The reparations temptation

Donald Trump’s favorability rating is an anemic 41.8%. That bodes ill for his 2020 reelection prospects. But Trump has a secret weapon. It’s called the Democratic Party, an organization apparently determined to ensure his reelection.

Democrats – including older members who should know better – fawned over the rollout of the so-called “Green New Deal,” the infantile brainchild of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This freshman representative believes that the world will end in 12 years unless drastic action, such as cutting back and possibly eliminating air travel, is taken. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scoffed at the “Green dream or whatever they call it.” But at last count, five declared Democratic presidential candidates have lined up to support it.

Then there is the proposal to totally eliminate private health insurance companies and replace them with  a fully government-run system, a move that would displace a half million jobs. It is supported by Bernie Sanders and, for about one day, by Kamala Harris.

And then there is the Party’s acclimatization to anti-Semitism. Last week, the Democratic Party proved itself unable to agree on an unambiguous repudiation of freshman Representative Ilhan Omar, who, for the third time, issued noxious anti-Semitic statements. Instead, the Party drafted an anodyne condemnation of hatred of all sorts. There was no mention of Omar – who justifiably characterized this as a victory. Three Democratic candidates — Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren— issued statements supporting her.

Almost lost amidst the din of self-destructive activity has been Democratic Party support for yet another controversial – and deeply unpopular – idea: reparations for the victims of slavery.

All sane observers agree that slavery, and the Jim Crow laws that followed, constitute indelible stains on our nation’s history. Yet opposition to race-based reparations has been consistently overwhelming. A 2014 poll found 68% of the public opposed, and only 15% in favor. Today, according to the polling aggregation website FiveThirtyEight, reparations remain “very unpopular.”

It’s not hard to see why.

For financial reparations to make sense, there should be a correlation between the recipients of the money and the actual victims, and between those obliged to pay and the actual perpetrators of the crime. Both correlations were present in 1952 when post-war Germany paid reparations to Israel. The money was paid mainly by people who had been citizens of Nazi Germany. The beneficiaries included 500,000 Jewish refugees settled with the help of those funds, and other Jews whose property had been looted by the Nazis. Similarly, when President Reagan signed legislation authorizing the payment of reparations to Japanese-Americans in 1988, the $20,000 checks were paid to victims actually interned in camps, and the payor was the same government that had ordered their internment.

Reparations paid today for the consequences of slavery – an institution abolished in 1865 – would satisfy none of these tests. Who would receive the payments? Advocates envision a massive transfer payment from the government to black Americans who are the descendants of the victims of slavery and Jim Crow. But not all black Americans are the descendants of such victims. For example, Barack Obama is the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother. Kamala Harris is the daughter of a black father from Jamaica and a white mother from India. Both of Colin Powell’s parents were Jamaican. None of these distinguished black Americans can claim to be descendants of victims of American slavery or Jim Crow laws. A simple race-based program would encompass many recipients with no legitimate claim to compensation.

On the other side of the ledger, who would be the proper payors? Presumably, all non-black Americans. But why should the descendants of white or Asian-Americans who emigrated to this country after the Civil War bear the burden of reparations?  None of those immigrants owned slaves. In the past century, Jews from Europe, Armenians from Turkey, and Cambodians from the Killing Fields, were all subjected to genocide. What possible reason could justify holding the survivors, or their descendants, responsible for the enslavement of American blacks?

And what of the white descendants of the more than 360,000 Union soldiers who died in the war to end slavery? Shouldn’t their sacrifice constitute some kind of credit, exempting their descendants from the obligation to pay reparations? What about the hundreds of thousands more who survived the war, but who suffered amputations or other grievous wounds? Shouldn’t their descendants also qualify for exemptions?

Another reason reparations have never gained traction with the public is cost. According to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimate, the population of black America is 47.4 million. (This includes those who identify as “Black Only” and as “Black in combination with another race.”) If each recipient received the same $20,000 check paid to the interned Japanese-Americans, the program would cost nearly one trillion dollars. But most supporters call for much larger payments. The estimated cost of those programs range as high as 14 trillion dollars.

Would this one-time cash infusion do any good? CNN Anchor Don Lemon recently noted that 72% of black children are born out of wedlock, and designated that condition the “No. 1” problem facing African-Americans today. Reparations would not ameliorate this fundamental problem; they would merely camouflage it, and only temporarily.

