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Eye on the News

John H. McWhorter
The Reparations Racket
America has already made amends for slavery.
29 March 2002

“America must finally acknowledge the horrors that slavery wrought,” we keep hearing as the latest variation on professional victimhood from groups now agitating for reparations for slavery. Never mind that library shelves groan under the weight of books, journals, and articles on slavery, that African-American museums dot the American landscape, and that the horrors of slavery are grist for the mill of countless university courses and movies.

You’d think from listening to these people that after the Civil Rights Act the American government just left black people to sink or swim. Somehow, these victimologists consider it irrelevant that the 1960s witnessed a battery of “reparations” for blacks that continues in full force today—the expansion of welfare, affirmative action, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, and so on. Sure, these policies have had mixed legacies (at best), but the fact remains that the nation instituted them in full awareness of the effects of slavery, segregation, and residual racism upon a group with a tragic history.

Yet the prime movers behind a recent suit brought against three corporations whose earlier incarnations may have benefited from slavery a century or more ago defend their initiative as a way of gaining the first “restitution” for blacks’ pain. Going beyond previous efforts to elicit reparations from government, this lawsuit takes its cue from Jesse Jackson’s strategy of shaking down private corporations. The assumption, based on Jackson’s successful racket, is that the companies will pusillanimously settle out of court rather than risk getting tarred as “racists” in a trial.

This effort makes little sense as history or policy. After all, no one today had anything to do with slavery, either as victim or perpetrator. Moreover, it’s all but certain that, even if the firms give out these new “reparations,” 20 years later a new contingent would be agitating for more money, believing that crying victim is the essence of authentic “black leadership.”

Real civil rights will mean standing down this misguided manipulation and devoting our efforts to the less glamorous efforts of fostering concrete change for people who need help. If the firms do try to settle out of court, shareholders should fight fire with fire by filing suit on the grounds that the companies are wasting corporate assets needlessly. Then perhaps companies might to the right thing instead of the easy thing.

To be sure, the reparations crowd seeks to put the money in an unspecified fund that would support housing, education, and health care for blacks. But more money would solve none of these problems, and if the past is any indication, any funds given to the usual suspects in municipal and social service bureaucracies would rarely reach the people they were intended for, and would just perpetuate the same old problems. What ails the black community today is the very illusion that holds the reparations gang in thrall—that serious black achievement is impossible except under ideal conditions, that white neglect must be at the root of any black-white disparity, and that only the actions of whites can significantly improve the conditions of blacks.

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