Discover more from A User's Guide to History
A bad idea that won’t go away
If a person wanted to aggravate racial tensions in America, it would be hard to devise a more effective method than the reparations schemes that are being floated in various states and considered by Congress.
A California task force on the subject recently recommended measures that could cost $800 billion, or two-and-a-half-times the state’s annual budget. The task force has been silent on where the money would come from, but the obvious answer is from new taxes on Californians. Supporters of reparations have backed away from their original claim that this was to compensate black Californians for harm suffered by their ancestors under slavery, after it was pointed out that slavery was never legal in American California and that during the Civil War the state fought against slavery and helped end the institution.
Now supporters say that decades of discrimination other than slavery warrant reparations. Blacks were overpoliced and underserved by government. Again the case suffers by comparison with other parts of America. California had nothing like the de jure segregation practiced in states of the South; the segregation of California schools, for example, was de facto and as much a function of poverty as of race. Moreover, it applied to children of Mexican and Chinese descent too, and no one—yet—is talking about reparations for them.
In fact, if the California scheme is ever enacted, the descendants of those other victims of segregation will be taxed to compensate the descendants of the black kids. Which is one of the reasons that a reparations program on the order of what’s being talked about now will probably never see the light of day. Long before then, such political comity as still exists among blacks, Latinos and Asians will have been blown to pieces, with many in the last two groups taking refuge in the Republican party against reparations.
Beyond the politics of the reparations issue lie its dodgy ethics. The first problem here is the premise that people should be treated as members of groups rather than as individuals. This violates the fundamental principle of any liberal society, which is precisely that individuals must stand before the law as individuals and not as members of a group. Segregation was wrong because it compelled the opposite. A great deal of effort and not a little blood was shed to end segregation in America; a reparations scheme based on race would undo much of that noble work.
The second ethical problem with reparations is that it not only invites invidious comparisons, it requires them. Many groups in California history have claims to unequal treatment: blacks, Latinos, Chinese, indigenous peoples, women, immigrants. A reparations scheme aimed at blacks asserts, implicitly or explicitly, that they had things worse than the others. Some of them did at some points in time, but not all of them at all times. Are these other groups to wait in line? At the very least, reparations for blacks will sharpen perceived differences between racial groups, making the idea of a post-racial democracy an ever-more-distant dream.
A third problem is the most intractable but perhaps the most important. As they are typically discussed, reparations take modern notions of equality as the standard for judging previous generations. Black workers got paid less than white workers; because this is no longer acceptable, compensation should be made to those short-changed in the past. But as with segregation, this form of inequality was not confined to black people. Chinese and Mexican workers in California received lower wages too. And women of all races were paid less than men. Gay people were fired for merely being gay.
Equality is a modern construct. Even now it is a work in progress. To blame the past for its inequality is to blame the past for being the past. The past is beyond our reach; the present is all we have. Any program or policy should be judged by its effects in the here and now. If people today need help, they need help, regardless of what their ancestors experienced. Anything that impedes that help—such as a divisive debate over reparations—does society and the dignity of each individual a disservice.
Damage has already been done. A reparations bill filed in the California house of representatives is labeled HR40, from the forty acres and a mule said to be promised to former slaves by the Union government but never delivered. The labeled is based on a misconception: that any such promise was ever made by anyone authorized to make it. The forty acres idea originated in William Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 of January 16, 1865, which allocated land along the Atlantic coast south of Charleston to freedmen and their families, in plots of forty acres. Later Sherman suggested lending army mules to the freedmen to help with the plowing. The order was a measure by one theater commander trying to break the will of the Confederacy. It did not commit the government of the United States to any particular policy toward the Confederacy as a whole.
Perhaps it should have been the policy of the United States government, but Congress, having voted to dispossess the planters (and other slaveholders) of their property in slaves, declined to dispossess them of their property in land as well. Sherman’s order was approved by Abraham Lincoln as a war measure but was revoked by Andrew Johnson after the war ended. Significantly, the order never applied outside the Atlantic strip and nothing like it was ever seriously contemplated by Congress, the only body with a plausible claim to establish such a land-transfer policy. And even this would have been challenged in court on grounds that nothing in the Constitution authorizes such confiscation. (This is why, as Lincoln understood, the Emancipation Proclamation had to be followed by the Thirteenth Amendment.)
Understandably, the freedmen were disappointed. Anyone in their place would have been. And this is precisely the problem with all the talk of reparations. Black people in California have been told they have a moral claim on the state to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. If reparations are ever actually paid, they almost certainly will be much less than this, and the recipients, far from feeling grateful, will feel shortchanged. Meanwhile, many other people who don’t acknowledge a moral obligation to pay reparations but are taxed to do so will feel aggrieved.
And because the dividing line between the payers and the payees will be explicitly racial, tensions between the races will only grow. “Reparations” comes from the same root as “repair”; but far from repairing racial problems, any reparations scheme like the one California is considering will damage them further.
(But if you’re dead set on reparations, consider this: https://hwbrands.substack.com/p/reparations-how-to-turn-a-terrible)