“Nobody’s asking for reparations. I’m asking you to give us the crumbs from the table,” said Craig Washington, one of five black Congressmen from the South, on the floor of the House. What crumbs? More and stronger affirmative action as mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1990.
George Bush, an aristocrat who hates to deny crumbs to anyone, vetoed the bill anyway, on the ground that it encouraged racial quotas. But the bill was more than just bad legislation. It was a sign of intellectual bankruptcy in our thinking about race. As race relations worsen, as ethnic divisions harden, as an ex-Nazi pulls nearly as many votes in Louisiana as did the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate, the country has run out of ideas.
Take the Civil Rights Act of 1990. It makes it easier for minorities to sue the boss if the employee roster does not meet some statistical measure of racial balance. A nightmare for employers, a bonanza for lawyers, a crumb for blacks. How many, after all, would be helped by such legislation, and at what cost?
There is no denying that affirmative action has started some blacks on the ladder of advancement and thus helped create a black middle class.
There is equally no denying that because it violates the rights of some people purely on the grounds of race, it has exacerbated racial resentments.
But as Shelby Steele argues, preferential treatment for blacks has an even more pernicious cost: it creates corrosive doubt in the eyes of both whites and blacks about the worth of the black achievement. However much people may deny it, no one can see a black professor or doctor without having the thought run through his mind: Did he make it on his own or did he get through on a quota? These doubts gratuitously reinforce in both blacks and whites a presumption of racial inferiority.
Moreover, the idea that affirmative action isjust a temporary remedy is a fraud. With every new civil rights act, like the one just attempted and soon to be reintroduced in the 102nd Congress, ethnic quotas and race consciousness become more deeply woven into American life. The current uproar over race-based college scholarships reminds us just how divisive the issue can be.
What is to be done? Representative Washington has it exactly backward. Forget the crumbs; demand reparations. It is time for a historic compromise: a monetary reparation to blacks for centuries of oppression in return for the total abolition of all programs of racial preference, A one-time cash payment in return for a new era of irrevocable color blindness.
Why reparations: First, because they are targeted precisely at those who deserve them. By now affirmative action has grown to include preferential treatment for Hispanics, women, the handicapped and an ever-expanding list of favored groups. This is absurd. By what moral standard should, say, a Marielito, already once rescued by America, enjoy a preference over, say, an Italian-American vet or an Irish cop? A Richmond ordinance struck down two years ago by the Supreme Court assigned 30% of city subcontracts to firms owned by minorities, defined as “Blacks, Spanish-speaking [citizens], Orientals, Indians, Eskimos or Aleuts.” Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, is not known for its mistreatment of Eskimos, Yet under the law, Richmond would have had to prefer an Alaskan Eskimo to a local white in city contracting.
Let us be plain. Richmond’s sin — America’s sin — was against blacks. There is no wrong in American history to compare with slavery. Affirmative action distorts the issue by favoring equally all “disadvantaged groups.” Some of those groups are disadvantaged, some not. Black America is the only one that for generations was officially singled out for discrimination and worse. Why blur the issue?
Reparations focus the issue most sharply. They acknowledge the crime. They attempt restitution. They seek to repay some of “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.” They offer the wronged some tangible means to elevate their condition.
For that very real purpose, reparations should be more than merely symbolic. Say, $100,000 for every family of four. That would cost the country a lot — about 50% more than the cost of our S&L sins — but hardly, for a $6 trillion economy, a bankrupting sum. (A 10-year 75cent gas tax, for example would pay the whole bill.) Recession may not be the best time to start such a transfer, but America will come out of recession.
The savings to the country will be substantial: an end to endless litigations, to the inefficiencies of allocation by group (rather than merit), to the distortion of theAmerican principle of individualism, to the resentments aroused by a system of group preferences. The fact is, we already have a system of racial compensation. It is called affirmative action. That system is not only inherently unjust but socially demoralizing and inexcusably clumsy. Far better an honest focused substitute: real, hard, one-time compensation.
But is not cash-for-suffering demeaning? Perhaps. But we have found no better way to compensate for great crimes. Germans know that the millions they have dispersed to Holocaust survivors cannot begin to compensate for the murder of an entire civilization. Yet for irremediable national crimes, reparations are as dignified a form of redress as one can devise.
Racial preferences, on the other hand, are a demeaning form of racial tutelage. Better the dignity of a debt repaid, however impersonally, than the warm glow of condescension that permeates affirmative action.
It is time to reclaim the notion of color blindness before it is too late, A one-time reparation to blacks would help real people in a real way. It would honor our obligation to right ancient wrongs, And it would allow us all a new start. America could then rededicate itself to Martin Luther King Jr.’s proposition that Americans be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.
Copyright 1990 Time Inc. Reprinted by permission.
Prepared by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 © by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Thursday, April 24, 2003