It was obvious to me one year ago that the pandemic would yield a time of extraordinary social tumult. Indeed, just over one year ago, I wrote in these pages about the general strike theory of the pandemic, how the viral contagion would be turned into an occasion to try to recast the social order. See, https://www.pattisblog.com/blog/coronavirus/the-general-strike-theory-of-the-pandemic-blame-john-rawls/.
After the death of George Floyd, the general strike became a matter of race. Almost instantaneously, a tragic but sadly routine police killing pitting a man incapable of following simple instructions against police officers trained to use lethal force in the face of ambiguous signals became a call for “racial reckoning.” It was a breathtaking leap of logic than only the credulous embraced, but, oh, how they embraced it.
I assumed it would be but a short step to calls for racial reparations.
Friends thought I was over-reacting. Then the calls for reparations began to mount among corporations, state and local governments. We’re close to the creation of a national commission to study what would be involved.
The rhetoric of reparations needs to be taken seriously, lest we be seduced into endorsing race-based taxation, an idea so anathema that it poses an existential threat to a republic committed to equal treatment before the law.
So I read, with great care and over several weeks, the impressive argument launched for reparations by William A. Darrity, Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullens, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, a work published in 2020. I recommend you read it, too.
Darrity is a professor of economics and African-American studies at Duke. Mullins is an activitist and public intellectual. Their thesis is simple and expressed boldly: reparations are as necessary today as they were in the 1860s. They are necessary as a means of providing accountability, recognition and closure to the African-Americans living in the United States today. From Here to Equality is their brief in support of reparations.
The nation had choices, they argue, at critical moments. At the founding in 1776, we could have lived up to the meaning of the Declaration and regarded all men (and women) as equal. Instead, the Constitution we created upon winning our independence made a compromise with evil, declaring African-Americans to be three-fifths of a person for census purposes, and keeping them in the bondage of slavery.
After the Civil War, we could have empowered and made possible full citizenship for newly freed slaves. The nation could have honored the promise of a field general in confederate territory and given the newly freedmen and their families forty acres and a mule. Instead, another compromise, as reconstruction yielded to black codes and Jim Crow.
Into the twentieth century patterns of discrimination and social subjection kept people of color down, depriving them of the ability to generate intergenerational wealth, and thereby a foothold in the economy. Even the civil rights movement and legislation of the 1960s failed to achieve equity. Black net worth remains a fraction of that of white Americans.
Darrity and Mullins are at their best in the lengthy middle section of the book recounting the South’s transformation in the post-Civil War era to a time of racial retrenchment. Blacks were given the vote, but too often were killed, terrorized or intimidated into silence if they dared exercise those rights. It is a a grim and scholarly indictment of an era and a promise broken.
But as with so many efforts to compress a long history into a simple narrative lens, the focus fails when the authors approach our time. They are capable of compressing into a single paragraph events from the Civil War era, Jim Crow and the over-heated claims of the summer of 2020. This is less history than the desperate appeal of an advocate in a losing case: throw everything you have against the wall, and hope something sticks.
But Darrity and Mullins are not lonely voices calling in the wilderness. The extensive footnotes in this work reflect that the movement for reparations is backed by decades of solid scholarship. The whiff of entitlement you detect in this book is but the first ripple of a tsunami. Brace yourself, I say, for a bitter debate to come, and soon.
In the end, the book devolves into simple cynicism. Might American-Indians have an equally “persuasive” claim for reparations, since the nation’s land was stolen from them? Maybe. But they will need their own advocates. This is a book to plead the case for African-Americans. The book has the feel of a looter at Walmart: grab what you can when opportunity presents itself.
In the end, From Here to Equality amounts to little more than impressive gibberish. It reminds me of the criticism often made of statistics: you can do anything with them. So, too, with history. Darrity and Mullens transform a work of decent scholarship about reconstruction into special pleading, impressing even George Floyd into the service of their argument. It is disingenuous.
America’s “original sin” isn’t slavery; it is original sin itself. The good book teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That includes African-Americans. But you dare not say such things today lest you offend the woke. Such rubbish. African-Americans are 13 percent of the population; their grievances today account for a majority of the national bandwith. Am I alone in being fatigued by it all?
Credit goes to Black Lives Matter. It was organized and prepared to make the most of the pandemic. The general strike declared when the economy was shut down was declared by those organized and ready to make best use of the chaos.
But does anyone truly believe the nation is prepared for race-based transfer payments?
I’m not persuaded we are.
As the nation lurches back to work, I suspect the case for reparations will once again be the mere the fever dream of the entitled. Life is hard – ask the working class, both black and white. Reparations for historic injustice? C’mon. Pick up your bed and walk, I say. That’s a difficult truth required of us all.