By Howard Winant (Click here to view the entire issue)
The United States was created out of a group of European colonies located on territory expropriated from native peoples. After 1650 or so, these colonies, north and south, also engaged in widespread enslavement of African people. The distinctions are drawn by the end of the 17th Century between Europeans, on the one hand, and Native Americans and Africans, on the other, remain today the hallmarks of the U.S. racial order. Furthermore, the doctrine of natural rights upon which the country was founded in the late 18th Century did not challenge these distinctions. Quite the contrary: they were enshrined in the Constitution. One has to move to relatively recent history-the post-Civil War period-or even to the contemporary era of the civil rights movement, to find serious efforts to challenge the racial injustice that remains constitutive of our social order, of our system of inequality, and of our racist culture.
Let us stipulate all that. Does such a situation support the demand for reparations to be paid by whites to blacks, either on moral or political grounds? My answer to this question is no on both counts. However, I would like to offer a substitute proposal, one that incorporates some but not all the features of the reparations idea.
The Moral Issues
While the enslavement and expropriation of black labor were unquestionably one of the greatest acts of immorality ever carried out, both those who were enslaved and those who enslaved them are dead. There are no people to whom compensation could be paid, and none who can legitimately be called upon or forced to pay, unless we accept the principle that “the sins of the fathers (sic) shall be visited upon the children,” which I certainly do not.
There remains the aftermath of slavery, in which a social system based on white supremacy fostered a “superexploitation” or “unequal exchange” from which blacks suffered and whites benefited in innumerable ways, not only economically but also politically and culturally. To the (considerable) extent that this system continues in force today, I believe that a moral obligation exists to overcome it. An initiative of this kind should take the form of a “Marshall Plan for the Cities” or something similar, which I discuss below.
Richard America says, “Whites owe blacks $5 to $10 trillion.” This is obviously some sort of cumulative figure and thus involves the putative obligations of both the living and the dead. But even if applied (presumably in reduced form) only to the living, it raises highly problematic issues of racial stereotyping and treats race and class inequality as if they were interchangeable. It’s hard to agree that all whites owe all blacks since there are different degrees to which people are implicated in racist practices, either as beneficiaries or as victims. Even such concepts as “white skin privilege” (also problematic for various reasons, though I would not deny its existence) obscure the difference between actual material gain and loss, on the one hand, and symbolic power and powerlessness, on the other. It, therefore, seems much more morally sound to organize, not “whites” to pay reparations, but rather the state to undertake egalitarian and redistributive policies. Thus we turn from the moral to the political terrain.
The Political Issues
The country has moved significantly to the right in the post-1960s, post-civil rights era. Currently, a strong mainstream consensus exists-Republican neo-conservatives on the right, Democratic neo-liberals on the left-which plays to the vanilla suburbs and not to the chocolate cities. This consensus is resistant to social spending, to tax increases, to the welfare state, in short, to every form of redistribution known. Richard America claims that “society in 1994 will say, we cannot in good conscience accept benefits produced by unjust means….” There is no evidence for this.
In fact, applying the criteria of political realism to Richard America’s strategy on the reparations issue, I can only assume that his idea is to stake out a sort of “pure” position, a benchmark for the achievement of real equality, at least in the economic realm. If we know how much blacks have lost, how much they are “owed” as a result of the whole racist legacy-I impute this logic to him-then we can know how to evaluate the range of social policy options available to us.
Well and good. But the downside to this approach is its potential for racial polarization and antagonism. Richard America is, I believe, wildly optimistic about the reception his proposal would receive, and about the debate that it would generate. My own guess is that it would only create fierce hostility, not only from many whites but also from many racially defined minorities (Latinos, Asians), and even from a fair number of blacks, for it tends to assume that no mobility, no initiative, no self-empowerment can occur in the black community without a massive infusion of white aid. It is the ultimate in victimology.
As an alternative, we should give up talk of reparations and try to recognize that substantial sympathy for the idea of equality does exist in the United States. This sympathy is at present rather abstract and still fissured by racism. It has also been damaged by the right-wing resurgence which, since 1980, has fought (successfully) to withdraw funding from social programs, from the cities, from what remains of the welfare state. In such a situation, the task is to forge interracial coalitions whose aim is redistribution. In particular, we should argue that the crisis of the chocolate cities now implacably affects the quality of life in the vanilla suburbs. High unemployment holds wages down; crime and endless spending to contain it force other types of social spending down; hence education, infrastructure (jobs again!), health care, and even entitlements are threatened, neglected, or ignored.
We should push for the kind program envisioned by various organizations and analysts (Congressional Black Caucus, Urban League, etc.) as a “Marshall Plan for the Cities” (see item, p. 141. Such a plan could potentially appeal to blacks and other racially defined minorities, as well as to whites (lots of whom still live in cities). It could garner union support and could attract many corporate interests that are still deeply rooted in urban settings. Education, transportation, health care, housing, and job creation can all be related simultaneously to the need to address racial inequality and the need to rebuild U.S. society so that Galbraith’s 1958 label “public squalor amid private opulence” would no longer apply. Such an initiative would obviously be ambitious-we would have to join Henry Gonzalez in his effort to democratize the Federal Reserve Bank, just to name one small problem-but it would, I suggest, define a practical political project that was imaginable and unifying. It would avoid the antagonisms and defeatism inherent in the demand for reparations.
Howard Winant is professor of sociology at Temple University and author of Racial Condition: Politics, Theory, Comparisons (Univ. Minn. Press, 1994) and (with Michael Omi) Racial Forma-tion in the US: From the 1960s to 1990s (Routledge, 1994).