Nothing talks quite like money, and Robert L. Johnson, a wealthy black man who cofounded Black Entertainment Television (BET) four decades ago, lately has been talking about $14 trillion.
That’s what it will take, he insists, for whites in this country to make amends to blacks for enslaving them in bygone centuries. Only a transfer of wealth of this magnitude would “cause America to live up to the concept and the notion that this nation was born on the idea of American exceptionalism,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on June 1.
What reparations have to do with “American exceptionalism,” that oft-abused term, is not at all clear. What is clear is that in recent years, demands for reparations to the descendants of enslaved blacks have escalated alarmingly and, for the first time, with some prospect of success.
Living American whites, of course, were not around centuries ago to extract slave labor from blacks—or, for that matter, from the many whites who were slaves or indentured servants during our colonial era. But reparations enthusiasts have a retort: All of today’s white wealth on some level is an inheritance of racial oppression. Even “good” whites must recognize their complicity in crime and atone by accepting enforced restitution.
In the world of academia, this ostensibly unearned wealth is called white-skin privilege. In the world of law, it is called unjust enrichment. A number of years ago, University of Hawaii law professor and critical race theorist Mari Matsuda revealed the leveling instinct of this shaming campaign. “Members of the dominant class continue to benefit from the wrongs of the past and the presumptions of inferiority imposed upon victims,” she wrote. “They may decry this legacy, and harbor no racist thoughts of their own, but they cannot avoid their privileged status.”
The idea of holding every white individual responsible for the sins of all whites, past, present, and future is the essence of collectivism. While this contrivance fails as history and law, it succeeds as rhetoric, at once delegitimizing white wealth and legitimizing black theft. Talent, perseverance, ambition, and flexibility, not to mention occasional luck, in this view, are irrelevant to achievement.
Since our laws allegedly enshrine so-called systemic racism, it follows that the system must be reconfigured to satisfy black grievances—whatever the cost. This advocacy has been realized all too well through affirmative action quotas, welfare state expansion, and spurious anti-discrimination lawsuits. Reparations would take things to their logical conclusion.
Reparations activism has ebbed and flowed since its beginnings around 125 years ago. But much of the impetus for the current madness can be traced to three recent and highly influential publishing events.
The first was Randall Robinson’s bestseller, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2001). Robinson, founding director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit TransAfrica, expressed a number of egregious views in that tome. American slavery was a “black holocaust,” he argued, perhaps unaware of the fact that many blacks, especially in South Carolina and Louisiana, were themselves slaveholders.
Naturally, Robinson believes all white wealth is tainted. “Of course, benefiting inter-generationally from this weather of racism,” he wrote, “were white Americans whose assets piled up like fattening snowballs over [a] three-and-a-half-centuries’ terrain of slavery and the mean racial climate that followed it.” Robinson’s rhetoric became a catalyst for a series of reparations lawsuits against nearly 20 corporations, all dismissed, filed by an ambitious black lawyer, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann.
The second publishing sensation was the June 2014 cover story in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” The author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a frequent contributor to the magazine, espoused the typical Afrocentric view of America as one long melodrama of white oppression and black redemption. But unlike previous reparations manifestos, this one was intensely personal, and largely for that reason, wowed large numbers of whites.
Coates wasn’t about to reciprocate. For him, even hip, progressive whites—the kind who buy and renovate homes in urban neighborhoods—are on the hook. In his misty-eyed 2017 elegy to the Obama era, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Coates, with trademark arrogance and solipsism, sneered:
I know that ‘gentrification’ is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy, is the interest on enslavement, the interest on Jim Crow, the interest on redlining, compounding across the years, and these new urbanites living off that interest are, all of them, exulting in a crime.
The most recent and potentially most destructive publishing event, The New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project,” was launched in August 2019. Led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, this writers’ collective seeks to recast all of American history as a four-century timeline of black enslavement. Since whites have reaped the rewards, they argue, it is only fair that they return a large portion to the rightful owners so that our country can “heal.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones’ ambitions go well beyond publishing. This July, her friend, black multi-billionaire Oprah Winfrey, announced a production deal to bring various stories of “The 1619 Project” to TV and movie screens.
All this healing won’t come cheap. Reparations advocates speak of trillions, not billions. BET’s Johnson and his $14 trillion solution is merely the latest addition to the echo chamber. Back in 1990, Kwame Afo, a representative of a group calling itself New Africa, demanded a $133,000 payment to every black man, woman, and child in the U.S., something that would have cost around $4 trillion. That was a bargain.
In 2002, a Los Angeles-based black lawyer, Robert Brock, a deceptively key figure in the reparations hustle, filed a class-action lawsuit demanding $250,000 in gold bullion for every black person in the nation, plus payments to an unnamed African country where the beneficiaries could resettle. The tab would amount to at least $10 trillion. The lawsuit was not granted standing.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) recently demanded that the U.S. government, plus certain corporations and other organizations allegedly benefiting from slave labor, pay reparations to blacks in the combined sum of $8 trillion and submit a formal apology.
