leaving to his heirs the land, say, that he stole from me, my heirs can seek return of that land in court. I don’t know of any cases where that has reached the third generation, but, as a matter of morality, if something still identifiably belonging to me is now in the possession of the criminal’s grandchildren, I think my grandchildren have a moral claim to it.
Reparations payments in some realm of fuzzy thinking is related to this moral principle and so given a vague plausibility. But, when it is put in terms of white Americans today paying reparations to black Americans today, it moves from the level of individuals—the only unit of moral responsibility because the precondition of moral responsibility is individual choice—to the collective. In this case, the collectives are identified by genes, by blood, and that is racism. It should be rejected out of hand precisely because racism is an unalloyed evil, the denial of our defining human trait: the volitional decisions that are the content of all morality and that constitute moral character. That vision of the nature and relations of mankind was the Reverend Martin Luther King’s famous “dream.”
In fact, as the wriggling equivocations of O’Rourke suggest, even “progressives” have not yet progressed so far as to embrace outright, unveiled racism of that kind. For example, Congresswoman Jackson Lee says “we’re not focusing on payments, but we are focusing on solutions … things that I’ve said take money. But we believe that it can be done in a way that goes into these institutions.” She means the historically black colleges (HSBCs) that are members of the United Negro College Fund, some created fairly soon after the end of the Civil War, that are dotted across the South. Presumably, the idea would be some federal government creation of endowments at these schools. Interestingly, if this were expected to work as reparations, it would assume that these newly wealthy colleges and universities would accept blacks, not whites. And so, reparations would imply segregation. Historically, HSBCs have been open to both races, but have remained with large majorities of black students.
And, of course, reparations often are discussed in terms of “the descendants of African American slaves.” The implication, it seems, is that specific individuals, today, who trace their ancestry to slaves would be eligible. Put this way, the notion of reparations retains some link with an individualist foundation. In fact, however, it cannot stand up to even casual scrutiny. During all of its existence in the United States, slaveholding never was a crime, with the possible exception of the two years of the Civil War following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Given that, the courts could not be used to trace and substantiate any claim that eight generations ago my white ancestor wrongfully seized economic value from your black ancestor, and I should return it to you. If the argument for reparations rests on the economic damage suffered by a contemporary black American, can the graduate of an Ivy League university who works for Goldman Sachs make such a claim?
The attempt at an individualist moral or legal justification based on actual harm and recovery of economic damages simply collapses. And it becomes unmistakably evident that no one actually views reparations in these terms. Any real proposal has the federal government as the payer of reparations and therefore the taxpayer (white and black) as payer, (economist Robert Browne estimates about $142,000 for every black American living today, a $4.7-trillion total) unless someone has a proposal to segregate non-white from white taxes in funding these reparations.
Reparations have come to the fore, today—as it did not even a few decades ago, despite Rep. Conyers’s one-man crusade—because Democratic politics now are dominated by the philosophy of Postmodernism. The core of Postmodernism in social philosophy and politics is the inevitable domination of one racial, sexual, or economic group by another. Today, the reigning Postmodernist dogma is that white male heterosexuals dominate and exploit other groups.
There is no individualism, no question of morality or character, involved here. It is as collectivist as Marxism and, in fact, is the contemporary reincarnation of the Marxist doctrine of economic exploitation of one class by another. The conceptual framework, the view of society, and the understanding of human relationships are Marxist, but applied to the culture at large, not economics as such.
It is postmodernist philosophy that makes reparations plausible and appealing to left-liberals in politics and throughout the intellectual/academic professions. As they perceive reparations, they are the only genuine type of “social justice”: justice owed not by one person to another, but by one racial, ethnic, or economic group to another.
Reparations are a perfect expression of “identity politics.” As such, it is no surprise at all that they dominate the struggle by literally dozens of Democrats for the ultimate political power.
This article was adapted from one previously published by the author on The Savvy Street. It is reprinted with permission.
Walter Donway was a trustee of the Atlas Society from its founding until 2010. He launched the organization's first publication, "The IOS Journal," and contributed articles and poems to all later publications. He is the author of poetry collections, novels, and works of nonfiction, including his book, "Not Half Free: The Myth that America is Capitalist," with a foreword by David Kelley. He analyzed the philosophical meaning of the 2016 presidential election, and the import of Donald Trump's election, in his book "Donald Trump and His Enemies.: How the Media Put Trump in Office." He is an editor and regular contributor to an online magazine, "Savvy Street," that presents current events in the context of Objectivism. He lives in East Hampton, New York, with his wife, Robin Shepard.