Saturday, July 11, 2009

"The Power of Mortals"

Today, Andrew Sullivan posted a link to H.W. Brands' review of Margaret MacMillan's book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History under the title, "The Reparations Fantasy." The portion he decided to highlight was the climax of Brand's lengthy meditation on the craft of the historian:
MacMillan mentions but doesn’t delve into the demands for reparations to the descendants of African-American slaves . . . Without question the millions of men, women and children forced into servitude were horribly wronged. But righting that wrong, a century and a half after emancipation, transcends the power of mortals.
Reparations would take money from people who never owned slaves and bestow it on people who never were slaves. It would require judgments of collective guilt and collective innocence, which are problematic at best; when the collectives are defined by race and the judgments extended across generations, the whole issue becomes noxious in the extreme. Racists would find cover for reviving old arguments about slavery actually benefiting slaves—after all, if the issue is money, isn’t the average African-American today better-off than the average West African? What about African-American slaveholders—which side of the ledger do their descendants land on? And the American children of Africans who were never enslaved? Would the president of the United States get a check?
I've never really waded into the debate about reparations before, but Brands' assertion that righting historical wrongs "transcends the power of mortals" stuck in my craw. It's something that people say when they don't wish to be made uncomfortable by a line of inquiry.

Brand makes two major errors in his discussion of reparations: first, he assumes that the federal (and state) government's culpability in the oppression of African Americans ended in 1865; second, he assumes that direct payments to descendants is the only possible form of acceptable reparations.

On the first point, I would point to the re-enslavement of convicts, modern prison and police brutality, educational inequality, and the massive government subsidy of white flight that is the highway system. I am no expert on 20th century history and I'm sure that others could add a lot to that list, but the basic point is this: the government of the United States and of the states individually continue to protect the status quo of racial inequality through positive actions.

This leads to the second point: direct payments to descendants is only one idea for reparations. I agree that direct payments would be a tremendous bureaucratic challenge — just finding the documents to prove descent from particular individuals would be a challenge if the government were to require birth certificates or other official records. But that doesn't mean it's the only solution.

Since the government continues to perpetuate the legacy of slavery through positive acts, it could counteract those acts in various ways. Instead of spending a trillion dollars on cash payments, the government could invest that money in schools, hospitals, and transportation that would benefit cities and rural areas with underserved African American populations. It could devise a drastic program to facilitate home/land/business ownership that would benefit black families on the same scale that the G.I. Bill benefited white families after WWII. It could do something serious about schools.

Like I said, I am new to this debate and I'm sure that these suggestions fall short in many ways. They certainly would not satisfy some of those who have thought more deeply and more sensitively about the possibilities than I have.

My point is that white Americans can't throw up our hands and say, "oh, we couldn't possibly right the wrongs of the past, so let's just talk about something else." That is lazy and it lets us off the hook way too easily. Modern Americans can't erase the evil of slavery, but there's a lot that can be done about social inequality if we insist on committing our considerable creative and financial power to the task.

It's not that we can't make reparations — we choose not to.

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