Slavery, Reparations, and Obama
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates wrote a fascinating op-ed about the difficulties of offering reparations for African slavery, give that both black Africans as well as white Europeans and Americans participated in the heinous trade. He also highlighted the unique opportunity that Barack Obama provides for re-starting the discussion about this thorny issue:
Fortunately, in President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.
Economist Brad DeLong disagrees with Gates’ premise, and endorses programs like affirmative action, on conservative grounds. He invokes Edmund Burke, and argues that Americans “unmerited inheritance” of the goods of Western Civilization obligates them to “erase the debts” of that same inheritance, to wrong its rights, with perhaps no wrong greater than that of slavery.
Practically, a republic requires virtuous citizens: citizens who will take up their responsibilities and shoulder their share of the obligations neecessary for the common good. People who won’t shirk their responsibilities. “If you wish to be part of this great more than two-century partnership that is America,” Burke would say if I had him here right now, “you need to recognize that your inheritance is an entailed inheritance. First, it comes with an obligation not to waste it–an obligation to in your turn pass down to those not yet born a better nation than the one you live in. Second, it comes with debts attached: past deeds of America that were cruel and criminal, the memory of which is still shameful. Just because the particular members of the great partnership who incurred the debts (the three-fifths clause, the legality of the slave trade, the Missouri Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, et cetera) are dead doesn’t mean that that the debts aren’t still owed by the great partnership.”
I’m not sure where I fall here. I might agree with Barack Obama, that is I support the “theory of reparations” but agree that in practice they are tricky. But thinking about it more, maybe they’re not so tricky. What I think has happened here is that DeLong and Gates have over-historicized this issue. Or at least over-analyzed in an academic way. That is, it’s (relatively) easy to recognize that slavery was evil, and that diverse peoples were implicated. The question is what to do now. To think, pragmatically, as Obama is so found of doing.
And so taking both of these articles together, I think we can have a good middle ground, or rather a combination of the Gates and DeLong suggestions. First, I think Obama can begin the process of making important symbolic gestures in recognizing that US government owes a debt to the victims of slavery, while also recognizing the roles played Europeans, Africans and everyone else involved. At the same time, Americans can continue to celebrate and study African and African American history, literature, art and culture. Last, and perhaps most important, programs like affirmative action, and other forms of economic redistribution and education reforms that will benefit people of colour can continue (and be improved upon) as well. DeLong is right: Americans (and Canadians) all have that obligation.
I recognize that this probably doesn’t sound particular original. It also might be very naive. But perhaps this issue doesn’t need to be as thorny as we make it out to be.