Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Can Reparations Repair Racism?

It's a question that won't go away:

Is there a case for racial reparations?

The easy answer, of course, is yes, there is - at least as far as the basic definition of reparations is concerned.

According to Merriam - Webster, reparations are "something that is done or given as a way of correcting a mistake that you have made or a bad situation that you have caused."  And in the context of slavery in the United States, in which, for hundreds of years, virtually every black person who arrived on our shores came involuntarily, and was owned as property, or treated as a third-class citizen, it's impossible to deny that the human rights abuses inflicted upon blacks shouldn't somehow be atoned for.

If you don't believe that slavery in America was something for which atonement should be made, then please consider reading "The Case for Reparations," written by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic.  Or this article for the Gospel Coalition by Alan Noble.  The way blacks - because of their race - have been treated by individuals and institutions throughout our country's history has been immoral at best, and subhuman at worst.

Most non-black Americans agree that our country's legacy of slavery has been shameful.  And aside from some bigots who continue to deny America's past like some people deny the Holocaust, working towards some sort of reconciliation and interpersonal repair between the races has become part of our collective consciousness.

Yet when most people talk about reparations for slavery, they're not talking about a sea-change in social attitudes against the practice, or improvements in race relations.  They're advocating for financial compensation for slavery, and some religious conservatives are beginning to join the chorus, as the Gospel Coalition article evidences.  The appeal of monetary reparations lies in the assumption that America's blacks have been so disenfranchised by their past, no amount of verbal apologies, white guilt, social change, accurate Bible teaching against racism, or legislation like affirmative action laws can begin to level the playing field between blacks and whites.

Reparations advocates want to see the money, since, at its core, slavery was all about economics.

Some of these advocates claim to have calculated dollar figures for what they believe they're owed.  For example, New Yorker Deadria Farmer-Paellmann and fellow activists claim companies like Aetna, railroad company CXS, and Chase bank owe blacks upwards of $1.4 trillion, and she filed nine lawsuits in 2002 to start that repayment process. In 2007, one of her cases made it to the Supreme Court, where the justices declined to hear it.

In addition to private lawsuits, which haven't been able to gain much traction, there have been efforts in several statehouses to try and get some sort of reparations process started. In Massachusetts, state representative Byron Rushing proposed a bill in 2009 that would force about 10 Boston companies to investigate how much they profited from slavery before the commonwealth prohibited the practice in 1790.  Rushing's state legislation was modeled after others in California and Illinois, although none have ultimately been successful in their objectives.

Yet slavery isn't just about economics, is it?  It's about power, and one group considering themselves intrinsically better than another.  Slavery in America was about inequities of all kinds, as indeed most forms of racism and other forms of social stratification remain today.  In a sense, couldn't it be argued that, at least in terms the laws of the United States, the ability of anybody being able to vote, run for political office, own a home, work, sit wherever they'd like in mass transit, own a business, use a restroom or water cooler, and get an education represents a fairly comprehensive refutation of the mores and mindset that contributed to slavery's existence?

If reparations are all about equity, why concentrate on the money?  And if you're going to concentrate on the money, shouldn't the same equity you're striving to approximate with reparations be present in the way a reparations package is structured?  How credible would an unfair, distorted, poorly calculated, historically inaccurate, and even prejudiced reparations package be, and how much damage might it do to race relations in the United States?

However healthy or unhealthy you think our race relations are these days?

First of all, there’s the issue of who pays.  As we've seen, some people want a few historic corporations to pay.  One of these companies, Aetna, has already admitted that soon after its founding in 1853, it did in fact insure slaves for slave owners, and they have already issued a corporate apology.  But that's not nearly enough for most reparationists.

When it comes to slavery, corporations have been easy targets for reparations demands, but oddly enough, some elite universities - including Harvard and Yale - have been targeted for reparations because some of their early endowments came from slave owners.

For her part, Farmer-Paellmann claimed to have extrapolated her numbers from the precedents set by reparations lawsuits won against the Nazis after World War II.  However, there's a big difference between these two colossal episodes of human rights abuses.  For starters, claims against the Nazis have been based on a far better-documented historical period.  They involved significantly fewer - and more easily identifiable - perpetrators, as well as victims.  Those lawsuits also benefited from the testimony of living witnesses, and include verifiable artifacts like bank statements, insurance certificates, photographs, and widely-known provenances.

Calculations for slavery reparations rely on manifests and other records that are incomplete and cannot be independently verified, as well as names that changed as people were bought and sold.  Or they implicate entire classes of people, such as whites and blacks, when not all whites supported slavery, and not all blacks were slaves.

Has this become murky enough yet for you?

Then there are the reparationists who think our government should pay money for slavery's evils, since slavery was actually legal.  But slavery legislation varied by state, and any talk of government money automatically means it's a talk about taxpayer money, and here again, not all whites supported slavery, or directly benefited from it.  Blacks, too, have been paying taxes for generations, so in effect, using taxpayer funds for reparations could be considered a double-hit for black taxpayers.  How fair would that be?

If the government pays, that means it's paying on behalf of all living taxpayers, not just the ones who supported slavery and institutionalized racism even up to a generation ago.  But how is that fair to our many recent immigrants?  Should just the “Southern” states pay, or should they pay more than Northern ones?  And why stop with our American government?  What about the British, who owned many of the ships that transported the slaves?  Or the Dutch, who initially purchased many of the actual slaves in Africa?  And then there's the sticky question about the African tribes who sold their captured enemies to the Europeans to be slaves in the first place.

And what about white Americans whose ancestors either weren't here when slavery was legal, or didn't live in Jim Crow states?  Although I'm white, neither side of my family participated in or benefited from slavery. My maternal lineage starts and stays in New England in the early 19th Century, when her ancestors sailed over from Scotland, and at least one of my forebears is recorded to have been at Appomattox for the end of the Civil War (don’t hate me, Confederacy buffs!).  My paternal lineage starts and stays in New York City after World War I, from Finns who had nothing whatsoever to do with the slave trade in any way.  Why should any member of my family pay anything?

We haven’t even talked about determining which American blacks or black-centric organizations receive reparation payouts.  Or how dollar amounts are calculated.  Or about other people groups that may line up for their own reparations from the United States government or US corporations.  Or how any of this will help bring any sort of closure to the atrocious legacy of slavery.

After all, two wrongs do not make a right.

Don't we need to be mature about this and admit that the past is in the past?  Wrongs have been done by a variety of peoples for a variety of reasons.  Government endorsement of and complicity with slavery occurred on the local, state, and national levels.  Private businesses were involved, and entire industries incorporated slavery into their business models.  I'm not excusing the past, just explaining it.

At the same time, there were people of conviction who believed slavery was wrong, and they worked to stop it.  Many helped the ones who could escape their bonds through grass-roots organizations like the Underground Railroad.  Painting an entire race with the same brush is just what whites have been accused of doing to blacks, and just as we are wrong to do it, so are blacks.

Blaming today's whites for slavery hundreds of years ago may be some sort of panacea for some people, but it isn't a healthy way to live in our modern world.  And to top it off by expecting some sort of financial payback is illogical and threatens to destroy so much of the progress that has contributed to blacks even being able to advance the idea of reparations in the first place.

Our history is not perfect. However, one of the marks of a modern, progressive society is being able to take what it’s been dealt and moving on with – or despite – it.

If we make something like slavery all about money, where's the moral imperative to do the right thing simply because it's the right thing to do?

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