I’m spending the week in California, where the weather is wonderful, and the politics are like the weather in Wisconsin.
The latest bright idea to come out of the Golden State is reparations for slavery, or for something. We’ll get to the ‘or for something’ problem in a minute, but specifically, what’s going on is that a task force studying the issue has managed to put the idea on the front burner not just here, but nationally. They managed that by grabbing headlines when they decided last week that the state should pay reparations only for Black Californians who can prove that they are descended from slaves. (Why California, never a slave state, should compensate people for slavery in, say, Mississippi has not been explained.)
In my view, no matter how the details are worked out, reparations are immoral, impractical and politically deadly for the Democrats, and therefore also politically disastrous to the broader movement for social justice.
The moral issue is straightforward. It’s wrong to discriminate for or against people on the basis of race. It was wrong to discriminate against Black people in housing, employment and so many other things for so long and it’s just as wrong to discriminate in favor of them now in a misguided attempt to make up for it. Once we go down this road where does it end? When do we decide that this “good” discrimination has made up for all the bad discrimination, and who gets to decide? Instead, let’s agree that discrimination is always bad and work to end it.
The practical problems are legion. The California committee’s decision to limit reparations to descendants of slaves was, not surprisingly, controversial even within the left. The left loves to fight with itself and to elevate disagreements over details to fights over moral imperatives. There’s a forest out there, but trust the left to see only some trees.
The argument on the other side (the left side of the left, if you will) is that all Blacks have faced discrimination just for being Black and nobody could tell if they were descended from slaves just by looking at them. But this raises new questions. For example, what about Barack Obama and his family? Obama is not descended from slaves, grew up mostly away from the latent Jim Crow of the mainland U.S., and became a Harvard lawyer and a best-selling author. Also, his mother was white. Should Barack Obama receive reparations and, if so, for what exactly? His daughters grew up in the White House and will have attended the very best schools. Should they receive reparations?
What about people who can prove through DNA that they were descended from slaves but present as white? They could not possibly have been discriminated against for their skin color. Should they receive payments?
Why stop with Black Americans? Weren’t Native Americans discriminated against as badly and aren’t they still? The word slave comes from “Slav.” Eastern and Southern Europeans were terribly treated in at least their first generation in this country. How much did that put future generations behind Anglo-Saxon Protestants? In fact, Congress passed laws in the early twentieth century strictly limiting immigration from these countries, so strong was the animosity. And don’t get me started on how Jewish people have been treated and, unfortunately, in recent years we can add Muslims to the list. Asians may have done well overall, but recent violence against Asian-Americans is awful.
Somebody tried to explain the need for reparations to me by using a Monopoly analogy. What if every player got a different amount of money — and some got none — every time they passed “Go”? The flaw in that argument is that everybody already does get a different amount. Everyone is born with advantages and disadvantages. The starting line is moved up for some and back for others. I am “privileged” not so much because I’m white but because I grew up in a stable family where education was valued and I went to college. But I am not as privileged as, say, a Black woman who was the daughter of college professors and went to Harvard. I don’t think anybody should compensate me for that.
I think it’s clear that this idea will collapse at the Federal level and in most other places under the strain of its many practical hurdles, but it may well pass in California. If it does you can count on a referendum to repeal it, which I expect would be approved by the voters. Don’t forget that California voters recently rejected a referendum that would have reinstated affirmative action in college admissions. So, all this will be for nothing, unless you’re a Republican. In that case, it’s a windfall.
Which brings us to the politics. The great project of the Democratic Party needs to be to win back more voters, of every race, who do not have a college degree. I go into this in detail here. The numbers drive this argument. Two-thirds of Americans do not have a four-year degree. Support for Democrats is eroding even among Black men. And it is eroding at an alarming rate among Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic group in the country.
How will the Hispanic community, already somewhat conservative, react to reparations to Black Americans? How will white voters without a college degree? How will independents? This is just political suicide.
And that brings me to my final point. If you really want social justice than you don’t want Democrats to lose elections. If the party gets identified with reparations (it already pretty much has been) and the issue gets traction (as California is giving it) then Democrats will certainly lose elections they might otherwise win. A lot more.
The best ways to deal with the lingering effects of discrimination are robust economic growth and the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Reparations will only breed resentment, cost Democrats elections and move us further from the goal of a more fair society.