Moments after I filed my column last week on a conservative case for reparations to descendants of slavery in America, the White House spokeswoman reiterated President Biden’s support for a study of the idea. That same day, the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing on the issue.
The debate over reparations is a live one, so it’s worth also taking some time to consider the arguments against such payments. At the hearing, those arguments were made by two witnesses, former pro football player Herschel Walker and author and radio host Laurence Elder.
Mr. Walker said payments would be impractical, unjust, and divisive. Some Americans of all races are recent immigrants or descendants of those whose “ancestors weren’t even here during slavery,” his written testimony pointed out.
Said Mr. Walker, “We cannot try to use Black Power to create white guilt on our brothers. Not one, single Black American alive today, can say they lived in slavery, nor any white American I know or heard of alive today has owned slaves.”
Mr. Walker said reparation payments might discourage Black Americans from working hard or educating themselves. He related the issue to his experience on a football team.
“If the black players were given something different than the other players, that would have created problems within the team,” Mr. Walker said. He said taking “from a non-guilty party” would “only create division with the different races” and send the message “we are African American rather than just an American.”
Mr. Elder also focused on the injustice of extracting payments from modern-day Americans. “Reparations is the extraction of money from people who were never slave owners to be given to people who were never slaves,” Mr. Elder said in his written testimony.
Mr. Elder said guilt would be difficult to apportion. “There is the issue of who pays. Do African countries owe reparations to black Americans? After all, Harvard's director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Henry Louis Gates,wrote that 90% of those enslaved and shipped to the New World were sold by Africans to European slavers.”
Mr. Elder offered some high-profile examples of how hard it would be to determine who deserved a payment or who owed one. “On former President Barack Obama's maternal side, there were slave owners. Obama's father came from Kenya, a slave-trading area. Does Obama get a check or does he cut a check?” Mr. Elder asked. “Similarly, Kamala Harris's Jamaican father has acknowledged slave owners in his family. Does Harris, whose mother is from India, get a check or cut a check?”
Most provocatively, Mr. Elder implied that the real damage done to Black Americans was not from 19th-century slavery but from societal changes in 20th-century America.
“Why has the rate of out-of-wedlock births in the black community nearly tripled from 1965 until now, when America is clearly less racist now than 56 years ago? Even during slavery a black child was more likely to live under a roof with his or her biological mother and biological father than today,” Elder testified. “This makes linking today's problems to slavery and Jim Crow all the more difficult. In 1965, 24% of black children were born outside of wedlock. In 2018 — the latest year available — that number was 69%.”
Jason Riley expanded on this theme in his 2014 book “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder For Blacks To Succeed.” Wrote Mr. Riley: “Efforts to help blacks have had more pernicious and lasting effects on black attitudes and habits than either slavery or segregation. Social welfare programs that were initiated or greatly expanded during the 1960s resulted in the government effectively displacing black fathers as breadwinners, and made work less attractive.”
Moving the victim focus a century forward, though, is also somewhat beside the point. Writes Mr. Riley, “Liberalism has also succeeded, tragically, in convincing blacks to see themselves first and foremost as victims. Today there is no greater impediment to black advancement than the self-pitying mindset that permeates black culture.”
The biggest risk of reparations, whether to compensate for slavery or for more recent policy, is the danger that the payments would reinforce victimhood rather than repair it.