There was a time when reparations would have made a lot of sense. The original freedmen – blacks born in slavery, now freed – needed a lot of help, and there’s no doubt that they had been greatly oppressed. “Forty acres and a mule” was a good idea; alas, they got the Freedmen’s Bureau instead, which (like all government programs) frequently did for them less than advertised and other than desired. However raw a deal they got, though, the generations succeeded each other and each struggled to do better than the one before. And as time went on, reparations made less and less sense. In 2019, we need to ask, Why should those who never held slaves now pay reparations to those who never were slaves?
I don’t mean to discount the need to confront ingrained disadvantages. Long after the Normans came to consider themselves English, the original English were still struggling to regain the position they had lost in the conquest. This sort of thing goes on all the time, in all societies, and it can have long-term consequences. But social and economic mobility works in a general way to bring up and cast down, and to say that all African Americans today are the direct victims of slavery is a stretch.
It would be more accurate to say that the poor of today – whites as well as blacks (and others) – are the victims of government “help.” Prior to the massive government assistance programs of the 1960s and 1970s, African Americans had made considerable social and economic progress by all the usual statistical measures: household income; unemployment (particularly youth unemployment); level of education; penetration of careers; housing. Despite the continuance of persistent and sometimes vicious racism, they were approaching parity with whites in many ways. Then we set out to overcome the disabilities they labored under. The result has been stagnant income, increased unemployment, poorer educational attainment, deteriorating public housing, and the disintegration of the black family. Many African Americans prospered and made careers, both public and private; but many, many did not.
Oh, that’s just conservative myth-making, you say, this idea that the unintended consequences of government assistance actually harms the people it sets out to help. But look at the work of Charles Murray and others. After fifty years of massive federal assistance to the poor, we not only still have the poor, but we have mired others in poverty who had previously not been so dragged down. White income, white educational attainment, white family formation all show the same pathologies previously noted for blacks. The drug epidemics (meth, then opioids) have hollowed out much of rural white America. Where once heroin was considered a street drug only used in the big cities, it is now widely used and easily obtainable in small towns all over the Midwest. Today, the essential division in American society isn’t between the white majority and black/brown/red/yellow minorities; it’s between social classes marked by behaviors (like finishing schooling before getting married and getting married before having children), rather than by color or ethnicity.
To note a phrase, “It’s the culture, stupid.” We have damaged our social environment with our well-intended policies, even as we once damaged our natural environment with well-intended policies. We need to pay far more attention to the law of unintended consequences. And as Samuel Alito said, “The way to stop making distinctions based on race is to stop making distinctions based on race.” Reparations is an idea whose time has passed.