WEISS: For reparations, we must reach an understanding before an agreement
The first step to addressing America’s founding sin is education, mobilization
The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library hosted a discussion last week on reparations to the black community hosted by the Charlottesville Showing Up for Racial Justice chapter. The Cavalier Daily reported on the event, and its coverage received a lot of attention. This may well be because of the, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his landmark article “The Case for Reparations,” “popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties.” Talk of reparations, the common dismissal goes, is ludicrous on its face, a product of white guilt and a symptom of the pathological liberalism flaring in college campuses across the country. This is an intellectually dishonest treatment of an important idea. The policy specifics reparations may be politically unfeasible, but the underlying intellectual foundation is solid. Communicating that message to the American people has the best chance of succeeding if we eschew ideology, orthodoxy and zealotry in an effort to appeal to the country’s bedrock sense of justice.
The most persuasive argument to be made in favor of reparations can be drawn from a dive into the history and current state of black America. The historical record makes abundantly clear the extent of slavery’s malignant reach into the present. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, African Americans in the South suffered a century of state-sanctioned terror and second-class citizenship. In the North, they were relegated to a permanent position at the bottom of the social pecking order. Lynched, silenced, brutalized, robbed and disrespected on a systematic basis, African Americans had to fight through a decades-long struggle in civil disobedience and peaceful protest to reach a state of political equality. American society, politics and culture evolved to incorporate and accept the contributions of black Americans on a far wider basis, and the United States finally elected its first black president, Barack Obama.
Despite this progress, the work of the Civil Rights Movement remains unfinished, the stubborn legacy of economic theft and generational poverty left untackled. The “redlining” practices born after World War II which declared swaths of African American-owned property “uninsurable” doomed nascent black communities to declining real estate value and a cycle of poverty — creating the segregated and dilapidated inner cities in Chicago, Baltimore and others, which white America often shakes its head at, clueless to its true history. As a result, many police departments are trained to treat black neighborhoods like occupied foreign soil or sources of municipal revenue.
Today, if black America were its own country, it would be 46th in the world in terms of GDP per capita, barely ahead of Russia. The median black household has one-thirteenth the wealth of the median white household. Coates captures the obliviousness of white America to the pernicious economic legacy of slavery with morbid eloquence: “there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”
Given the monumental, systematic suffering unique to the African American experience, the theoretical and moral basis for reparations is unassailable. Trickier, however is the implementation of reparations as policy, and whether such an effort is politically feasible. Black Lives Matter provides a plethora of suggestions on its website, and they are each worth considering. One critical recommendation is the immediate passage of HR40, or the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” The hope is that a comprehensive Congressional report will at least provide a sense of urgency and clarity on this issue.
Perhaps more important than considering what policies should be implemented is the educational process necessary for mobilizing support in a democracy as messy as ours. The case for reparations lies on a mountain of historical evidence, data or personal experience that the majority of Americans must be receptive to absorbing. Recognizing systems of oppression and their daily operation can incite an ideological orthodoxy and zealotry in activists intolerant of differing opinions. Loose accusations of bigotry hurled against those who disagree for whatever reason only do the cause of racial justice harm.
The flaws in American society are a product of entrenched interests as well as defects in the human capacity to empathize or consider new ideas. The more we manage to treat the dissenting party as the enemy, the less we can tap into our basic sense of decency and fairness. To engage with each other in good faith rather than mistrust, in affirmation rather than hostility, is how we erode the barriers we build along tribal lines which make fellow human beings into the “other.” This is the path to real, sustainable progress. Once we have achieved a unity of purpose, the policy will come.
Olivier Weiss is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.