The reparations movement is back, with a new twist. The City of San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission has issued a proposed “Reparations Plan” that has attracted substantial attention because it recommends a lump sum payment of $5,000,000 to each resident of San Francisco that qualifies. I have read the full report, and the astoundingly large lump sum payment, with no suggestion on where it’s to come from, is only half of the plan’s economic component – and, believe it or not, it’s the smaller half, with apologies to the mathematicians in our audience. There’s also a minimum guaranteed annual income beginning at roughly 97,000 per household that would last for 250 years! Seriously. Except it’s so outlandish that it cannot be serious
In looking at this issue and the controversy that it stirs, it is important to admit that some, but not all, of the discrimination and racial bias that persists in this country is and was facilitated by government, and it is not unreasonable to hold the position that government at various levels should admit that responsibility, and ideally attempt to address it with more than just words of apology. If you do not accept that basic premise, then you might as well admit that you’re a defender of the status quo. I’ll put you down as opposed to reparations of any kind and unlikely to change. But if you are someone who values the principles of intellectual integrity and who is willing to approach an issue with an open and honest mind, then please lean in.
I am a conservative, and the vast majority of conservatives by their very inner nature tend to defend the status and reject the premise of reparations, but I believe there’s an honest way to examine the social ill of racial discrimination.
There’s no denying that permitting legal chattel slavery in the United States was a gross injustice. In addition to the cruelty that frequently accompanied it, slavery was fundamentally dehumanizing. The Emancipation Proclamation specifically restored the humanity of slaves by referring to them as “persons.” General Sherman’s famous field order #15, later called “40 acres and a mule,” was the first attempt at reparations by providing what newly-freed slaves said they most wanted: land. And the argument presented was that, with land, they could work it. The Black Baptist minister Garrison Frazier told Sherman “The way we can best take care of ourselves … is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare.” That’s a statement of self-reliance and personal responsibility that should warm the heart of any modern-day conservative. And note how different that is from the automatic grant of a $5,000,000 lump sum in cash proposed by the San Francisco Commission? There were some impractical aspects of Sherman’s order, and adding surplus Army mules after the end of the civil war was both innovative and insufficient for the demand, and a few other modifications to the order that would have been necessary for effective implementation, but you get the basic idea: grant to the freed slaves some land assets of their pre-war owners, and give them the opportunity to advance themselves toward equality. The San Francisco plan makes no attempt to associate the financial burden to those responsible for the racism, so it must be assumed that the financial burden would fall on all citizens of San Francisco not eligible for the reparation payments, including new residents, immigrants, many of whom are Asian and who may have also been subject to similar kinds of discrimination. It is unworkable as an act of restoration of justice. Furthermore, it will almost certainly result in large numbers of those paying the burden leaving the city, resulting in an ever-increasing cost to be borne by an ever-decreasing funding source. Instead of addressing an injustice, it creates an injustice.
The 40 acres and a mule plan, even with all of its difficulties and impracticalities, was at least an effort to provide a benefit to those deprived of benefits from those who in some way denied them the benefits. What happened to it? After the tragic death of the Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, who had endorsed the basic idea, the next President, Andrew Johnson, cancelled it. Since he had been Lincoln’s Vice President, wasn’t he also a Republican? No – he was a Democrat whom Lincoln selected in the hope of persuading the Democrat border states to remain in the Union. So, my conservative and largely Republican friends, a reparations plan that was national, fair and workable and supported by a Republican was cancelled by a Democrat. And now we are looking at a reparations plan that is local, unfair and unworkable, being proposed by a new generation of Democrats. Republicans should avoid the temptation of criticizing it. It will die on its own, and the sooner, the better.