The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, by Randall Robinson, Dutton, 2000. 262 pp.; $23.95
The great virtue of a book like The Debt, by black “activist” Randall Robinson, is that you don’t have to read it to know what it says. You can be sure it will blame all black problems on whites, living or long dead, and demand unlimited reparations. In addition—despite Ivy League credentials the author brags of—the writing will be wretched: disorganized, prolix, shot through with garbled metaphors and big words wrongly used. Indeed, The Debt is a sadly representative sample of the thought processes of the black intellectual elite.
Robinson starts with the obvious: “African Americans lag the American mainstream in virtually every area of statistical measure.” The reason for this, of course, is “American slavery and the vicious climate that followed it.” And because of “the staggering breadth of America’s crime against us . . . a fortune is owed.”
Robinson particularly emphasizes “the cost of [an] obstructed view of ourselves.” “We hate ourselves. [W]e don’t know what has happened to us and no one will tell us. Thus we have concluded that the fault must be ours.” Ignorance of their glorious African ancestors holds back black children: “[A]chievement gaps cannot be fully closed until Americans—all Americans—are repaired in their views of Africa’s role in history . . . blacks need to know the land of their forebears when its civilizations were verifiably equal to any in the world”—as if American children were not already overburdened with exaggerations and lies about black achievement.
Mr. Robinson’s main argument for reparations is therefore psychological. As he explains, reparations would tell blacks: “You are owed. You were caused to endure terrible things. The fault is not yours. There is nothing wrong with you.” Reparations will “heal our psyches.” Not that Mr. Robinson would turn his back on tangible compensation. He admits, as if conceding nothing: “Oh, we often like its [America’s] wealth, its abundance of commodities, its markets of endless stuff,” and insists that blacks be made whole economically. Although he coyly declines to name a sum, he asks whites to fork over the riches unjustly extracted from black labor, not only from slavery but sharecropping and capitalism itself, which “starts each child where its parents left off.” He claims that the mean net worth of college-educated whites exceeds that of college-educated blacks by $50,000, and puts the difference for blue-collar blacks and whites at $12,000. He also claims discrimination in mortgage lending costs each generation of blacks $93 billion in lost equity (The Debt has a few pages of “sources” but no footnotes, so there is no telling where these figures come from).
Because he insists that “achievement differences that correlate with race must never be tolerated,” it would cost trillions of dollars to close the gaps he complains about. On top of that, Robinson wants special (white) taxpayer-funded schools for black children and free college tuition for all poor blacks “for at least two generations.” Finally, America “must dramatically reconfigure its symbolized picture of itself, to itself. Its national parks, museums, monuments, statues, artworks must be recast in a way to include . . . African Americans.” The US must also cancel all debts to African countries and offer “significant monetary compensation” for having stolen “tens of millions” of their young men.
When will white liability end? Never. “Social rights, wrongs, obligations, and responsibilities flow eternal.” And what will happen if whites don’t come across? “Those others, who fifty years from now will form the majority of America’s citizens, will be inspired to punish them for it.”
As in many similar tirades, a striking feature of The Debt is Holocaust envy. Robinson is bursting with resentment that Germany compensated Jews for a mere twelve years of suffering, while blacks endured 246 years (sometimes he says 234 years) of slavery without a penny to show for it. And Jews got to keep their culture, while blacks “had never been allowed to glimpse the complex whole of the ancient self.” Lucky, lucky Jews. He apes Jewish grievances so far as to demand the return of “Africa’s looted art treasures”—an irony, given the huge but so far unsuccessful effort by American cultural institutions to interest whites in African art.
The weaknesses of Mr. Robinson’s case are obvious. Even if whites had caused black failure, they are already paying restitution in the form of racial preferences. For 35 years blacks have gotten jobs, scholarships and college admissions they did not deserve, but Mr. Robinson hurries past affirmative action in a few sentences and then pretends it does not exist. Nor does he acknowledge the enormous transfer of resources from whites to blacks through welfare and public education—nor the white wealth destroyed by black crime. A proper balancing of the books would have blacks owing whites.
In any case, blacks do poorly economically and academically because of their impulsiveness, low IQ and high illegitimacy rates, traits almost certainly due to genetic factors, not white misdeeds. At one point Mr. Robinson himself has a glimpse of this hard truth. Recounting a trip to Cuba—he greatly admires Fidel Castro—he notes: “White Cubans still appear very much to have the better of things. They dominate political power. They are generally better off economically.” Robinson explains the persistence of inequality despite 40 years of totalitarian efforts to end it as “a bequest of the Moors,” whatever that may mean. A simpler answer is that not even dictators can suppress nature.
Mr. Robinson’s nervy demands should not goad us to the other extreme of absolving whites completely. Slavery was wrong, and while blacks may have fared better as slaves in America than as slaves in Africa, a wrong that accidentally helps its victim is still a wrong. Slave owners did owe something. Still, slavery was legal in its day, and compensation could only have been extracted by unjust, ex post facto laws. Moreover, there was slavery in Africa long before it came to America, and virtually every black who crossed the Atlantic was captured and sold to whites by fellow blacks. Why not send their descendants a bill, too? However unjust slavery may have been, it ended a century and a half ago and has no current significance. It is time to bury the past.
It is worth emphasizing the full awfulness of Mr. Robinson’s writing. On poverty: “We are virtually numb now to our global position of economic bottomness. In the refuge of our subculture, we have disguised enfeebled self-images in the escapist behaviors of people who would angrily deny the massive loss of self-confidence.” On politics: “The intramural tango of bitsy Democratic palliatives and itsy-bitsy Republican palliatives does little more than divert attention and siphon energy as a recondite rot steals up inexorably from the underside, narrowing our practical freedoms and troubling our tenuous contentment. A tangle of nameless, nebulous thoughts clamor for description, while I struggle even to hear myself think in the face of the public career types with their heads vised in a thoroughly disproved orthodoxy, their voices claiming variety but in fact chiming in a tedium of pointless concern, their eyes all blinkered, and their feet long set upon the easy path.”
There are a few excellent black writers, but jumbles like this are all too typical of black intellectuals. What sort of disordered mind produces them? More urgently, how can whites—accustomed to language that communicates rather than wears down—deal with such minds? At the very least, whites must recognize that they face something fundamentally alien.