By Herbert J. Gans (Click here to view the entire issue)
I agree with Mr. America that the United States is a large complex multi-racial society that’s competing internationally less than optimally, and that to improve overall performance, we need to provide more than palliative remedies. However, I do not see how reparations will solve these or related problems. I believe that America is now in the process of excluding from, and driving out of, surplus labor from its labor force. By subsequently labeling that surplus labor as an underclass, today’s word for the undeserving poor, the people so labeled are then declared to be no longer deserving of political or other help.
If reparations were a politically viable way of reversing this process, I would be in Mr. America’s corner. However, until he describes how he can sell reparations to whites who are not only themselves scared of losing their jobs but scared of, and angry at, blacks for a variety of class, racial and racist reasons, I am not persuaded.
In fact, a call for reparations would only divert attention from the fundamental economic and racial issues, and would further polarize blacks and whites on a variety of real and fake political issues. For example, I can already see endless debates on whether all Americans should pay reparations or only the descendants of slaveholders or whether the bill should really be sent to the descendants of the African slave owners and merchants who sold the ancestors of today’s Americans into slavery in the first place. And who will pay reparations to the newest black Americans, the West Indian immigrants who were also once slaves?
Usually, but not always, race-neutral and universalistic policies that benefit as large a number of people, of all colors, as possible do best in the polity. Conversely, the political history of black-only demands and the numerical minority status of blacks would suggest that any proposal that calls for redistribution of income and wealth solely to blacks could not be won. The best financial outcome I could see is a mid-21st century Supreme Court decision approving a token and minuscule payment to blacks, which would, however, trivialize the horrors of slavery and the slave experience in the process.
Reintegrating the present and still growing labor surplus into the economy may no longer be possible. However, it has to be tried, and the only way to begin is to reorganize the economy to create as many jobs as possible. Raising, promoting, debating, and then pressing for this policy should be undertaken by a coalition of all interested parties, of all skin colors, and even of all classes. A Constitutional amendment to the Bill of Rights to add economic rights would not hurt either!
Herbert J. Gans is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University (New York, NY 10027). His most recent book is a paperback edition of People, Plans and Policies: Essays on Poverty, Racism and Other National Urban Problems (Columbia University Press, 1994). He has just finished a new book tentatively titled Ending the War Against the Poor: The Underclass, the Undeserving Poor and Antipoverty Policy, which goes further into some of the above points.