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One can almost imagine the scene.
David Brooks. Sitting in a bathrobe in his living room. With a cup of coffee. Scanning over the opinion section of the New York Times.
He sees a column by his colleague Ross Douthat arguing that Republicans should give up the fight over stricter voter ID laws. He lets out an exasperated sigh. Why didn’t he think of that?
Out of the corner of his eye he sees his copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me prominently displayed on his book shelf. He keeps it there mainly to show his dinner guests that he is open minded and a “reasonable” conservative.
A light bulb flashes over his head.
The term “purportedly” is apt because, despite its protestations, the piece doesn’t make the case for reparations at all. A highly subjective interpretation of an Abraham Lincoln quote strung together with a few tear-jerking anecdotes and some vague moral pontification is not an argument. At best, it’s an emotional appeal. At worst, it’s plain sophistry.
At one point, Brooks highlights all of his initial practical objections to reparations, and then dismisses them out of hand simply based on his “experiences” over the past year. Experiences that include sitting with an elderly black woman who was “shaking in rage” because she believed that the kids in her neighborhood faced greater challenges than she had as a child living under legal segregation.
It takes an incredible lack of self-awareness and imprudence to recognize the many practical problems with reparations, gloss over how you plan to deal with those challenges, and then continue to advocate the policy without any specificity.
But even if we ignore all of the superficial practical difficulties that Brooks mentions, the reparations debate will still end as an uncontrollable dumpster fire of vitriol.
Brooks says America is “a nation coming apart at the seams” and that we are made up of different tribes each of which has its own “resentment narrative.” So he calls for a consolidated and reconciled narrative that highlights the possibilities our country has. It’s an appealing vision, on one level, to imagine that we can shed this carefully cultivated animosity between “tribes” if only we could placate certain animosities. But it won’t work out that way.
Brooks then calls for the implementation of a “drastic” and “hard to execute” policy that would certainly enrage many groups in this country. And he somehow believes that the act of talking about and designing this policy would heal wounds and open a new story.
No. This conversation would lead to more strife and turmoil and would further rip our country apart. It certainly would not reconcile different “narratives” and lead to a “possibility narrative.”
First, we’d have a massive debate over who should pay for reparations. As Brooks notes (and then ignores) there are many people whose ancestors weren’t in America when slavery existed. And some of the people who were in America fought, bled, and died to try to help wipe away the immoral stain. Are we really going to force the descendents of abolitionists to pay reparations?
And then it’s clear that many other racial and ethnic groups, to a much lesser degree, also faced discrimination. They would demand proportional reparations and we’d quickly end up competing in the victimhood Olympics and arguing over what recompense different people deserved. (I’d settle for $10,000 for the portrayal of Italian Americans in “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas.”)
Far from unifying the country, Brooks’ proposed conversation would rehash all of the most painful parts of our history. And nothing divides a country or a family like reexamining all prior transgressions with a fine-tooth comb. The different narratives would clash and every single resentment and perceived grievance would bubble up into the public’s consciousness.
The people happiest with paying reparations would be the wealthy, white pseudointellectual elite who have more than enough material wealth to part with a decent percentage and remain comfortable. And given that they’re ensconced in the liberal cultural scene, they’d happily pay for the privilege of not being called racist by their friends. Consider it a “woke tax.”
This would create a further divide between the elites and an already disenchanted lower and middle class, who have increasingly signaled their displeasure. If Van Jones considered the 2016 election a “whitelash,” Brooks would likely shudder watching an election after reparations were pushed through.
Oh, and this would all provide a treasure trove of fodder for white identitarians to galvanize their base and continue recruiting formerly centrist and not racialized whites. Pushing black identity politics always leads to more white identity politics. Especially when the former is trying to extract material concessions from the rest of the country.
If we accept the Left’s premise that most of the country was already racist, it’s not clear how people would become less racist after the government took their money on behalf of the descendants of slaves. This would just lead to greater racial tensions with added resentment from poor whites in middle America who never cared about race beforehand.
This racial tension could lead to increased violence that—more than anything that Brooks suggests in his piece—would “harden the heart” and “separate Americans from one another.” The country would splinter with each additional act of racially motivated violence, making it increasingly hard to ever pull it back together.
And then do we really believe that reparations would help the black community? Federal and local governments have shown consistently that they don’t know how to help people. The welfare system? Broken families, fostered instability, and increased reliance on the government. Would reparations actually improve lives, or would they just increase dependence?
If reparations didn’t help black communities, we would have wasted an inordinate amount of money and further destroyed many more lives by increasing dependence. Oh, and we probably wouldn’t have improved race relations at all. If anything, we would have strained them greatly.
And if reparations did work—a highly dubious “if”—it would raise a painful question. How could monetary reparations ever actually compensate for slavery? Greater economic success thanks to reparations would be a painful reminder of what could have been. A reminder of the lives wasted and the years of misery and the knowledge that it could have been rectified sooner.
Even though insurance companies can put numbers on the value of a life, it is nearly impossible to estimate the human cost of the institution of slavery. For many, this would lead to an insatiable appetite for further reparations. And it would never be enough. If it’s plausible that the Washington Post owes Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann $250 million for his ordeal on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, there isn’t enough money in the world to cover the sin of slavery in America.
We also quickly come to the fact that slavery has been around since the beginning of history. And it is still around to this day. Almost all groups have experienced slavery at one point or another in their lineage. Almost all groups have experienced some form of discrimination. And the sad truth is that most groups will continue to experience it.
Perhaps instead of trying to adjudicate the past, we should concentrate on the future?
Brooks is right. We need a new “possibility narrative.” But we won’t get it by tearing at old wounds and relitigating history. We won’t get it by catering to identity politics. And we certainly won’t get it by punishing people who weren’t involved—and in many cases aren’t even related to anyone involved—with slavery and Jim Crow.
We can only unify this country if we put our differences and the past behind us.
Many years ago, a promising young politician captivated the country when he passionately posited that “there is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.”
We create a “possibility narrative” by seizing on this new and independent identity. One that transcends race, ethnicity, and cultural background and tries to unite us based on the ideals that we’ve imperfectly tried to uphold since our inception. One that binds us together with a unified culture that is informed, but not overtaken, by the people who have joined the country. And one that looks forward with optimism, not backward with resentment.
David Brooks will likely continue to appeal to divisiveness under the pretense of trying to unite us. President Trump, however, will continue touting the unified vision of America that he ran on and continues to promote.
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Photo Credit: Robert A Tobiansky/Getty Images for SXSW