Reparations Are About Power, Not Justice
Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, May 26, 2023
Credit Image: © Steve Eberhardt/ZUMA Wire
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It’s amusing that the first state moving toward reparations is California. California was a free state that sided with the Union during the Civil War. No state was “built by slavery” but it’s especially hard to argue the home of Hollywood was.
California is extremely liberal, however, because of demographic transformation. It is a majority-minority state, with a Hispanic plurality. It is also the nation’s cultural trend-setter — where California goes, the nation follows. Home to most of America’s leading technology companies, California is so large and powerful that what happens there can’t be dismissed as a liberal fluke. Governor Gavin Newsom is a fanatically ambitious white man who has built his career (and perhaps a future presidential run) on far-left politics. What he says on this issue could well determine how white Democrats handle it in the future.
California is a test for naïve conservatives. They better pay attention, because California will be the first of many states to talk reparations.
The fact that California is not a former Confederate or slaveholding state shows straightaway that the issue isn’t about logic or ideals. It’s about naked political power. No state should pay reparations, but it would at least make more abstract sense if the push for reparations had gained ground in the Deep South where there were the most slaves and the black percentage of the population is high. However, we know that won’t happen until the demographics change. White Southerners still tend to vote as a bloc and have retained control. In California, that’s not the case, and the state has seen extreme policies voted in by large, racially conscious, non-white voting blocs.
Reparations are therefore about demographics, not history, which makes it pointless for a conservative to argue history on the merits. Unfortunately, this, too, is a sign of things to come. If National Review’s latest contribution by Will Swaim is any indication, white advocates, not conservatives, will lead the fight against reparations.
Mr. Swaim argues that the reparations push is bad because “it erases the agency and success of black Californians and ignores how others worked with them to secure basic rights for all.” Thus, NR, the standard-bearing conservative magazine, is arguing on liberal grounds, making the traditional mistake. It’s not the first time. History is complicated. It will always be easier to sell a utopian vision.
Mr. Swaim makes a detailed argument about how various Californians helped fight slavery “[T]o acknowledge all of this would mean trouble for a government task force determined to find evidence of systemic violence against black Californians.” That misses the point. It doesn’t matter to the Left how many white Californians opposed slavery. Those people were white and thought of themselves as white. By today’s standards, that makes them “racists.” Conservatives won’t be able to convince blacks otherwise, and they shouldn’t try.
On average, black Californians earn a lot less than white Californians. Unless conservatives are willing to say that this has to do with something within blacks themselves, rather than white perfidy, there’s no argument against the demand for more money to combat “racism.”
Mr. Swaim devotes a lot of words to the “outsized role played by Californians in the Civil War.” This might be important if he were arguing that the descendants of white soldiers deserved payment for the losses suffered by their ancestors. However, he’s making the case that California helped eliminate slavery. If we accept his argument, all this does is move the entire moral burden to the South. He might be comfortable with this; he refers scornfully to “Southern ambition,” “Southern apologists [who] never surrendered their hope of one day capturing the Golden State,” and “Richmond’s malignant California dream.” But giving ammunition to an attack on the South is not conservatism.
Mr. Swaim wants to rebut those who say that “slavery, as opposed to disastrous policies advanced by the political establishment, is the real reason for present-day black poverty in the state.” To do so, he chronicles the fall of the town of Weed, a once-thriving California lumber town that attracted black migrants but was eventually destroyed by environmental policies. He argues that “progressive government itself is the enemy of disadvantaged Californians,” which may or may not be true, but certainly isn’t an opinion shared by black Californians, almost three-quarters of whom are registered Democrats. He says that “California’s greatest reparative act would be to eliminate government unions,” which would lead to “real prosperity.” However, blacks are more likely than other groups to belong to unions, and union growth is largely in government-worker unions. Squashing “government unions” would cut jobs and benefits to black workers.
Appealing to the prosperity that conservative economic policies would supposedly unleash is a waste of time. Most blacks generally don’t think big government hurts them — the Democrats couldn’t reliably take them for granted otherwise. They are also not interested in fighting the political “establishment” — they tend to support the political order.
Politicians such as Jim Clyburn, Hank Johnson, and California’s own Maxine Waters can take their seats for granted. Blacks aren’t even especially progressive. Jim Clyburn’s endorsement helped Joe Biden fend off more progressive challengers. Blacks are, in short, a model population for machine politics. They follow their political leaders, exchange votes for handouts, and operate as a bloc that doesn’t look farther than its own interests. Mr. Swaim is wasting his time if he thinks blacks will buck the Democratic establishment.
Mr. Swaim also makes the argument that the cost of reparations would be too great. He says that the amount proposed by the official task force — more than a million dollars per person — has been “conservatively estimated at three times California’s annual budget” and is therefore too much. An accounting objection is a weak response to a moral claim. If the issue is simply the cost of reparations, the essential question has already been answered: We owe blacks something. Not surprisingly, Gov. Newsom has said that paying reparations is really “about much more than cash payments.” The most likely scenario will be a plague of programs and bureaucracies that would reward blacks at the expense of others.
