July 4 Thoughts about Juneteenth and Reparations

It’s July 4, one of our oldest national holidays, but I keep thinking on our newest national holiday – Juneteenth – and how the two fit together nicely. July 4th celebrates the Declaration of Independence on the founding of the United States as a new nation. Juneteenth represents a small step in commemorating that our national dream of living up to our ideals is incomplete. There are many more and greater steps to be taken.

The historic consequence of the founding of the United States cannot be overstated. The concept of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people was – and is – revolutionary. Its organizing principle is the protection of individual rights and allowing people to live their lives as they see fit, exercising these rights: life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

It is of course no secret that the U.S. has not lived up to these values, often denying people the opportunity to exercise these fundamental. When the nation was founded the rights only applied to white male landowners – although this was still far more extensive an approach to liberty than anywhere else on earth at the time. The darker stain, that was fundamentally disconsonant with the founding ideals of the United States, that as Frederick Douglas stated so eloquently gave lie to these very values, was slavery.

July 4 and Juneteenth

Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday does not, as some argued, undermine the ideals celebrated on July 4. Rather, it highlights an important step towards their completion. It also nicely connects to Memorial Day, which was established to honor the Civil War dead. The United States may be fundamentally flawed because of the slavery in its founding. But the high price in blood paid to end slavery is reminder that Americans play far more than lip service to their ideals.

Alas, the sin at the founding of the United States has not been fully expiated. The liberation of the slaves was not complete with the Civil War, as segregation descended over the South. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s may have ended the legal architecture of segregation, but inequality and injustice have remained.

Making Juneteenth a national holiday is a nice gesture, and an important one. But it is symbolic and symbols are important. The fact that it was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support is particularly heartening. In terms of addressing the long-standing issues of racial injustice, however, the action is in reparations.

Considering Reparations

During the second age of Creedal Passion (1820s and 1830s) the issue of abolitionism moved from the fringe to the mainstream. The seeds of the Civil War were sown. Today, in the fifth age of Creedal Passion the focus is on institutional racism. Reparations has moved from being little discussed to a pressing question. While reparations may not be undertaken for decades, they will come.

The moral case for reparations is strong, on a fundamental level incontestable. National wealth was built by African-American slave labor, for which the creators of that wealth have never been compensated. Further, even after emancipation, a host of blatantly racist policies prevented African-Americans from fully engaging the American Dream or more practically building familial wealth. My own takeaway from Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial The Warmth of Other Suns, is that considering their treatment it is an amazing thing that African-Americans did not turn to large-scale terrorism. (As a one-time student of terrorism and insurgency, the various violent black liberation movements in the U.S. were tiny compared to serious insurgencies or even compared to violent leftist and separatist groups in Western Europe.)

To take one specific example from Wilkerson, an African-American high school principal in Louisiana in the early part of the 20th century was paid $500 a year less than his white counterparts. For a back of the envelope calculation $500 over 40 years is $20,000, which based on 1920 value, would be work about a quarter of million dollars today. And that ignores the lost opportunities that this money might have afforded. And this is one very specific incident. There are millions other cases, ranging from harms done by violence to denied opportunities to build wealth, to say nothing of decades of endless humiliation and mistreatment. The numbers involved are staggering, tens of trillions of dollars. It is hard to argue that U.S. social programs – many of which were discriminatory in their own right – have addressed this national debt.

Reparations and Cost Benefit Analysis

But I’m not interested in debating the moral question of reparations, the case seems clear-cut (anyway Ta-Nehisi Coates does it better than I could possibly hope to). I’m interested in the practical case, are reparations a wise public investment.

I write this as a privileged upper middle-class white person. I, or (given my projected timeframe, my heirs) will almost certainly end up paying for any reparations policy. I’m also not interested in the details, although social science research has begun to find that giving people money is more effective than targeting programs with specific intentions. Let people make their own decisions about what they need.

A fundamental assumption of the case is that money can solve problems. The classic conservative argument is that social issues in the African-American community are due to culture (or more darkly genetics.) On the former, there is some merit and money will not remove all problems. At the same time, any account of American poverty highlights how draining it is, how people with limited resources often make poor decisions because of the cognitive demands of constantly making difficult decisions. Put another way, people aren’t poor because they make poor decisions. They make poor decisions because they are poor.

The Bible tells us: man does not live by bread alone…

One interpretation is that there is more to our lives than mere physical needs, true enough, but without bread, we cannot live either. The debate between culture and resources (like the debate of nature vs. nurture) has no certain solution. We are coming out of an era that emphasized culture and moving into one focusing on resources.

I’m interested in considering reparations from a hardnosed pragmatic aspect, not whether it is right – I readily grant that it is. I am asking whether or not it can be considered a good investment of public money. The case can be made.

First, the externalities of endemic African-American poverty are significant. Prisons, emergency health-case, are all a drain on the public purse and feed dysfunctional politics. There are, sadly, interest groups that prosper due to these dysfunctions (correctional facilities have been economic boons to rural communities where they are constructed.) Nonetheless, these costs are high.

Second, reparations would be an investment. More resources would unleash the creative and entrepreneurial energies of African-Americans. The United States is richer (not only financially but in every sense) because of the achievements and contributions of African-Americans. Yet, this dynamic component of our society has been chronically under-resourced. Median per capita income of African-American households is about $20,000 less than the U.S. average. Closing that gap would be an economic boon, from which all American would prosper – as the African-American community generated new businesses, had greater purchasing power, and could pay more taxes.

Finally, there is a smart foreign policy argument for reparations. During the Sixties, some of the leading advocates for ending segregation were the ardent Cold Warriors. Some no doubt were moved by the immorality of segregation, but others saw it as handing a propaganda victory to the Soviets. Many around the world are inspired by the ideals of the United States – those ideals we celebrate on July 4. Those who fear these ideals (tyrants and oligarchies) use our failures to live up to these ideals to discredit us. The unfortunate reality of human history is that every nation is founded on a pile of bones. Even a nation as peace-loving and tolerant as Canada has darkness in its past. What is important is not denying these failings, it how they are addressed and rectified. In paying reparations, the United States would send the world a signal that, in keeping with its ideals, it was able to reckon with its past. The world needs a United States actively striving to live up to its ideals, it will deliver us friends and allies among governments and people around the world.

On this July 4 I’m celebrating the establishment of this great nation and considering how to make it better. Reparations for slavery, besides righting a past wrong, will improve the economic and social health of the nation and be foreign policy masterstroke. The United States is at its best, such as rebuilding Europe after World War 2 when the right thing is also the smart thing. Reparations for slavery is another such instance.

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