Thursday, August 19, 2004
This article from Reason magazine is a must read for anyone who even thinks about the reparation debate. It shows that its an issue that must be considered and practical solution found.
All of those arguments are compelling. But waving aside the reparations idea is not going to work. Nor, really, should it. The wrongs were too grievous, the harms too persistent to be shrugged aside with answers such as, "We've already fixed the problem, so just be happy you're here." Opponents of reparations for slavery need to stop changing the subject and instead shift the debate onto ground that squares with liberal principles.
Can a reparations movement that is currently about collective guilt and racial accountability be refocused on the accountability of real wrongdoers to actual sufferers? The answer is yes. And it has been since at least 1973.
In that year, a Yale University law professor named Boris I. Bittker (now retired) published a lucid and carefully crafted little book called The Case for Black Reparations. He believed that reparations, not only for slavery but also for the century of Jim Crow that followed, were compelled as a matter of justice. But he also considered a variety of broad compensation schemes and conceded that all were "fraught with dangers," including the sorts of problems I mentioned above. The result, Bittker concluded, was an abiding "American dilemma."
On the way to this bleak conclusion, however, he touched upon a much different and narrower concept of reparations: reparations not for slavery but for officially segregated schools. "A program to compensate children who were required to go to segregated schools...would not raise any conceptual difficulties in identifying the beneficiaries," he wrote. "Entitlement would depend exclusively on the fact that the student was assigned to a black school, regardless of his actual racial origin."
Bittker himself expressed ambivalence about this idea. He seemed to think that, for all its administrative elegance, it offered blacks too limited a portion of redress. Officially segregated schools, after all, were just a part of the picture. No doubt partly for that reason, Bittker's suggestion found no constituency.
Well, the time has come to give Bittker's idea the serious consideration it has deserved all along. For, on the merits, the case for these narrower reparations is as strong as the case for broader slavery reparations is weak.
To begin with, the people who would be compensated are the people who suffered the harm. They are easy to identify. Many of them are very much alive. It cannot be seriously disputed that they were wronged, not only educationally but morally, by being forced into separate and hardly equal schools. Moreover, the perpetrator of the injustice is not a race, a "society," or slave owners who are all long dead. The perpetrator, like the victims, is identifiable and very much alive: government.