Resuscitating Reparations Rhetoric

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic cover piece last week, “The Case for Reparations,” is an attempt to bring back a soggy and discarded set of ideas, dressed up to look like new.  The article is the latest installment of the intellectual left’s current flavor of the month: the idea that historical injustices run so deeply in our society that only their victims can fathom just how profoundly they affect society.  The implication, for everyone else, is that any contributions they might make to the discussion on those injustices are limited, prejudiced, and unworthy of serious consideration.

This idea has enjoyed a resurgence this year, particularly on college campuses.  There was, for example, the recent controversy over the phrase ‘check your privilege,’ brought to the fore in Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang’s op-ed in the Princeton Tory.  Fortgang argued against the use of social disadvantage as its own sort of advantage in debate.  Likewise, there has been the popularization of the term ‘rape culture,’ to describe the supposed endemic hostile climate on college campuses that only campus feminists are sensitive enough to grasp.  

The contention – essential to Coates’ argument – that the raised consciousness one gets by perceiving the true pervasiveness of social injustice gives him a superior position in questions of policy, is as old as it is dangerous.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his famous Social Contract of 1762, suggested that non-cooperators in his system of social order might need to “be forced to be free.”  When Coates argues that the best justification for reparations is not any substantive result they would have, but to “represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence,” he makes basically the same argument.  Only those with raised consciousness, who understand – as Coates has said – that “white supremacy is the only thing wrong with black people,” deserve a place at the discussion table.

In his zeal for “reckoning with our compounding moral debts,” Coates dismisses those who quite rightly demand to know “Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay?”   Such objections, he chuckles, deal merely with “the practicalities, not the justice,” of reparations.

Coates’ idea that it’s really the thought that counts, not the substance, is great for clearing consciences – but not for making good social policy.  

He bemoans the fact that every single year, when Michigan Democratic Congressman John Conyers brings a bill to the floor calling for the opening of debate on reparations, it fails.  But that failure does not represent, as Coates might have it, a toxic stew of political inertia, fear, and the continuing vestiges of white racism.  Instead, it shows a correct awareness that when making policy, intentions are not all that matters.

In making “a case for reparations,” all Coates does is propound the well-known history of white-on-black injustice in America.  He makes no argument for why a program of reparations will help heal that historical wound.  That’s because it is impossible, without retreating into the abstractions of postcolonial or Marxist theories, to imagine a way in which reparations might work.

Like the leaders of so many ill-fated political movements in history, he assumes that the details will simply work themselves out, or he kicks them down the road for experts (like John Conyers, presumably) to figure out.  But, as we have learned from the examples of social policy the world over, from rent control to Aid for Families with Dependent Children, to Obamacare, it’s not the thought that counts; it’s the content.

A comprehensive reparations policy, meant to right hundreds of years of systematic injustice would be the biggest social policy undertaking in American history.  It would be rivaled in world history in scope only by one of Stalin’s Five-Year Plans or Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

We know that the only way to achieve such huge scope is by generalizing and categorizing, by quantifying victimhood and advantage.  Therefore we also know that many of the unintended consequences of social policy experiments we’ve undertaken so far would inevitably occur, writ large, in the case of reparations.

Here are a few of them:

  1. Millions who do not need help will end up being helped.
  2. Millions who do not deserve to be hurt will be hurt.
  3. Animosities (both racial and class-based) in America will be created, or increased, by policies which – because they generalize – are inherently unfair.

The reason why Coates does not – and will not – address these problems is that, like many on the left, he is not interested in results.  The results of such bad policy would be social calamity and almost certainly a new era of intensified racial strife. Coates, rather than wrestling with such “practicalities,” unconcernedly disregards them.  If he thought critically about it, he would realize that as a practical matter, fairness in reparations is impossible, and further injustice inevitable.

Perhaps for today’s American people, many of whom are not even related to those from whose racism they allegedly benefitted or from whose abuse they purportedly suffered, whose debts and responsibilities toward each other are so complicated as to be unquantifiable, healing cannot come from the unfeeling robotic arms of government.  Only forgiveness can heal us.

John Masko just graduated from Yale University with major in History.

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