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Why I Don't Want Reparations for Slavery

July 15, 2001|JOHN McWHORTER | John McWhorter is an associate professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley. This article is excerpted from the July-August issue of American Enterprise magazine

My childhood was a typical one for a black American who is in his mid-30s. I grew up middle class in a quiet, safe neighborhood in Philadelphia. My parents were far from wealthy, living at the edge of their credit cards like many middle-class people. But I had everything I needed plus some extras, and spent more time in one of our two cars than on buses.

Contrary to popular belief, I was by no means extraordinarily "lucky" or "unusual" among black Americans of the post-civil rights era. While only one in 100 black families had a middle-class income in 1940, today there are legions of black adults who grew up as I did. Fewer than one in four black families now lives below the poverty line, and the black underclass is, at most, one out of five. This is what the civil rights revolution helped make possible.

Yet today, numerous black officials proclaim that the overriding situation for blacks is one of penury, dismissal and spiritual desperation. Under this analysis, the blood of slavery remains on the hands of mainstream America until it allocates a large sum of money to "repair" the damage done to our race over four centuries.

Yet reparations cannot logically rely on a depiction of black Americans as a race still reeling from the brutal experience of slavery and its after-effects. The reality is that in the year 2001 there are more middle-class blacks than poor ones. And if all black Americans living below the poverty line were given a subsidy to move to the suburbs, free tuition for college and/or a small-business loan, all indications are that, for most, in the long run it would make no difference in the overall condition of their lives.

The only way for human beings to succeed is through individual initiative. In the mid-1960s, the United States experimented with the idea, a reasonable guess on its face, that simply giving handouts to poor blacks would enable them to bypass the conventional route to self-realization.

Yet today the data are in: a three-generations-deep welfare culture where work was an option rather than a given, where a passive and victimhood-based relationship to mainstream accomplishment was endemic. There is nothing "black" about this; similar policies have left an equally bleak situation in native American communities as well as white ones in Appalachia.

Any effort to repair problems in black America must focus on helping people to help themselves. Funds must be devoted to ushering welfare mothers into working for a living so that their children do not grow up learning that employment is something "other people" do. Inner-city communities should be helped to rebuild, in part through making it easier for residents to buy their homes. Police forces ought to be trained to work with, rather than against, the communities they serve.

Finally, this country must support all possible efforts to liberate black children from the soul-extinguishing influence of ossified urban public schools and to move them into experimental or all-minority schools, where a culture of competition is fostered. This will help undo the sense that intellectual excellence is a "white" endeavor. Surely we must improve the public schools as well, including increasing the exposure of young black children to standardized tests. But we also must make sure another generation of black children is not lost during the years it will take for these schools to get their acts together.

All of these things are in fact taking place. Part of President Bush's faith-based and community initiatives effort is a long-overdue attempt to bring black churches into play in helping make inner-city neighborhoods stable. Meanwhile, community development corporations are slowly working wonders by granting inner-city people real estate loans. The community reinvestment act spurs banks to make small-business loans to minorities.

Numerous cities are demonstrating that cooperation between police forces and minority communities can lead to massive drops in crime. And the Bush administration is pressing to move minority children into functioning schools while advocating increased testing of all students, though the Democrats' coddling of teachers' unions in return for votes presents a mighty obstacle.

Furthermore, there have already been what any outside observer would term reparations. When reparations fans grouse that "it's time America acknowledged slavery," one wonders just what they thought the War on Poverty was. Affirmative action policies were similarly developed to acknowledge earlier slights.

There are certainly some additional steps that could be taken to improve the chances of the black underclass: increased child-care centers to make it easier for inner-city mothers to work; better transportation from cities to suburbs to make it easier to get to places of employment; more research on and funding for drug rehabilitation. There would be no harm in labeling a package of policies of this sort "reparations."

But in the end, most reparations activists would see this as not enough. What they are seeking is an emotional balm, a comprehensive mea culpa by white America for everything that ails blacks. Pre-1960s civil rights leaders would barely recognize this version of "civil rights."

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