Reparations would confirm in the minds of recipients that they are victims, unable to compete and thrive in society. Such a message is not only harmful, it is also untrue. Yes, black America has suffered from slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination.  But black America is not a community of victims. African-Americans are the wealthiest blacks in the world. Their collective buying power constitutes the 16th largest market in the world, and is on the verge of surpassing the entire gross national product of Mexico. Despite the stain of slavery, black Americans have persevered and prospered. They deserve respect for their accomplishments, not just pity for their mistreatment.

Finally, once we start addressing generations-old injustices by reparations, where do we stop? Slavery was not the only sin in our national history. If reparations are paid to the descendants of slaves, why not reparations for the descendants of  Native Americans whose ancestral lands were stolen? Why not reparations for Chinese-Americans whose ancestors suffered state-ordered discrimination? There is no end to the number of victims we can find, if that is our goal, and if we disregard the passage of time. But long before we run out of descendants to pay, we will run out payors and payments.

Advocates for reparations attempt to circumvent these objections by identifying slavery, not merely as a horrific Southern institution, but as a central underpinning of the entire American economy, past and present. Ta-Nehisi Coates in “The Case for Reparations,” argues that the economic contribution of slave labor did not begin and end with King Cotton in the South. It benefited the North as well. Professor Eric Foner of Columbia extends the argument to the present day, contending that “slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.”

Their point is that every American alive today– however unintentionally —  is a beneficiary of slavery. Every American, therefore, qualifies as a judgment debtor in that crime.

The argument is based on false economics. Slavery made the country poorer, not richer. While slavery existed, nearly all immigrants flocked to the free states, not the slave states, because that’s where the economic opportunities were. Contrary to this line of thinking, the abolition of slavery did not make the country poorer. It made it richer. Once slavery ended, the United States soon grew into an economic super-power.

However bad the pro-reparations argument may be in economics, it is far worse in politics. The argument – that we are all the beneficiaries of slavery, and therefore we are all responsible to pay– echoes President Obama’s  remark during the 2012 campaign: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”  That remark was a self-inflicted wound on the campaign. Today’s advocates for reparations would have the Party inflict more such wounds, as its candidates tell the country: If you built a prosperous business today, you did so because you were the beneficiary of the slave labor of the nineteenth century.

Such a platform would be a gift to the Trump reelection campaign. Imagine a rally with the President standing beside a Vietnamese refugee who has started a nail salon; or a Korean couple who run an all-night convenience store; or a Mexican food truck owner. Imagine Donald Trump asking these entrepreneurs whether they owe their success to pre-1865 slavery … or to their own hard work and dedication.

Yet run on that platform they probably will. Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, as well as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, have already announced their support for reparations.  Others will probably follow, as pressure from the “progressive” wing of the Party grows. In 2016, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama supported reparations. But today is not 2016, and the Democratic Party is not the same Party it was then.

We often hear politicians accused of being hungry for power. There are many kinds of hunger. Hunger for power is not necessarily the worst. For in politics, a party hungry for power tailors its message to attract voters.

Today’s Democratic Party exhibits a hunger of a different kind, a hunger for purity. One could see it on display in the confrontation between Senator Dianne Feinstein and a group of children shepherded by an organization with the revealing name “Youth vs. Apocalypse.”  Discussing the Green New Deal, the Senator told the children she opposed it because “there’s no way to pay for it.” She added:  “That resolution will not pass the Senate …. The key to good legislation is to tailor something you write so that it can pass, and you can get a step ahead.”

Once upon a time, such remarks from a politician might be considered plain common sense. They might also be considered good politics, highlighting a way to get laws passed so that candidates can win elections. But not today. The children reacted as though the Senator were senile. Their chaperones cited her remarks as evidence that the Democratic Party needs “fundamental change,” and “new leadership.”

In their postures on reparations, climate change, and a host of other issues, the modern Democratic Party is purposely evacuating the mainstream. With growing fervency, they declare that our choice is between purity and Donald Trump. In 2020, they will have their purity. And the nation will have four more years of Donald Trump.

About the Author
Lawrence J. Siskind is an attorney practicing law in San Francisco, California. He blogs at www.ToPutItBluntly.com.
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