History isn’t a place. You can’t go there. It’s a story we tell ourselves, an argument we make, a thought, the charge on the battery of our brains, plus a sea of words and images we gulp, or sip, or ignore, while trying to figure out our lives now and what to do in the future.
As such, history is endlessly fascinating, to me anyway, and I can’t see a big slab of red meat like the concept of reparations for American slavery dropped onto the public platter — as it was Wednesday at the Chicago Defender’s debate for mayoral candidates — without licking my chops and digging in.
The candidates supported reparations in inverse proportion to their chances of being elected — it’s easy to spend money you will never control, though I wonder if Gery Chico, when courting labor endorsements, told those union longshoremen how much of their taxes he thinks should go to reparations.
There are dozens of ways to view this complex, volatile issue but, space being limited, I will touch upon what I consider the key six arguments and then — for those hardy few who soldier on with me to the end — I’ll weigh in with which I believe is correct.
1) African Americans were enslaved in this country for centuries; our nation’s enormous wealth was built on their backs. When the awful practice finally ended, officially, in 1863, it lingered in the form of Jim Crow oppression for another century. While other oppressed groups — the Irish, the Italians — faced poverty and hatred, they could escape through hard work, education and assimilation, a route denied blacks, whose families had been shattered and whose very skin made them targets for endless persecution.
The result is clear if you look at the country today. American blacks as a group lag far behind: large as the income gap is, with whites earning on average 22 percent more than blacks, the difference becomes truly huge when you consider household wealth, with estimates putting the average white family as having a net worth of $81,000, while the average black household has $8,000 — only one-tenth as much. This difference can be viewed as a lingering aftereffect of slavery.
2) The country supports all sorts of entitled groups for all sorts of social and historical reasons. It props up farmers because we want farms, it gives tax breaks to families because we want kids, it allows Native Americans to run casinos because they were armed and organized enough to extract treaties out of the government some 200 years ago. Is not redressing the historic wrong of slavery as important a goal as encouraging dairy farms? What argument can be made for Indian tribes controlling their own land and running casinos that can’t be applied to reparations?
3) The historic wrong of slavery — like all bad events of the past — is beyond repair. The slaves are dead, their children are dead — which makes this morally different from, say, reparations from Germany, which were paid to the actual individuals themselves who were enslaved during World War II. Whatever amount could be handed to descendents of slaves, the past would never be corrected.
4) The sheer number of African Americans — 42 million, almost 14 percent of the population — makes any feasible plan impossible. The government is broke — it can’t even pay current obligations, such as state pensions or care for wounded vets. There is no stomach for initiating a hugely expensive government giveaway based on a wrong 150 years in the past. If anything, it would reignite smoldering racial animosities that have just managed to cool, a little, over the past decades.
5) It’ll never happen, and talking about it is exactly the kind of pie-in-the-sky fantasizing that’s hobbled leaders of the black community for the last 50 years. A would-be mayor of Chicago has no more business opining on reparations for slavery than he — or she — does issuing an opinion on what color our colonies on Mars should paint their domes.
6) The United States of America is reparation aplenty, and the descendents of slaves are no more entitled to a special handout than the descendents of troops who froze to death at Valley Forge. The nation itself is a collective effort that invented the idea of freedom, and can’t be held responsible for wrongs set in place before it existed. Black people do far better in the United States than they do in Africa, generally, and while slavery was an ordeal, the past is often an awful place. And once we wander into it and start trying to make good, we tear apart our country, a country we should all be working hard to keep together.
I said I’d tell you which view I think is true — that was a trick, since I believe they all are. If this were easy, it wouldn’t be worth pondering. As it is, nobody seems to be in any rush.