White House officials this week indicated that Team Biden is ready to “start acting” on the question of reparations for African Americans. The news is sure to set off speculation about a civil war on the left over the issue, between progressives and “moderates.” But a more interesting question is whether conservatives should oppose reparations?
The answer is no. Reparations are the most straightforward means of acknowledging the historic injustice inflicted on African Americans, which is why such proposals have been made in some form or another almost continuously since the end of the Civil War, when Andrew Johnson unilaterally revoked the “40 acres and a mule” policy that would have gifted valuable property to 40,000 freed slaves.
More than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, we have black professionals and CEOs and even black billionaires. But most descendants of slaves have never had access to the broad-based prosperity of the middle class. For the vast majority, especially before the 1960s, there never was an American Dream.
This is true despite the fact that in the last decade and a half we have elected a black man and a black woman to our nation’s two highest offices. The rise of former President Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan economist and a white anthropologist, and Vice President Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican economist and a high-caste Indian scientist, testifies movingly to the success of our immigration system. Successive generations of immigrants, including those from sub-Saharan Africa, have leapfrogged over Americans whose ancestors were held as property on these shores — but that only reminds us that the situation of African Americans is unique.
This brings us to two of the most common objections to reparations. The first is that we shouldn’t expect Americans whose ancestors were soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Chinese peasants to answer for crimes committed here two centuries ago. The second is that reparations won’t put an end to the persistent wealth disparities between black and other Americans.
Both of these objections miss the point, which is that reparations aren’t a question of inherited guilt for sins, which is the shared condition of the human race, or simply a means of reducing income inequality. They are in part a symbolic gesture and an immensely valuable one.
Money is sometimes more than just a medium of exchange, which is why your grandmother still sends you a birthday card with a $20 bill tucked inside long after she knows that you don’t need it.
Such gestures aren’t limited to the personal sphere. Civilization has always depended on virtues such as courtesy, munificence and magnanimity. Just as we don’t refrain from using racial slurs simply because they are politically incorrect, we shouldn’t insist that reparations can only be valuable if they right every injustice or if they are paid for by those whose ancestors were slave owners.
Being willing to do the right thing doesn’t require having previously done the wrong one.
One other great virtue that civilization demands is particularity. While progressives sweep these issues into their boutique obsessions about language and the liberation of ever-more-exotic sexual identities, conservatives should recognize the sound and particular demands for justice from those whose forebears were brought to this country in chains. Demands for reparations don’t arise from silly campus woke-ism.
Blacks and whites in the post-industrial Midwest face similar plights today, but the difference is that the grandfathers of the latter likely had good-paying union jobs at a steel mill at which the ancestors of the former couldn’t have been hired as janitors. Why not address this, as we have the singular experience of American Indians? My Czech great-grandparents were no more responsible for the Trail of Tears than they were for slavery, but I do not begrudge my Indian friends their land and free tuition.
There are other serious questions about reparations — the amount to be paid, and when, and how to determine eligibility. A realistic plan would likely involve cash payments to proven descendants of slaves. The details are vexing and serious. But they are also beside the point until we accept the humane and decent case for some form of reparations.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine.