The Truth about Reparations

The genesis of the Democratic Party’s current infatuation with the idea of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow can largely be traced to an article in the Atlantic from 2014 by Ta’Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.”  Make no mistake, the “Case for Reparations” is not about money, it is about “moral reckoning” and remaking the United States. 

Like most things Coates writes, few people who cite his work appear to have actually read it.  In 2014 Coates was the enfant terrible of the left, now replaced by another even less impressive pseudo-intellection who goes by the moniker “AOC.” 

But for a certain and relatively large subset of liberals (and particularly white liberals) Coates is the touchstone to most things black.  That is, if Coates if for it they are, and more so, if Coates wrote it, or said it, it must be morally justified.  It pretty much goes without saying that within this liberal subset are pretty all the Democratic presidential candidates. 

Reparations are not about money. They are about a day of judgment for the United States that will restore justice to African-Americans by eradicating “white supremacy.” 

The immediate means would be through H.R. 40 a House bill that’s been pending for decades.  On June 19th the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on H.R. 40 -- star witness Ta’Nehisi Coates, along with actor Danny Glover and other worthies.  The stated purpose of H.R. 40 is to establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.  As the hearing continued into this week, President Trump weighed in on Tuesday saying “I don’t see it happening.”   Of course, that’s likely only to encourage the movement.

In “The Case for Reparations” Coates sought to equate Germany’s payment of reparations for atrocities committed during World War II to the goals of reparation scheme in America. In Coates’ either intellectually dishonest and/or unknowledgeable view, Germany’s reparations “…did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.”  This is nonsense. 

Germany faced huge active legal liabilities along with its moral debt.  As Coates’ seems to acknowledge, the reparations were much more actively opposed by Israelis than Germans, and by the time reparation payments began in the mid-1950s Germany’s moral reckoning had been underway for a decade.

The United States has no legal liability to anybody for slavery, and even if it did that liability would have to be shared with the United Kingdom and several other European states, plus an at least as many African ones.  So the main motive of German reparations exists not at all in the current American context. 

More to the point, if reparations indeed were supposed to change German’s view toward the people they persecuted by forcing them to face their nation’s deeds and its victims suffering it didn’t much work.  Anti-Semitism is still endemic in parts of Germany, and the best that can be said of Germans today is that they are not significantly more anti-Semitic than other Europeans -- but then it is perfectly arguable that this was the case in the 1930s and 1940s as well.    

The real analogy to what Coates and the reparations crowd wants is not the German model, but the South African one.  The end of South African apartheid came with the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The commission was in part an expression of another popular concept on the left, restorative justice.  Through the commission victims could testify as to their experiences, and perpetrators beg for forgiveness.  In the South African context the commission was clearly the lesser of evils, and even a somewhat magnanimous act by the black majority of the country. 

Of course, in the United States it is exactly the opposite.  A minority -- albeit with legitimate historical grievances -- would seek to put the rest of the nation on trial in a kind of national purge.  The goal, not reparations itself, but in the words of Coates:  “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices -- more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

When the issue of reparations arises in national discussion as it now seems to every few years, and articles like this one appear, commentators and posters who don’t favor the idea still put forth a common sentiment that goes something like this:  “I don’t like the idea, but if paying a few billions of extra tax dollars to black people will end this, I’d do it.”

Here’s the bottom line -- it won’t.  And that’s the truth about “reparations.” 

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