Reparations Will Work (2023 Feb)

by Barry A. Liebling

Reparations for slavery is not new. It has been discussed and advocated by proponents for more than 150 years. There are two distinct and incompatible concepts regarding reparations.

The first concept – which has legitimacy – is based on justice. Any human being who was enslaved has suffered from a terrible crime. The culprit is the person or persons who had slaves. It is appropriate for a former slave owner to make amends to any persons that were kept in bondage. And the amends might take the form of money, property transfers, or prizes. Note well that justice focuses on individuals who were enslaved and individuals who were perpetrators.

The second concept is spawned by “social justice” enthusiasts. Individual actions are discounted to the trivial in this collectivist view. It is groups that are important. In the United States until the middle of the nineteenth century black slaves were owned mostly by whites. Therefore, (according to social justice warriors) white people in general owe black people in general reparations. There is no statute of limitations when it comes to groups. It does not matter what you do, it is what (according to “social justice” experts) your distant ancestors are alleged to have done. Reparations for group misdeeds can take the form of money, or property, or special favors.

Social justice reparations have been pushed by leftist government officials and leftist “thought leaders” for a long time. But only in recent years – largely due to the cultural dominance of the woke elite – has the folly picked up a lot of steam. Members of the federal government have made several reparations proposals. At the state government level California has been a leader in this caper and produced the beginning of a concrete plan. And non-government agencies – including left progressive religious institutions – are pushing for actions that they regard as “reparations.” And

Of course there are many people who recognize that social justice reparations is wrong-headed and is the antithesis of genuine justice. The most common, and correct, criticism is that there are no individuals in the United States today who were either slaves or slave owners. It is patently unfair to blame people for something that was done by others (who share an ethnic identity) for crimes that occurred long ago. But the critics are arguing to an audience (the woke elite) that is in no mood to listen. Recall that to the Neo-Marxist vanguard individuals do not count. It is groups (people of color – the oppressed) that must be compensated and groups (white people, “white culture” – the oppressors) that must pay and be punished.

Another popular objection relates to the practicality of instituting reparations. Some critics have pointed out that any realistic program would cost a huge amount of money – more than any government agency or private entity could afford to pay. These budget-oriented adversaries of reparations are making a critical error and giving the game away. By zooming in on the cost they are surrendering to the woke horde. If a group-oriented reparations scheme were less expensive would it then be acceptable? Pay attention to the implications of what you say. Price is not an essential issue.

If group reparations programs are implemented – whether on a large nation-wide scale or restricted to a smaller community – they are likely to work exactly as the architects of the mischievous schemes intended.

Consider what messages it would be sending.

There is nothing new about the noxious fallacy that groups are what counts and individuals are – at most – of secondary importance. That is the cornerstone of all flavors of collectivism which includes the modern versions of Neo-Marxism. But carrying out an official government sponsored action gives collectivism a malignant boost. Some people will be convinced (further convinced) that it is correct to label people as either oppressors or oppressed depending on their (involuntarily assigned) group membership.

Group reparations will markedly increase antipathy among citizens. For a very long time black people have been told that they are oppressed by racist white people (and more recently by “white culture”). To the extent that this charge is believed, reparations will supercharge the feelings of resentment and ill will. Any reparations programs sponsored or sanctioned by the government will send the message that the state regards the “oppressors” as guilty and they should be made to pay suffer for the crimes of their ancestors and for being unconscious perpetrators of “systemic racism.”

Most deals are a compromise – something in-between what is “really wanted” and what can be obtained from the bargaining process. Many will believe that whatever the prizes are that recipients of reparations receive, the recipients are actually owed even more. Those who obtain benefits from reparations will be encouraged to think of these benefits as a down-payment. Rather than healing the wounds of intergroup resentment, reparations will magnify any bad feelings “oppressed” Americans have for their “oppressors.” That is, by design, the opposite of encouraging people to get along with one another.

There is a sizable segment of white Americans who have embraced the woke culture and are conducting their lives inspired by critical race theory dogma. They go about condemning anything they do not like as “white supremacy” and “systemic racism.” Their major theme is that “white is bad,” and they loathe anything that fits that description (especially themselves). If official reparations programs go into effect these self-hating citizens will be energized to turn up the volume of their baleful behavior. This is precisely what the designers of reparations programs are aiming to accomplish.

All is not lost. Human beings have free will and the potential to think accurately. Both black and white Americans can evaluate reparations proposals as anti-human and perniciously toxic. They can discern and then explain to others that Enlightenment-inspired individualism is the antidote to collectivism. Good people have a lot of work to do.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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