Here’s a RealityChek post I never thought I’d write, leading off with two ideas I never thought I’d consider: First, I’m warming a lot toward the idea of the U.S. government paying some kind of taxpayer-funded reparations to African Americans in compensation for at least one cut-and-dried historical episode of economically costly racism. Second, a main reason is that I and my family – and millions and millions of others like us – have benefited economically, and considerably, from the white privilege reinforced by this episode.
I’m still somewhat wary of a main possible result of reparations – that payment will generate an ever growing list of demands for more payments. I also remain concerned that reparations will ease much of the moral pressure felt by white and others who oppose reparations to eliminate sources of racial economic inequality ranging from lousy and inequitably funded public schools to discriminatory mortgage practices.
But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that these worries reflect overly simplistic “slippery slope”-type arguments to which I’ve objected in the context of other issues. Specifically, they too easily become excuses for avoiding many necessary actions. For they imply that citizens and political leaders are devoid of the judgment needed to make the kinds of distinctions any complex community or society needs to be able to identify in order to remain even minimally functional.
More important, a little research I conducted the other day brought to my attention an instance of massive, systemic racism that took place many decades after emancipation. It came in the form of the discriminatory implementation of the GI Bill of 1944, which denied more than a million black World War II veterans vital most of the opportunities created by the law to establish a foothold in the nation’s middle class, and beyond.
If you’ll remember, opening unprecedented economic opportunity to the men and women that risked their lives to save their country and indeed the world was the whole point of the legislation. The means chosen were low-interest mortgages and equally generous loans for buying businesses and farms, and stipends to finance higher education expenses. Given the importance of homes and other assets in amassing significant amounts of wealth, and of college and many vocational degrees in generating middle-class-and-beyond income levels, the strategy made perfect sense. And it worked like a charm for most of the white veterans who used it.
Inexcusably, however, as this account makes clear, most black World War II veterans were excluded from these programs by a combination of state-level official and informal barriers to participation. Just as important, the effects of this discrimination also hobbled the economic prospects of the descendents of these African American servicemen and women. One major piece of evidence – the decades-old yawning racial wealth gap, which results largely from the long limited home-owning opportunities available to African Americans.
And here’s where the story gets personal – for me and others whose ancestors only came to the United States in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. It’s absolutely true that our grandparents or parents never owned slaves, overwhelmingly had no hand in maintaining systemic American racism, and largely arrived from their homelands with little more than the clothes on their backs. It’s also true that many and even most worked like the dickens to achieve their share of the American Dream, and that many were the victims of at least informal discrimination at some point in their lives.
This history was long the principal basis for my own insistence that, if any reparations were to be paid, I sure didn’t owe any.
Getting down to my case, my father, and his peers in the ranks of my relatives and friends, also came from economically modest backgrounds and generally worked like the dickens. My own father was blessed with the most powerful mind I’ve ever encountered, and owed much of his success to this brainpower as well (as did so many others of course).
He didn’t buy his first home until 1963, and so just missed the chance for GI Bill mortgage assistance. But there’s an excellent chance that, despite his intellect and other talents, he’d have never gone to college without the financial aid provided by the legislation – which enabled him to attend full-time and not have to worry about helping to pay the family bills. Certainly, my grandparents never encouraged him to continue his education beyond high school. Without college, of course, there would have been no law school (at night, on top of working full-time), and without his law degree, my own upbringing mightn’t have been so comfortable, and my own higher education opportunities might have been very different.
Again, my father was so brilliant, and so driven, that I’m sure he would have achieved considerable professional success without the GI Bill. I’m similarly confident that the same applies to any number of his peers. But it’s entirely possible that they wouldn’t overall have achieved as much success. And on the whole nowhere near as quickly. More important, their GI Bill benefits relieved or at least partly relieved my father and millions of other white veterans of having to make the kinds of often difficult choices and accept the kinds of often family-straining tradeoffs that confronted black veterans denied these benefits.
As a result, some amount of reparations based on the economic impact of GI Bill discrimination seems justified to me, along with including GI Bill beneficiaries like me as payers.
Obviously, critical details would need to be worked out, along with the question of what other kinds of reparations should be considered and paid. But the GI Bill’s history amounts to a clear instance of the federal government, and many sub-federal governments, systematically awarding to one group of Americans benefits whose effects have lasted many generations, and just as systematically excluding another class of Americans with equally valid claims. And even though subsequent veterans aid programs have been put into effect much more admirably, this clearcut discrimination, moreover, has had lasting, damaging effects.
What could be more fair and ethical than openly acknowledging this inequity, and providing compensation to the victims? And seriously discussing other cmparaable wrongs that might be at least partly righted in this way?