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Reparations Should Be About Forward Looking Reforms

Reparations Should Be About Forward Looking Reforms

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. spoke to reporters on Capitol Hill recently about U.S. race relations. Lankford suggests racial tension would improve by intentionally spending time with each other in our homes. Lankford has suggested an idea called "Solution Sundays" – an initiative encouraging Members of Congress and Americans to build relationships through sharing meals. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

By Tuesday, 29 August 2017 04:52 PM Current | Bio | Archive

In "The Case For Reparations" Ta-Nihisi Coates documented outrages inflicted on black Americans — slavery, Jim Crow "law," "separate but equal," denial of the franchise, lynching, segregation, economic exploitation. His article reminds us that America's vaunted exceptionalism has sometimes been exceptionally inhumane.

Coates maintains that America owes black people reparations for these injuries, and he seems to have cash reparations in mind. But focusing on politically and administratively impossible reparations diverts attention from feasible reforms that could be especially helpful for blacks.

The law of torts, at least by analogy, seems to support Mr. Coates. If injured by a wrongful action, say careless driving or medical malpractice, we can sue the offender demanding compensation.

Enslaving people was obviously wrongful action. However tort law distinguishes between compensating for recent injuries and for those taking place long ago. Statutes of limitations — for good reasons which also apply in this case — require lawsuits to be filed within a limited time after injury takes place.

The most fundamental injuries here occurred when the ancestors of most blacks were kidnapped, hauled across the Atlantic in appalling conditions, and enslaved. Serious injuries continued after the Civil War and only began to taper off since the middle of the 20th century.

The elapse of time complicates the case for reparations. People directly injured by slave traders and owners died generations ago. Their descendants to varying degrees suffer continuing consequences of the injuries to their ancestors. But at the same time, the very existence of today's blacks was made possible by the horrible things done to their grandfathers and grandmothers.

Every living person results from interactions by the individuals from whom they descend.

Black Americans' ancestors came from different parts of Africa. Had they remained in Africa, they would not have met each other and not produced the children from whom today's individual blacks ultimately descended. Were it not for the slave traders, their current descendants would not be living happily in Africa. They would not be living anywhere.

Black Americans could not humanly be grateful for these immoral activities. But most are probably as thankful to be alive as I am. Although I feel no gratitude to them, I would not be here if French Catholics had not killed enough Huguenots to frighten my Protestant ancestors into moving to Holland, where they met my Dutch, Spanish, and other ancestors.

An effective civil rights strategy has been to refresh our collective memories of the awful things done to blacks in our nation's past. Mr. Coates' article is an outstanding example of this. But a backwards looking strategy may be counterproductive if pushed too far.

Looking backward is an awkward posture for people trying to move forward and may distract us from current opportunities.

It is as if there is a statute of historical limitations in unwritten natural law which tells us: beyond a certain point, past evils cannot be remedied. But currently existing evils are a completely different matter. Reforms addressing these evils could be more helpful to blacks than any conceivable reparations. For example, the U.S. could:

  • Guarantee that no one — including people currently in prison — will be deprived of the right to vote and that voter registration is straightforward, economical, and easy for everyone.
  • Instead of complaining that unemployment is unfairly distributed, enact policies guaranteeing that anyone willing to work would find full time employment at the current minimum wage. This would not directly address income inequality, but it is impossible for anyone to move up the economic ladder if they cannot get on it in the first place.
  • Rather than trying to explain away why many minority children are relegated to inferior schools, work to ensure that all schools, public and private, are of high quality.

Instead of haggling about who gets how much compensation for the continuing consequences of injuries suffered by the ancestors of blacks, and about who must pay and how much, we should concentrate on general reforms that will be good for everyone but particularly helpful to disadvantaged people of all races.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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PaulFdeLespinasse
Instead of haggling about who gets how much compensation for the continuing consequences of injuries suffered by ancestors, and about who must pay and how much, we should focus on reforms that will be good for all, but particularly helpful to disadvantaged people of all races.
african americans, catholics, french
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2017-52-29
Tuesday, 29 August 2017 04:52 PM
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