Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 17 June 2023


Reparations Are No More Than a Dream of Privilege

Black Americans tragically turned our focus from rights and laws to identity politics and victimization.

Black demonstrators at McLellans Variety Store in Nashville, Tenn., Feb. 27, 1960. PHOTO: JIMMY ELLIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

If simple logic were the only measure of truth in matters of race, reparations for black Americans would make perfect sense. We have endured four centuries of an especially mean and degrading persecution. Slavery, and the regime of segregation that followed it, was dawn-to-dusk, cradle-to-grave oppression. The only argument against reparations would be that no contemporary offer of reparation could ever be sufficient compensation.

But since the 1960s, we blacks have been all but overwhelmed with social programs and policies that seek to reparate us. Didn’t the 1964 Civil Rights Act launch an era of reparation in America?

And didn’t that era continue with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty, two sweeping excursions into social engineering that he hoped would “end poverty in our time”? Then there was school busing for integration, free public housing, racial preferences in college admissions, affirmative action in employment, increasingly generous welfare payments and so on.

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More recently, in American institutions of every kind, there has emerged a new woke language of big-hat-no-cattle words like “equity,” “inclusion,” “intersectionality,” “triggers,” “affinity spaces,” “allies” and of course the all-purpose “diversity,” today both a mandate and a brand. America has had some 60 years of what might be called reparational social reform—reform meant to uplift not only the poor, but especially those, like black Americans, whose poverty meets the bar of historical grievance.


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Today we can see what we couldn’t in the ’60s: that this vast array of government programs has failed to lift black Americans to anything like parity with whites. By almost every important measure—educational achievement, out-of-wedlock births, homeownership, divorce rates—blacks are on the losing end of racial disparities. The reparational model of reform, in which governments and institutions try to uplift the formerly oppressed, has failed.

But why such immense failure in a post-’60s America that has only grown more repentant of its racist past? The answer, I think, is that the Great Society was profoundly disingenuous. It was a collection of reparational reforms meant to show an America finally delivered from the tarnish of its long indulgence in racism. The Great Society was a gigantic virtue signal. It was moral advertising when the times called for the hard work of adapting a long-oppressed people to the demands of the modern world.

But an even greater barrier to black development turned out to be freedom itself. In the mid-’60s, when the civil-rights movement and Martin Luther King were staples on the evening news, we black Americans stepped into a vastly greater freedom than anything we had ever known. King’s rhetoric—“Great God Almighty, we’re free at last”—portrayed freedom as heaven. But freedom also had to have been scary. Oppression had conditioned us to suppress our humanity, to settle ourselves into a permanent subjugation. Not the best preparation for a full life in freedom.

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I believe it was this collision with freedom—its intimidating burden of responsibility, its terror of the unknown, its risk of humiliation—that pressured black Americans, especially the young, into a terrible mistake.

In segregation we had longed for a freedom grounded in democratic principles. In the ’60s we won that point. But then suddenly, with the ink still wet on the Civil Rights Act, a new voice of protest exploded onto the scene, a voice of race and color and atavistic longing: “black power.”

To accommodate, we shifted the overriding focus of racial protest in America from rights and laws to identity. Today racial preferences are used everywhere in American life. Identity is celebrated almost as profusely as freedom once was.

It all follows a simple formula: Add a history of victimization to the identity of any group, and you will have created entitlement. Today’s black identity is a victim-focused identity designed to entitle blacks in American life. By the terms of this identity, we blacks might be called “citizen-victims” or “citizens with privileges.”

The obvious problem with this is that it baits us into a life of chasing down privileges like affirmative action. In broader America, this only makes us sufferers for want of privileges. Reparation can never be more than a dream of privilege.

Mr. Steele is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country.”

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