March 19, 2001 1:55 p.m.
ome folks have been asking me what I think of David Horowitz's anti-reparations stunt. Well, I think it's a stunt. But perhaps a useful one.
But, as I am writing this from a beautiful desert resort in Southern California I am pressed for time. Filing from the West Coast stinks because you start out three hours late. And filing from here is particularly annoying, because I'd really like to scare the children at the pool by showing them my bloated albino belly before I cannonball into the water with my Bloody Mary in hand.
So, rather than write the predictable column about how David Horowitz has exposed the Charlie-Brown-with-the-football stupidity of campus radicals; rather than scribble the typical "whither free speech?" screed or denounce the notion of collective guilt and intergenerational entitlement, let's do something quick and unexpected.
Let's take the idea seriously.
The reparations "movement" wants the federal government to write some very large checks to every black man, woman, and child in the United States. How big these checks would be varies from proposal to proposal. Some say $100,000 per family of four. Some say $100,000 per individual, and some say, well, who knows? I can only read so much of this stuff while the celery in my drink is wilting.
The point is that no matter what figure people finally settled on, the gross amount would be enormous for a country that has at minimum 36.4 million people who call themselves black or African-American. I say at minimum because the perfectly rational rush to have as many children as possible or to re-identify oneself as black in order to make the deadline would undoubtedly boost the number of "blacks" in this country well upwards of that figure. After all, the number of American Indians in the United States has skyrocketed over the last two decades, and it certainly hasn't been through immigration or their birthrate.
Despite all of this, let's say we come upon a good number everyone can agree on, for a sum total of, say, $3 trillion dollars. That's a whole lot of money. But America can afford it, though not easily. A dollar-per-gallon gas tax could probably cover that over a decade or so and it would make the environmentalists very happy to boot. Or, we could expand the inheritance tax to soak more of those most fortunate. Anyway, let's assume all of this can be worked out.
Is it worth doing? Well, maybe. The whole point of reparations is that they provide closure. Reparations are, in effect, an apology. And if you take the money then you are accepting the apology. If you accept an apology then you must also forgive. And forgiving means forgetting.
And what a wonderful thing forgetting would be. I could be in favor of reparations if it spelled the end of things, not the beginning. No more racial guilt-mongering, no more racial blackmail. The long national nightmare would be over. Programs designed to make up for the past would also be a thing of the past. Affirmative action, quotas, set-asides, all of it would go. We could finally get back to being the forward-looking country we're supposed to be.
And while $3 trillion dollars is a lot to spend, don't think that some of that wouldn't be recouped. As Charles Krauthammer pointed out in his defense of the reparations idea a decade ago, this country spends a lot on racial regulations and loses a lot of time worrying about ephemeral abstractions about race. There is a real cost, both economic and cultural, to the erosion of individualism which the current system engenders.
Moreover, with affirmative action out of the picture, the remainder of the coalition of the oppressed would have a lot harder time arguing that they deserve such programs. After all, virtually every identity-grievance group in the country has borrowed from the black civil-rights model, and without having anything close to the moral authority to do so.
And speaking of morality, critics should be sure that their opposition isn't really just about the money. For some people it must be. Indeed, wouldn't this whole question be a lot easier if the price tag were only $364,000, a mere third of a million dollars? Imagine if those demanding reparations were willing to accept a token and symbolic victory of one penny each accompanied by a heartfelt apology from the federal government and even a day of fasting and prayer from the American people wouldn't it be at least a lot harder to argue against the proposal? Federal bureaucrats lose more loose change than that under the couch cushions every day.
And let's concede the obvious. Slavery was a moral horror. The U.S. government protected the hateful institution in its founding documents and laws for almost a century. There is no disputing the real and lasting damage that the institution caused generations of blacks. Recognizing that fact is not a sign of weakness or ideological compromise.
Of course, there are some mitigating arguments. Most of "white" America which includes many Hispanics does not consist of the descendents of slave owners or even beneficiaries of slavery. The folks from my father's side of the family, for example, didn't arrive in the country until the Civil War and they showed up poor. My mom's family is from Boston. So I don't feel any particular ancestral guilt. Also, much of white America descends from families that gave their sons' lives to defeating slavery. And remember, 14% of Americans today are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. That's a lot of newcomers to blame for something done by old-timers.
On the other side of the ledger, I have zero faith that the racial-spoils industry would ever let go of the only card that ever really worked in its favor. If the reparations movement ever took off, it would only be because it was explicitly stated that this was the end of it. "A check, an apology, and we're done," is the only way to sell the reparations idea to a country exhausted by race talk. But it's precisely that sales pitch that those pushing the idea can never utter. It would put them out of business.
But ultimately, if they were willing to wipe race off the table for all time, then the idea might be something worth paying for. We're paying for it now anyway.