Editor’s note: This column was submitted to The Observer days before the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action Friday.
Race relations in this country have never been a sea of calm. For a century after the Civil War white supremacy was enforced by law and by an ugly process of beatings, cross-burnings, and murders, all done with the aim of keeping “the Negroes” in their place at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. As a result, well into the 1960s African-Americans, especially in the South, were largely poor, relatively uneducated, and completely dependent on white employers for a living. Few expected that to change in their lifetime.
But it did change. A majority of Americans long ago recognized the ill effects of history on the African-American community. As far back as the 1960s the federal government initiated a number of programs that, while not obviously race specific, were largely motivated by the desire to help African-Americans rise from poverty.
Those programs were clearly reparative, i.e. done to help African-Americans overcome the racist policies and practices of the past and to prevent similar practices in the future. Examples of those programs include those mandated by the Social Security Amendments of 1962 and 1965, the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. Other policies and practices have been added over time, all of them largely motivated by the desire to continue improving the lives of those affected by racist practices and prejudice. The total cost of those programs over the last seventy years has been estimated to be in the trillions of dollars, the equivalent of well-over 100 Marshall Plans.
In recent years, it has become popular in some circles to speak of “reparations” to African Americans as if the idea was new. It is not. What is new is that the reparative action activists wish for today is in the form of direct cash and other payments to present-day African-Americans for the slavery once imposed on their ancestors. According to an NAACP “Resolution on Reparations,” reparations involve, among other things, financial payments, land grants, and unique social services to every descendant of those who were once African-American slaves. Neither the mechanism nor the limits of those payments are estimated in the document.
Most of the reparative programs established for African-Americans since the 1960s are understandable. Direct payments are not. What would such “reparations” to be for? Proponents say they would be for the enslavement of ancestors; but through what court of justice can one extract payment from the blameless living for ills done by the guilty dead? Proponents also say the payments would be for the social and economic damage done by the Jim Crow policies of more recent history; but this ignores the trillions of dollars in support programs and opportunities that have already been paid. What will direct cash payment achieve that those programs have not?
How will a temporary infusion of cash in private pockets cure the tsunami of crime and violence washing over black neighborhoods, the absence of fathers in single-parent families, or a street culture that stigmatizes educational success as “acting white”? Such criticism doesn’t even address how one is supposed to decide who is African-American enough to get a payment. How black is black enough? Who decides what proof is required to claim slave ancestry? Do the rich and poor get the same payment? The direct-payment idea presents a quagmire of questions and troubles.
American society, writ large, has taken major reparative actions to help African-Americans rise from the slavery that bound their ancestors and to combat the effects of persistent racism. There have been many good ideas of how to help the damaged reach fair and equal opportunity. Direct reparation payments is not among them.
Terry T. Turner, a Colquitt Countian, is professor emeritus of urology at the University of Virginia and author of several books under the pen name David Donovan, including “Once a Warrior King” about his service in Vietnam.