So, reparations are upon us. Sure, we’ve had programs designed to repair the effects of slavery and Jim Crow for decades already. Contract set-asides and federal hiring quotas go back to Richard Nixon; racial preferences in universities go back, at least, to the early 1970s (although Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would later switch the latter’s rationale to “school diversity”). Never did we consider, however, that direct payments to descendants of black slaves would be intelligent, fair, or justifiable policy. Until now.
In February, it was the COVID stimulus bill’s dual aid programs to black restaurant owners and black farmers. (“It’s reparations,” Black Belt Justice founder Tracy Lloyd McCurty said of the latter). In March, liberal enclaves Evanston, Illinois and Oakland, California announced quasi-reparation payments to blacks and other people of color (with both Asheville, North Carolina and the state of Oregon looking into something similar). And last month, for the first time ever, the late Representative John Conyers’ (D-Mich.) bill proposing to create a study commission on reparations (first introduced in 1989) received the approval needed to get a full vote in the House. As Alyssa Milano and Chelsea Handler informed House Judiciary members before they voted to bring it out of committee: “This is the time. This is the moment.”
So, why is this the time? How is now the moment? Yes, we all know the pump’s been primed since George Floyd’s death, specifically the perception that he was a victim of systemic white predations. And before that, there was both Ta-Nehisi Coates’ oddly viral article in the Atlantic and the great white awokening more broadly. But these phenomena must have had their own “priming” too; a kind of cultural superstructure underlying it all. So, what explains that? Obviously, the question is a complex one, but social psychology has a lot to tell us.
The ability to manufacture guilt has long been a well-known area of study among social psychologists. As experiments have shown, race-based guilt in particular can be artificially aroused in people given the right conditions. For instance, numerous tests have shown that when whites who score low on self-esteem tests or who already share some level of ingroup self-criticism are forced to focus on their supposed group-based “advantages” (usually they’re made to read fake statistics or articles created specifically for the test), both collective guilt and mental distress are shown to increase.
Such stressors are further shown to lead to an increase in support among white subjects for programs like affirmative action and other reparative measures. And interestingly, psychologists find that the motivation behind such measures isn’t sympathy for the perceived disadvantaged outgroup, but simply a desire to reduce their own anxiety.
In other words, when considering the frequent, undeniable, and often ferocious demonization of white Americans in today’s news media, Hollywood films, diversity training, even elementary schools, such studies go far in connecting the increasing amenability among whites toward previously beyond-the-pale ideas like reparations.
More Aggrievement Than Ever
A good illustration perhaps of what mass media can do to the collective mindset: When England witnessed its first major racist killing of a young black man in 1993 (an event that immediately drew national attention, led to dramatic police reforms, and is still frequently evoked in their media), a white cab driver who grew in the area later told a journalist: “When Stephen Lawrence was murdered I thought it was terrible . . . Three years later I thought I’d killed him myself.”
So, the inducement of guilt and the outrage-mongering media explain white liberal support for direct reparations. What about blacks?
A poll taken just before George Floyd’s killing showed support for such reparations among young blacks being triple that of black senior citizens. Why it’s apparently grown over the years could again have much to do with the above.
In his excellent 2006 book White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Hoover Institute-fellow and former civil rights activist Shelby Steele writes that black students now feel more aggrieved than black students did before the civil rights era. A former professor himself, Steele blames the shift on white liberals.
The “feeling of racial aggrievement” among so many black students, Steele writes, “is calibrated to the degree of white guilt on university campuses and not to actual racism.” In general, he says, “anger in the oppressed is a response to perceived opportunity, not to injustice.” [I]t escalates “not with more injustice but with less injustice.”
There is something to this. Black demands are positively correlated, not with actual white racism (which would mean much more pushback and far less confidence among black activists than we see today), but with the white guilt (as seen through voiced commitments to “allyship,” Corporate America’s amped up “diversity” quotas, the rise of Antifa, etc.).
Again, as Steele writes: “We blacks always experience white guilt as an incentive, almost a command, to somehow exhibit racial woundedness and animus.” If you tell people they’re aggrieved, they’ll believe it, and if you give them an opportunity to take advantage, they will do so. Coming from Steele, who admits in his book to personally abusing white guilt as a former activist, this is a compelling analysis.
“War Feels Better Than Peace”
Steele offers an additional diagnosis to explain why slavery and Jim Crow seem to be invoked more, not less, as time passes. Many black liberals subconsciously yearn for these eras; or rather, the source of group identity and unity that they provided. As Steele writes, a side effect of blacks’ newfound freedom in the post-civil rights era was a disruption of that “fellow feeling of a shared fate, the comfort of an imposed brotherhood and sisterhood, the idea of an atavistic, God-given group destiny.” Today, blacks look back with a hidden fondness for that “lost Eden” when “racial interdependence was our only option.
There could be something to this as well. War reporter Sebastian Junger, for instance, wrote a whole book about the yearning veterans have for the bonds established during wartime abroad—“War feels better than peace,” the book’s back cover blurb reads. And historical oppression was considered so important to black identity for the Associated Press (and later the New York Times), it was a key reason for their capitalizing of the word “black” as a racial identifier last year.
Meanwhile, group identity itself has long been understood by psychologists to be crucial to individual well-being. Years of empirical studies into this area bear this out and are embodied in psychology subfields like social identity theory, self-determination theory, and self-categorization theory. As former Soviet dissident and Israeli statesman Natan Sharansky once wrote, group identity offers a “sense of a common world that stretches before and beyond the self, of belonging to something greater than the self, that gives strength not only to community but to the individual as well.”
Stepping back and engaging honestly with group dynamics and mass psychology can help to make some sense out of nonsensical social phenomena. When given their freedom, blacks lost a heightened sense of group identity and a key source of individual self-fulfillment. They’ve struggled existentially ever since.
But thanks to easily primed white liberals, who can be made to yield whenever and for whatever, it is a loss that can, to some extent, be reclaimed. As long as white guilt is in steady supply and black slavery is allowed to swallow up America’s otherwise rich and proud history, the ritual protests, organized demands, calls for ever more reparations, etc., will continue to expand as the dominant form of American black identity.