Slavery Reparations- David Brooks Changing His Mind

David Brooks, noted columnist for the NY Times, wrote a remarkable column today in which he calls himself a ‘slow convert’ to the cause of slavery reparations in the United States. You can read it here.

Much has already been made of this ostensibly very liberal position coming from a well credentialled conservative commentator. Here’s a review in Huffpost.But I’d like to put that aside, and instead concentrate on the some of the very nuanced opinions he wrote.

Race Most Important Division

First, Brooks states that of all the many divisions in American society today, in his view race is the most central. This is not only is it one of the causes of the geographic segregation and giant wealth gap that we see today, but because its origin is different than most other types of discrimination. Slavery was not rooted in natural prejudice, nor was it a result of different outlooks or ways of life. Slavery was a sinful, deliberate injury inflicted greedily and purposefully on blacks for economic gain.

Reparations Impractical

Most important, Brooks acknowledges that actual reparations would be extremely hard to bring about. The practical difficulties are myriad and seem insurmountable. Are even recent African immigrants included? What about impoverished white people whose lives seem far removed from white privilege? Who should receive the reparations, how much, and what should they be used for? What about wealthy and successful African Americans such as Oprah or Obama?

Acknowledging the Justice of Reparations Is An Important Step

But he then explains that sweeping the topic of reparations under the rug because it’s hard to imagine how they could ever be carried out leads to continued pain, suffering, and hardening of resentment. What’s important, he says, is to begin raising the topic for discussion. The mere act of talking about reparations acknowledges responsibility for the sins of the past and thereby helps to heal the wounds.  These discussions open the door for beginning a new narrative for African Americans, a narrative with a new beginning based on equality and inclusion rather than exploitation and enslavement.

Issue in 2020

While no one expects this issue to move quickly, it’s worth noting that many of the Democratic 2020 Presidential candidates have been asking about reparations and forced to take stands. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have proposed various schemes to cut into the wealth gap between blacks and whites, and labelled these as forms of reparations. Bernie Sanders was asked explicitly if he favors monetary reparations for slavery, and he responded that he thinks what we have to do is confront the crises facing all our communities, and there are better ways to do that than writing a check. You can read news coverage of this here.

Teshuva Requires Accepting Responsibility

I sense Brooks would say these candidates are missing the point, and I tend to agree. Of course we need to provide economic opportunity for those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. But if we do this because we’re looking around and consider this a matter of social justice, or if we see lessening inequality as an attempt at guaranteeing social stability, we aren’t addressing the core issue.

The first step in repentance (teshuva, as it’s called in the Jewish literature) is to acknowledge responsibility for our sins. We need to make clear policies aimed at lessening the wealth gap between blacks and whites are being created specifically to repair the historical injustices resulting from slavery. Otherwise, even if the economic issues are somehow treated, the psychological harms inflicted by slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow regimes will never be addressed.

1 thought on “Slavery Reparations- David Brooks Changing His Mind”

  1. The longer the issue of reparations will remain off the mainstream public table, the more resentment and distrust will remain and further build up among descendants of African slaves in this country. It’s quite apparent that the political will to address an issue of such gravity and magnitude has been missing on part of the political elites at every level of government.
    Hardly a subject to debate is the social and the political wrongs that have been perpetrated against African slaves, who were brought en masse to the American shores in furtherance of the economic gains for the white settlers. At the time, to justify the enslavement, the powers that be, with the help of the “scientific community”, classified the Africans as sub-humans. That had made the slave trade and slave ownership a lot more palatable to the beneficiaries.
    The myriad excuses that are brought forth today regarding the difficulties of the proposed reparations are all in line with that very lack of a political will to deal with the issue. Fear of resentment by the (impoverished white people whose lives seem far removed from white privilege) should never trump the fear of resentment by the black people, be they impoverished or wealthy and successful as Oprah or Obama.

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