Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 8 of 9)

Reparations

To my mind, the inheritance of slavery, segregation, and other forms of discrimination against African-Americans means that something is owed to the descendants of slaves irrespective of the current reality or existence of “systemic racism.” All emotions carefully kept aside, refusing to subscribe to present-day irrationality, I am persuaded that if I looked into the matter, I would find a material debt. I mean that once you have accounted for the real costs of maintaining slaves and deducting that amount from what free labor would have cost to perform the same tasks at the same level, I would find a certain quantity of unpaid wages. As a conservative, I believe that unpaid wages should be paid, and paid with interest. A very good book published in the seventies pretty much did the work I describe in commendable detail: Robert Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman: Time on the Cross.

Specialized economists and actuarians – whose job it is – could arrive at a rough but good approximation of the amount owed to descendants of slaves because of unpaid wages. The approximation would, of course, take into account some reasonable rate of growth for the debt and the likelihood that some of the slaves and some of their descendants would have simply lost or wasted early some of their unpaid wages had they been paid in good time. Computing the amount due would be a complex task and subject to disputation but doable and healthy on the whole as a collective memory aid. It would be about a reasonably objective reality. Again, I think that not paying one’s debt will trouble one’s conscience, and in the end, cloud one’s judgment.

Such a limited program of reparations would be more easily accepted by conservatives if it were seen as an overall and final settlement of this well defined debt – the debt concerning unpaid wages only – and as the beginning of the phasing out of government imposed affirmative action programs. The form this compensation should take could be open for discussion. Obvious collective forms such as massive subsidies to African American education come to mind. Yet, the possibility of individual grants to all who could prove slave ancestry should not be summarily eliminated from consideration. (I intuit that collective reparations would not make many individual descendants of slaves feel whole.) There have actually been recent conversations among conservatives about the topic of compensation. Walter Russel Mead’s “The Work of Atonement,” a critique of book From Here to Equality by William A. Darity and A. Kristen Mullen, in WSJ 6/18/20, is a good place to start thinking about the issue that is free of hysteria.

Note that I am not proposing anything resembling compensation for pain and suffering, or punitive damages – another discussion, a problematic one, one posing vastly different issues on which honest people can differ – but just the settlement of a tangible conventional business debt, something again, fairly objective and naturally limited.

Ethical Issues about Limited Compensation

Any reparation proposal will raise what looks like other ethical issues. Why should I, for example, be taxed to compensate victims of old American racist policies since my ancestors where digging potatoes in eastern France when all the abuse took place? Why should the vast majority of northerners, of descendants of northerners and of post Civil War immigrants be held accountable for the failure of others to pay wages? The answer is that by living in the US (especially, by choice, in my case and that of other immigrants, and of their children, etc.), we benefit from the existence of the same polity that did quite a bit to shore up and support the first abuse – slavery – before it finally acted decisively to end it. It’s the same polity that later contemplated with equanimity and passively supported the unequal treatment of the freed slaves and of their descendants on some of its territory. I refer to the United States of America, the federal entity of course.

All this being said, the passive economic heritage of slavery does not logically exclude current racial discrimination, with its own disastrous consequences, separate from the economic inheritance of slavery and segregation. On the contrary, it would make sense to argue, negative discrimination tends to be a bad habit if it’s not forcefully interrupted: We discriminate against Peter today because we did so against his father Paul yesterday. Yet, it’s important to distinguish between the consequences of (possible) current discrimination and the rather certain collective fallout of past ill treatment.

Two reasons to try to keep this distinction: First, if we don’t, we risk assuming that the ill treatment continues even if it ceased long ago. This places us, collectively in an impossible situation: How to stop something that does not exist? It will cause its own bitterness. It will lead to twisted pseudo-remedies. It will prompt those who think themselves as victims of the putative current ill-treatment to fight against the wrong forces and to commit trespasses of their own in the process. Second, the remedies for the results of past bad treatment – including the slave trade, American slavery, racial segregation, official racial discrimination – those remedies are different from the kinds of redress that would apply to currently oppressive behavior: “Fix it” and “Stop it” imply different strategies.

Of course, reparations will not stop police from thinking of African American citizens as prone to breaking the law or as especially dangerous. Reparations would thus not restrain the police from stopping blacks and thus killing them, disproportionately. Reparations for lost wages would, I think, help the white majority to think more clearly about racial issues in general. Indirectly, this would help devise more rational policies regarding perceived racial injustice. Reparations would go a long way toward undermining the dogma of systemic racism. It would boost the influence of those African American leaders who prefer accommodation to intransigence.

How about Personal Experience?

While I try to rely on numbers, no part of this essay is meant to disparage the relevance of all personal experience nor even of all subjectivity. As we know from novels, subjectivity both acts as a blinder and it opens eyes. Yet, much of it is useless and worse.

An old friend of mine is on record on Facebook asserting that the Floyd killing was obviously racially motivated because the killer was white and the victim black. A logical implication of this view is that if a white policeman killed a black criminal about to behead a black child, the shooting would be a racial crime. My friend earned his doctorate from the same program, in the same university as I did, also in sociology, at about the same time. He has a respectable academic career behind him. He is African American.

When the still respected and still-staid WSJ decides to do its bit and contributes personal experience stories form black executives, it does it in the soft part of its weekend edition, of course. It turns into a maudlin fiasco, I think. (“Black executives Break Their Silence” by Khadeeja Safdar and Keach Hagey, Weekend edition, 6/27-28/2020.) Two executives interviewed by WSJ have to wander off to China and to apartheid South Africa to come up with something worth re-telling. One goes straight to fiction, I believe, and he recycles an urban story about being stopped and terrified by a mean racist cop as a young teenager. Several fall back to the common narratives of being followed and humiliated by store personnel who suspect them of trying to shoplift. Everyone, including the interviewers, is too polite to ask why black customers may be singled out in that specific manner. No one thinks either of wondering what other category – not based on race – store personnel single out for special attention on similar grounds. (I am thinking of little old white ladies carrying large purses.)

The habitual silly brandishing of numbers underscores the absence of ordinary criticality presiding over the WSJ subjectivist story. “Only 3.2% of senior executive positions are held by black people.” How in the world is this calculated? If it’s true, what does it mean? What is it proof of? Repeating myself: About 60% of players in the NBA, that millionaires factory, are African American, which demonstrates what? And I would bet that African Americans are over-represented in federal government employment, which also would show what (except the effectiveness of government affirmative action programs)?

Personal experience wrapped in story telling talent may be important nevertheless, some of the time. I am fairly sure reading Richard Wright, James Baldwin a long time ago, and Toni Morrison more recently, opened my mind without persuading me of anything. Perhaps, reading good fiction by black authors taught me to look. That’s not nothing. On 6/20/20 I heard the talented young writer Aezi Dungee speak of her experience as a black actress playing a slave at Mount Vernon during the summers. (“Moth Radio Hour” on PBS). It caused me to feel her pain and her rage infinitely more than any objective figures ever would, it’s true. Yet, her rage is her rage. I am not ethically bound to espouse it. The best I can do is act according to principles that we share. Many of those are clearly established in the founding documents of this great nation. Other relevant principles I derive directly from a classical conservative stance. Ms Dungee is entitled to justice for now and to reparation for harm done long ago and that still trammels her life today. I cannot do more without betraying justice itself and undermining the foundations of both of our lives, of my present liberty and of hers.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 7 here, or read the whole thing here.]