Why reparations aren’t the answer

Sam Smith – The 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre has revived talk of reparations – reimbursements for the descendants of those who suffered a historic disaster at the evil hands of others. 

And it accompanies a striking revival of criticism of past wrongs such as slavery, but sadly unaccompanied by a sufficiently broad reaction to the injustices of the present. 

I attribute this in part to that fact that liberals have become much better educated in the past half century or so and, as a result, have become far more efficient at analysis than with action. For example, when I started out as a journalist, over half the reporters in the country only had a high school education. And I can’t remember, when a member of SNCC, the subject of slavery getting more than passing reference among 1960s civil rights activists. It was what you did now that mattered. 

Basically, you can’t rewrite or repair the past, but we have massive choices about what we do with the present and the future. Yes, the Tulsa story is important history, but is Tulsa where our most serious problems are today? 

Interestingly, reparations were part of the response following the world wars. But as th Encyclopedia Britannica notes: 

Experience suggests that the smaller the reparations levy, the more likely it is to be paid, and conversely that large levies are unlikely to be collected. In both World Wars the failure to obtain desired reparations was unmistakable. Indeed, some of the victors eventually had to make payments to the defeated countries in the interest of restoring economic and political stability.

Another problem has been the activist shift from issues to identity. What gets forgotten here is that the suffering identities aren’t large enough to accomplish their goals alone. They need to create or discover cross-ethnic causes that will bring others to their side. For example, there are twice as many whites in poverty as there are blacks. And blacks represent only 13% of the population.

In Washington DC in the 1960s, the solution was for blacks to become leaders in local cross-ethnic issues like stopping the construction of freeways or getting home rule. A noted black activist – Julius Hobson – started the modern DC statehood movement. 

Today, blacks and latinos could become cross-ethnic leaders of the working class movement. Not only would it make the movement more effective but ethnic conflict would decline as blacks, whites and latinos find things they have in common. 

Yes, slavery and the Tulsa massacre were awful, but we can’t change that. We can only learn from it. What we can change is right before us. The present and future are waiting for us.