Our problems with race in this country are complex, and yet so very often people, usually of the pale variety, want to make them simple. No one wants to think of the cultural debt white Americans as a group owe their brown brothers and sisters, and certainly folks do not want to think about their individual responsibility for the suffering of others. No, the fact that we have each benefited in some way because black people in this country have been held down is too much to bear. We want an easy fix, preferably one that does not actually require sacrifice on our part.
On the face of it, Bruce Bartlett’s call for the GOP to embrace reparations sounds like a call to confront the injustice visited on People of Color, specifically African-Americans, in this country. After all, white society was propped up, and all white people enjoyed, to varying degrees, the benefits of the slave culture. This was, by the way, true in the North as well as the South. There may have been more abolitionists north of the Mason-Dixon line, but there were still plenty who supported slavery.
It does not take long, however, to see this for what it is. A shallow ploy to out-and-out bribe a segment of our culture. Bruce even suggests as much. Which is not to say it should not still be done. This country as a whole owes a lot to its black citizens. Folks still continue to suffer, individually and as communities, as a result of slavery. There is plenty written on the continued economic effects of slavery being felt in the here and now. It would be great to have that influx of cash in poor communities, as well as a chance to actually do something to heal the rifts in our society.
But that is not what Bruce is suggesting. No, he states that the GOP should hold reparations out, in part to lure in minority voters, but also as a carrot and stick approach to get black Americans to agree to let affirmative action die. Leaving aside the horrible cynicism this implies, it is a just plain bad idea. It would be horrible for PoC in this country, and every other group that benefits from AA. It would leave in place the very problems that cause continued suffering.
Dave Chappelle’s skit on reparations may be gross hyperbole, but they hit on the very real nature of thoughtlessly administered reparations. Black Americans do not merely suffer a wealth gap now. They suffer an opportunity gap, they suffer an education gap, and they suffer an understanding gap. The latter being a deficit, by the way, not of theirs, but of their white countrymen. Affirmative action helps close those first two gaps. Without it, a simple influx of money will help for a little while, but before long things will get bad for communities that do not have people in good jobs, supporting better schools. The wealth gap has been closed, partially, in the past and without all those things, it opened right back up.
When we finally pay reparations (and I do hope it is when, and that it is soon) we cannot do so as a means to destroy the tools that will really help achieve equality in this country. Too often any attempt to reach that achievement is seen, not as a means to repair the ills in our society, but as a means to assuage white guilt. Well making white people feel better about their privilege means nothing if future generations of African-Americans are still deprived of equality of opportunity. Too often, white Americans simply want to take a deep breath with every milestone and say “OK, that means racism is over, right?” They did with the election of our first Black President and I guarantee they will do it when reparations are paid. Meanwhile all the attitudes holding back folks descended from the only people in this country who immigrated by another man’s choice will still be in place.
Fellow white people, we do not just get to declare when racism is over. Racism will be over when the quality of schools in black neighborhoods is equal to whites’. It will be over when a disproportionate segment of our prison population is not young, black men in jail for crimes that would earn a white man a slap on the wrist. It will be over when property values in white and black neighborhoods are equal. It will be over when better qualified young black men are not arbitrarily turned away for jobs (despite your whiny rhetoric about affirmative action.) It will be over when you stop asking if it is over. It will be over when these things, and probably a few dozen others I do not have the space here for are true, and not one moment sooner.