Friday, May 23, 2014

Hoist the Black Flag

Identity politics will be the death of this nation. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written an article at The Atlantic calling for reparations. The article itself is a lengthy description of the many wrongs perpetuated on blacks, from slavery to post-civil war discrimination, to predatory business practices, and so on. However, it is an exaggeration, as the article suggests, that this nation was built on the backs of blacks. Oh, they played an important part in the Southern economy, but their role becomes more attenuated as you move north and west. 

In any event, Coates summarizes:
... But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.
Coates article provides the groundwork for an article by Jamelle Bouie at Slate, also calling for reparations to blacks. The primary difference between the articles is that while Coates laid the groundwork for the "why" of reparations, Bouie discusses the mechanics. He writes:
And so, how would we accomplish the task? Would you attempt a massive transfer of wealth? Or would you try to compensate black communities with targeted policies?

The “wealth option,” accomplished by cash payments, is what we tend to think when we hear “reparations.” In this scenario, the federal government would mail checks to individuals, either in a lump sum or spread out over time. ...

... here’s a lot to recommend when it comes to cash benefits. For starters, it empowers individuals, families, and communities. They know what they need, and we should trust them to figure out their own interests over the long term. Yes, a cash scheme could never be fully fair, but that’s not the point; what we want is to heal injury and balance accounts, and on that score, it could work.

On the other end is the policy approach. Instead of cash, the federal government would implement an agenda to tackle racial inequality at its roots. This agenda would focus on major areas of concern: housing, criminal justice, education, and income inequality. As for the policies themselves, they don’t require a ton of imagination. To break the ghettos and reduce the hyper-segregation of black life, the federal government would aggressively enforce the Fair Housing Act, with attacks on housing and lending discrimination, and punishment for communities that exclude low-income residents with exclusionary zoning.

What’s more, it would provide vouchers for those who want to move, subsidized mortgages for those who want to own, and huge investments in transportation infrastructure, to break urban and rural isolation and connect low-income blacks to jobs in wealthier, whiter areas.

On the education front, state governments could end education budgets based on local property taxes—which disadvantage poor communities and disproportionately hurt blacks—and the federal government could invest in school reconstruction, modernization, and vouchers—for parents who want their children in private schools—in addition to higher education subsidies for black Americans. These “in-kind” benefits have the virtue of freeing up disposable income, thus acting as de facto cash payments.

It almost goes without saying that this move for policy reparations would include an end to the war on drugs, an end to mass incarceration, and a national re-evaluation of police procedures to reduce racial profiling. And, looking forward, it could include progressive “baby bonds”—federally managed investment accounts with modest annual growth rates. At $60 billion a year, according to one proposal, this would help ameliorate wealth inequality for future generations.

There are more policies along these lines, no doubt. The advantage, for most of these, is that they are both universal and hugely beneficial to black Americans.
Bouie predicts that reparations would be unpopular. No kidding. We have been paying reparations in the form of "the war on poverty" ever since the 1960's, and through affirmative action and other educational and employment preferences, urban renewal programs, food stamps and other welfare programs, anti-discrimination legislation creating a de facto "for cause" standard for firing minority employees, special protections as to housing, etc. There have, in addition, been specific payouts to redress past wrongs such as the payouts to black farmers for alleged discrimination by the USDA.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, there is also a question of where do you stop? Do we ignore the exploitation of Chinese, Irish, Swedes, Italians, poor Englishmen, etc. And what about the American Indians? Or the Spanish/Mexican settlers and workers? Should we subtract from the reparations amounts to compensate crime victims? If you tried to compensate every group for real and imagined harms, where would it end?

And why stop with the United States? More slaves were exported to the Middle-East than to the Americas. Should Arab countries escape reparations simply because they killed all their slaves? What about all the Europeans enslaved by Muslims in Africa and the Middle-East? Shouldn't there be reparations for that? Shouldn't China pay reparations for the American soldiers and Koreans killed during the Korean War? Shouldn't African nations have to pay reparations for the land and capital improvements made by Europeans and "nationalized"? Shouldn't China and Russia pay for the damage caused by the Black Plague? Shouldn't Africa be liable for all the dead from small pox and malaria?

I see the demand for reparations, in this context, as merely another form of plunder, and source of corruption for the Democratic political machine. Any demand for reparations should be accompanied by a pirate flag in the interests of truth in advertising.

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