The idea that the government should pay African Americans reparations to compensate for the suffering of their slave ancestors has been kicking around for as long as I can remember. It hit the front pages last week, thanks to David Horowitz, a right-wing commentator with whom I've tangled in the past. Following his familiar MO of attracting publicity by attacking causes espoused by civil rights leaders, Horowitz took out tendentious ads in college newspapers around the country, listing 10 reasons why reparations are "a bad idea for blacks." Predictably, a rumpus ensued on campuses from Duke to Wisconsin. At Brown University in Rhode Island--whose founders include a prominent slave trader--students offended by the Brown Daily Herald's decision to publish the ad seized all 4,000 copies of the paper. At the University of California, Berkeley, a forum on reparations degenerated into a shouting match after Horowitz delivered a characteristically pugnacious speech. But once they have finished railing at Horowitz, reparations supporters ought to applaud him. The fuss he started is just the kind of highly visible wrangling they need to prove that reparations is an issue worth fighting about, not a pipe dream. If an archconservative like Horowitz is so down on the idea, it must have merit.
Or does it?
I've always thought the fight for reparations was a waste of time--not out of principle, but for practical reasons. Like nearly every black person I've discussed it with, I consider the moral case for compensating African Americans for the crimes committed against their forebears during 244 years of slavery to be unassailable. I even wrote a column about how much it would take to settle our claim--$24 trillion for the pain, suffering and unpaid labor of millions of slaves, deposited in a trust fund that would underwrite education and economic development in impoverished black areas. With funding like that, none of us would need affirmative action. Talk about freedom!
There's just one stumbling block: no matter how strong our arguments are, we'll never get white folks to pay up. Most white Americans are descended from people who immigrated here after the Civil War, so they feel no need to atone. Heck, we couldn't even persuade Bill Clinton, who is practically kin, to apologize for slavery, much less pony up any cash. Is there any reason to think George W. Bush--let alone a majority in Congress--would be more receptive?
As for going to court, we would first have to get past all sorts of legal hurdles, such as the doctrine of sovereign immunity, under which the government can be sued only if it allows itself to be sued. Eventually we would bang heads with Clarence Thomas and his like-minded colleagues on the Supreme Court. I'd rather take my chances speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike in a BMW with Rodney King at the wheel and a blond hanging out the window.