Culture, Science & Faith

Reparations Cannot Fix the Injustice Done to Blacks

Some say the way to fight racial inequality is with massive wealth redistribution.

Jun. 2, 2014

This country will never be the same after the War Between the States, after the lynchings, after Martin Luther King was murdered on a Memphis balcony, after the Birmingham church bombings. Now, 60 years after the fight for Civil Rights, some say the races are still unequal and at least one person suggests it’s not too late for the nuclear option: reparations.

In an article in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an emotional case for reparations in the modern day. Coates begins by quoting Deuteronomy 15:12-15 where it instructs the Israelites to pay back a freed slave for his or her time in servitude. He takes us to the years after the American Revolution, when an ex-slave goes to court, asking for society to give her a bit to live on after her life was spent in service to another. She was awarded that money. Coates then moves all the way to modern-day Baltimore and Chicago where loan sharks prey upon black families looking to buy a home.

Now, in a country where the majority of blacks are still poor, where “[t]he essence of American racism is disrespect,” Coates says some sort of reparations is the solution. “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal,” he writes. “Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage.”

Coates isn’t talking about Justice; he’s talking about redemption. But this is something government, the bearer of the sword, cannot do. The government can’t even successfully force 30 million people to buy health insurance. How would it ever fairly provide for payment to the millions of descendants of former slaves, lynching victims and everyone punished through the system of Jim Crow? How much would that cost?

Government would be grossly unjust in asking for the country to pay for slavery 150 years after the practice was banished. It isn’t right to punish the children for the sins of the father.

Furthermore, if the government addresses the problem, it will only highlight the racial and class divide, further balkanizing the country because the government will only do what it does best – create programs that benefit some people at the expense of others, robbing Peter to get Paul’s vote.

No, government-led reparations would not lead to the spiritual renewal Coates argues for.

But Coates isn’t arguing for massive reparations – at least not yet. He simply wants the government to study how the legacy of slavery affects the nation today. But that move is merely symbolic, according to National Review’s Kevin Williamson:

“The purpose of public policy in this area can be one of two things. The first is a program focused on trying to improve in real terms the lives of those who are poorly off and those born into circumstances that are likely to lead to their being poorly off adults, proceeding with the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that such programs will disproportionately benefit black Americans, as they should. The second option is a symbolic political process designed to confer a degree of psychic satisfaction on relatively well-off men and women such as Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

There’s little question that slavery still scars this nation. But we cannot look first to the government as a mender of relationships. The welfare state has kept people poor on its poverty plantations. Oddly enough, the districts that have the greatest income disparity are represented by Democrat lawmakers.

Perhaps we should remember the legacy of a former slave who rose up from slavery to advise presidents – Booker T. Washington – who never asked for reparations. Washington preached dignity through work – to become so skilled that you earned respect. “Nothing ever comes to me, that is worth having, except as the result of hard work,” he said. That’s what pulled Washington up from slavery. It doesn’t have to work for just one man.

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