Reparations and the Moral Repugnance of Collective Guilt

You've no doubt seen Ta-Nehisi Coates' 15,000 word article in The Altantic, making the case for slavery reparations. I've always enjoyed reading Coates -- a brilliant writer, and not one to march in lock step with anyone.

But Mr. Coates has gone off the rails with his advocacy for reparations. He has added to the burden of white man's sins by including, "Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy."

Coates presents evidence to buttress his case. Many compelling, maddening anecdotes. Charts, graphs, pictures -- a scholarly effort to be sure.

But Bill Jacobson points out the flaws in his argument with devastating ease:

Coates never gives the answer as to who gets what and how.

And that’s ultimately the problem with reparations arguments that are not based upon the people causing the harm paying the people directly harmed by specific conduct soon after the conduct is remedied.

If you can’t answer the question of why a Vietnamese boat person has to pay reparations for the conduct of white plantation owners more than a century earlier, then you can’t make the argument.

If you can’t answer the question of why two successful black doctors living in a fashionable suburb should get reparations paid for by the white children of Appalachia, then you can’t make the argument.

If you can’t answer the question of why the adult black recent immigrant from Paris should be pay or be paid reparations based on the color of his skin for crimes committed in a land he did not grow up in, then you can’t make the argument.

And what about the increasing number of children of mixed race?

That's the bottom line. Any reparations plan is totally, finally unworkable as a practical political matter. You can't get there from here and making the attempt will only breed resentment by whites and dashed hopes for blacks.

It is morally repugnant to assign blame to the blameless, and then penalize them for something not their fault. My family never held slaves, we did not participate in Jim Crow, and we did not redline anyone to prevent them from getting a mortgage. How can you justify trying to address injustice by creating more injustice? Madness.

One of the promises of America is that the sons are not held responsible for the sins of their fathers. We don't always live up to that promise -- like we don't always achieve equal justice under the law. But what makes America exceptional is that we are constantly striving to realize those promises. Not the absolute certainty of guaranteed outcomes, but simply the promise that we can do better. That's all one can practically expect from human beings.

Coates thinks that without reparations, the U.S. will never be "whole." Any reparations scheme will tear this country apart -- end to end, coast to coast. There may be a case for reparations, but saying it will unite the country is the most ridiculous of all.

Racism, sexism, homophobia -- these things will die a natural death. Each successive generation of all colors becomes more tolerant of those who are different. Barack Obama could not have been elected 50 years ago, or 25 years ago -- perhaps not even a decade ago. Racial progress is not something that can be quantified by dollars or cents, or how many minorities are lawyers, doctors, and successful businessmen. Progress is measured in the hearts and minds of each individual. Reparations won't do anything to speed the evolutionary process of achieving a colorblind society and, in fact, would set the cause back 50 years.