Reparations are payments to survivors of atrocities or the group which suffered the atrocities as an acknowledgment of guilt and as an attempt to right at least part of the wrong. They are not a bad idea. Germany paid reparations to individual Jews and also to the newly found state of Israel to atone for the Holocaust. The money to Israel was blood money in the sense that millions of people had to die to get it but Israel accepted it anyway because they needed it at the time and because it proved the basis for what is now a long standing alliance between the two countries, the whole world having recognized the reality of Germany having overcome its past through acts such as this. Now we are in the midst of a new round of talks about reparations to African Americans for slavery. The difference here is that there are no actual survivors to whom to write checks and that the problems of African Americans in current American society are not of the sort that are solved by writing checks, even if lawyers are willing to monetize every damage. How much to a sixth generation survivor? How much to a ghetto crack addict? How much to the institutions, like education and health, that would help alleviate black poverty? Let us parse this question more carefully before arriving at a conclusion.
The farther you are away from the time when the people who deserve reparations were persecuted, the more difficult it is to arrive at a satisfactory form of reparation. Israel was clearly the inheritor of European Jewry; in fact, many of the settlers in Israel in the late Forties were direct survivors. Are we to say everyone with a drop of black blood in their veins is to receive reparations, including people from mixed marriages? That would be to revive a racist criterion. And what of those peoples who were not directly enslaved but did suffer injustice from the white majority? There are Indians and Irish who also suffered discrimination but we don’t want to include those because of the peculiar fact that they were not outright enslaved, as were the African Americans. Also, we should consider in the mix the extent of the suffering as well as its endurance. Should there be a sliding scale, whereby slaves get more money than people on reservations and much more than people who couldn’t get decent jobs because of their descent? What about all of those programs already directed to the benefit of African Americans on the part of the government, from food stamps to welfare checks, none of the programs for that group in particular, but African American recipients representing a higher percentage of their group who are beneficiaries than do beneficiaries from other groups. Is there to be an accounting mechanism which deducts what has already been paid to African Americans as partly satisfied reparations, or does calling the payments reparations mean you are starting all over in righting the wrong imposed by slavery, Jim Crow, and general neglect?
More sophisticated defenders of reparations will steer away from the idea of direct payments and simply call for the funding of a program that is rich enough to right the wrongs whose scars are so deep that there is no other way to make things right. After all, we gave millions of dollars to the surviving members of 9/11 families as compensation for their losses in what was an act of war, this money far greater than what are usually awarded as death benefits to soldiers killed in action. Why spend so much if not as an act of outrage against the bad guys and solidarity with one’s own people, as if anything could make up for that loss? Reparations would also be an act of outrage and solidarity to confront a grave injustice. And, of course, the money should be spent in a reasonable way, rather than merely given to the descendants of slaves, so that it satisfied the common good of African Americans, even if that had not been required by Kenneth Feinberg for World Trade Center families. They were not asked how they would spend their money. This new grant would, instead, make a real difference in the lives of the African American community right now and not just in increasing their immediate wealth, which could be squandered on lottery tickets and other trifles. We know this to be true because people who win big at the lottery do not spend their money wisely. They build mansions and go in on the get rich schemes of their friends rather than invest wisely.
In fact, we have had in place, since the mid Seventies, a system of reparations that has proven remarkably successful in advantaging African Americans. We know this system as “affirmative action”. It is a carefully targeted program aimed at gaining admission for African Americans and other people of color into colleges and universities that they would not otherwise be qualified to enter because of their inability to achieve competitive scores on standardized national tests. This is done in the name of diversity, in that students of color are desirable to have on campus because they will contribute a different perspective to the dialogues that go on in class and over dinner and in bull sessions. Diversity, however, could not be the main goal because while there are diversity quotas which allow lower standardized test scores for geography, musical ability and athletics, there are so many other sources of diversity that do not gain advantage in admissions, those including whether applicants are conservative or liberal or of one or another white ethnic group or because they are children of the lower middle class. Affirmative Action, simply put, is a program to give people of color a leg up on white students and on Asian students because they need it, would not otherwise qualify for admittance, and that is a good thing because the society needs, in general, for people of color to have more representation in college so that they can rise to professional level careers and break the cycle of poverty, even if this means violating principles of meritocracy and even if those who are being favored are not the poorest people of color but those on the edge of making it into a white dominated world.
Let us grant that there are thousands or tens of thousands of Affirmative Action beneficiaries who fill positions in medicine, law and academia. These people were good enough to be able to take advantage of opportunities offered to them even if they were not the best of the best. Maybe meritocracy isn’t everything, however abandoning it works to the disadvantage of Jews and Asians who pride themselves on academic talent and accomplishment. Moreover, there is even a smidgen of justice in affirmative action if you believe there is such a thing as justice, which can be operationally defined as making some people suffer so that others can prosper. Criminals are punished so that victims “gain closure”. Whites created segregation and so pushing them lower down on admission lists is only fair-- even if Jews and Asians were not exactly at the center of segregation. Affirmative Action is a crude response to a bad situation, but that is always the case with justice.
What was hurt by Affirmative Action were not the schools or those who got turned down. There are enough decent enough colleges to give everyone, even those turned down by their first or second choices, a good education. What was hurt was the United States Constitution, which insists in the Fourteenth Amendment that people cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their rights for reasons of their ethnic background. To give favored positions to African Americans may be good for them but is depriving whites of their rights. You have to turn aside from that Constitutional consideration if you want to approve of affirmative action.
The best analysis of the issue was provided by Sandra Day O'Connor in her opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) which upheld the University of Michigan admission system whereby race could be a consideration in admissions so long as a holistic approach was taken to admissions. So it was alright to consider race so long as you disguised that it was the determining factor somewhere down the line. One hand didn’t have to know what the other was doing. O'Connor implicitly acknowledged the broken backed nature of her reasoning when she pronounced Affirmative Action to be a temporary expedient which would outlive its usefulness in a quarter century or so and then we could go back to an unsullied application of the Fourteenth Amendment. Perhaps that time has come, but maybe not. At any rate, there is a cost in Affirmative Action to us as a people as a whole even if affirmative action is expedient to accomplish a social good, and that makes it a form of reparation.