With blacks, it does no good to appeal to the national interest. “Is it good for blacks?” is the question that matters.
Mr. Swaim assumes that blacks suffer from poverty because of bad policies. The truth is that both progressives who blame “racism” and conservatives who blame government unions or some other enemy are wrong. Differences in intelligence between different racial groups are the real cause. One can hardly blame “white privilege” — Asian-Americans have a higher income in California than both blacks and whites. This is what we’d expect from racial differences in intelligence.
If conservatives choose not to talk about racial differences, they fall into the same trap as Mr. Swaim. They must explain black failure by raising various policy objections, all of which have been promoted by conservatives for decades, and none of which will be persuasive to blacks or liberal whites. This is a moral claim, even a religious claim, rooted in a desire for vengeance and racial satisfaction. Explaining patiently that the real villains are government unions is a fool’s errand.
All most blacks see is suffering and dollar signs. Dr. Amos Brown, vice-chair of the task force, says that “our sin bill in this nation has been so high, and because of the long years of doing nothing, the interest has grown.” Gov. Newsom, who signed the bill that established this task force, refers to the “original sin of slavery.” The AP quotes two California blacks who worry that black Californians might be the victim of another “broken promise” on reparations. Pia Harris, a nonprofit program director, says the lingering effects of slavery and discrimination “[have not] been over for us” and that “we’re still going through things now as a community.” The AP also quotes a man who “spent a decade in prison on a weapons charge” and then started a nonprofit. “[O]ur people deserve it, honestly,” he said of reparations. Any group that can calmly speak of “our people” will always have the advantage in a multiracial democratic system. It would be amusing to see National Review try to convince blacks to reject identity politics.
The United States, now facing a standoff over already-ruinous levels of federal debt, can hardly afford a new financial entitlement for more than 13 percent of the population.
However, from a white perspective, any cash payment, no matter the size, would be a bargain if it meant the end of the black albatross. But our rulers will never let us off the hook. Many of them probably know that reparations would do little to achieve “equity” in the long term. A decade after any payout was squandered on luxuries, the status of many blacks could well revert to pre-reparation levels. (Dave Chappelle, in a skit he would no doubt regret our citing, predicted that years ago.) We should note that despite many millions in donations after George Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter is already almost bankrupt.
Instead of handing out cash, it’s more likely that whites will groan under yet another level of black nonprofit and government workers, managers, administrators, who will distribute grants and preach “equity.” The fact that equity never arrives is not a weakness, but a strength. It invites further investigations into inequality, more white guilt, more wealth redistribution, and more programs. While white Americans could move out of California (hundreds of thousands already have), there can be little doubt the demand for reparations will spread to other states.
Reparations will be a race-based redistribution of wealth. One can’t get around this. Whether it is defended because of slavery or with murkier claims about the “lived experiences” of blacks, it takes for granted problems that blacks and only blacks supposedly experience. Every other group will be liable for payments, unless they can opt out by making their own claims of oppression. Dishonest people who claim to be black will be rewarded. The biological reality of race will be obvious, because there’s no other way to implement a racial program. Much as the Cherokees expelled blacks from their tribe, blacks will patrol the ranks of those eligible for reparations. The fewer the recipients the more there will be for “truly deserving.” While reparations advocates may talk about reconciliation or unity, handouts will mean more racial tension, even among non-whites.
Whites must not retreat into colorblind claims about the common good, the budget, or history. They must meet political force with political force and moral determination. They must challenge the claim that whites owe anything. There’s a stronger argument that blacks themselves are the debtors. Consider the claim that blacks are worse off because of slavery. The control group would be the blacks still in Africa, who are today vastly worse off than American blacks and who yearn to come to America themselves. Some might protest that blacks are behind whites economically, yet Asian-Americans are ahead of whites, and at least in California, they might have a greater claim than blacks to government discrimination.
Blacks are not suffering from systemic violence, except at their own hands. In fact, whites are disproportionately victims of black-on-white violence compared with white-on-black violence. Trillions of dollars have been spent to lift blacks out of poverty since the Great Society, even if that may have made things worse. Despite the election of the first black president and government obsession with “equity,” most blacks think race relations are getting worse. There’s no reason to think unity — or even good feelings — would result from reparations.
Since the beginning of the so-called civil rights movement, whites have sacrificed their constitutional rights to freedom of association and, increasingly, to freedom of speech. Taxes and government spending are high because of our perceived obligation to take care of blacks. Untold billions of housing stock have been lost because of white flight. All available data suggest whites are net taxpayers while blacks are net burdens, meaning that black America is a burden we carry on our backs every year. The opportunity costs — the destroyed buildings and monuments, the time wasted commuting to work to afford new homes away from blacks, the constant psychological strain of being threatened by a population that contributes little — are beyond calculation.
Never before has a group contributed so little and asked for so much. Yet conservatives make a mistake if they think the absurdity of the demand ensures its defeat. Reparations have become a key political issue. It will force race into the mainstream in the most aggressive, destructive way. Conservatives won’t deal with it. We will. White Americans will have a simple choice: assert a racial identity — or get ready to sign a blank check.