Another organization, American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), is demanding a New Deal for Black America. The wish list contains, among other things, monetary set-asides for descendants of slaves, a 15 percent quota of Small Business Administration loans for black-owned businesses, and an infrastructure plan to benefit black communities.
Particularly reprehensible are the academic supporters who lend respectability to these shakedowns. The acknowledged dean of the field is a black economist at Duke University, William Darity, Jr. In a recent article, Darity wrote, “A program of black reparations should move the share of wealth owned by blacks to at least 12 to 13 percent, corresponding to the black proportion of America’s citizenry.”
This is affirmative action as macroeconomics. By using mean rather than median dollar figures, the authors’ estimate of the accumulated “debt” was $13.1 trillion rather than $2.6 trillion. Several years before, Thomas Craemer, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, estimated the appropriate compensation payable to blacks at between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion.
Mainstream conservatives, too many of whom reflexively seek black approval to validate their views, insist that only a small portion of blacks want reparations. Al Sharpton or Maxine Waters, acting at the behest of George Soros or some other white puppeteer of the left, might want reparations, the argument goes, but most blacks don’t.
Such conspiracy-flavored rationalizations may be emotionally satisfying, but they avoid the reality that a great many blacks do favor reparations. In a June 2014 HuffPost/YouGov poll, 63 percent of black respondents said they supported mandatory, targeted education and job training for descendants of slaves, and 59 percent supported cash payments as compensation. The respective figures for white respondents were 19 percent and 6 percent.
A June 2019 Gallup Poll likewise found dramatic discrepancies by race. Fully 73 percent of blacks supported a cash reparations program to benefit descendants of slaves, while only 25 percent opposed it. Among non-Hispanic whites, only 16 percent supported such compensation and 81 percent opposed it.
Many conservatives are likely to respond that even if such polls are accurate, reparations are not what Martin Luther King, Jr., supposedly a conservative, would have wanted. If only that were true. In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, King called for “compensatory consideration” for blacks. “It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years,” King wrote. “How then can he be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him to compete on a just and equal basis?”
While King did not explicitly mention the word “reparations,” his appeal for special treatment for blacks for an indefinite period served as the moral basis for the race-based affirmative action inflicted upon this country.
The reparations machinery, in fact, is already in motion. Lawmakers in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Vermont have introduced bills that would have their respective states apologize for their role in slavery and explore the possibility of monetary compensation. Ironically, Vermont had banned slavery way back in 1777, when it was not yet a state. Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, among other cities led by black city council members, have formally endorsed a proposed federal reparations study commission.
Within the last few years, Princeton Theological Seminary, Virginia Theological Seminary, and Georgetown University have succumbed to student demands. The pledge by Princeton Theological Seminary President M. Craig Barnes to fulfill a five-year, $27.6 million reparations proposal pitched by woke students was the embodiment of latter-day white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant fecklessness. “The Seminary’s ties to slavery are part of our story,” Barnes wrote. “It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society.”
There will be far more capitulation if Congress passes the proposed reparations study bill, formally known as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, or H.R. 40 (as in “40 acres and a mule”). First introduced in 1989 by the late Rep. John Conyers and reintroduced like clockwork ever since—Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee assumed the mantle in the wake of Conyers’ resignation in December 2017—the bill is a blueprint for a shakedown.
It is utter naiveté to believe that the measure is benign for only mandating a study commission but not payments. Supporters on Capitol Hill, especially the more than 50 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are not going to be satisfied with rhetoric alone. And they know that in 2020 their time has arrived. The inevitable anti-white composition of this commission ensures some serious check-writing later on.
Democratic Party leaders stand ready to supply the boodle. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, if tentatively, have gone on record as supporting reparations. So has current presidential nominee Joe Biden. In a Feb. 28, 2020 primary campaign speech in Spartanburg, S.C., he emphatically endorsed a Senate companion reparations study bill sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker, himself a presidential candidate for a while. “I support that study,” Biden said. “Let’s see where that takes us.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as a presidential candidate in 2019, declared, “So, I believe it’s time to start the national full-blown conversation about reparations in this country.” The list of supporters could be expanded indefinitely.
Americans must be prepared to face down demands for reparations, which amount to legalized extortion, whatever the form or level of compensation. There is nothing good to be said for it. Demands for reparations are economically predatory, historically ignorant, politically divisive, legally unconstitutional, and morally repellent.
If, as a nation, we capitulate to these demands, we do so at our own peril. Pulling down statues is a symbolic way of overthrowing America. Extorting white wealth is surely its material equivalent.