Saturday, February 19, 2011

Remembering a Conservative Call for Reparations

This is dedicated to the holders of a particular ideology in my hometown of Cincinnati and its vanilla suburbs. 

Consider this another dispatch from the Blind Squirrel Finds Acorn files

I don't think I had heard of the notion of reparations before I stumbled upon the topic during high school. The unlikely source of my introduction was a 1990 op-ed piece by arch-conservative Charles Krauthammer. He was still an advocate for reparations in 2001. In a surprising departure from the beliefs of his conservative colleagues, Krauthammer did not advocate a Great National Forgetting nor instruct African-Americans simply to Get Over It. Rather, he followed principles recently rearticulated in an article on forgiveness, insisting that for grievances to be suspended, appropriate amends must be offered. I can get behind that vision of social harmony.

Here is Krauthammer in a 2001 rejoinder to David Horowitz: "There is nothing to compare with centuries of state-sponsored slavery followed by a century of state-sponsored discrimination.... Is there a way... to recognize the debt of the past without poisoning the present and future? There is. Reparations. A lump sum compensation does not, of course, make full amends. Nothing can. No one, for example, would pretend that postwar German reparations for the Holocaust made amends. But they were nonetheless extremely important. They gave both symbol and substance to atonement.

Sounds rather like a Fox News caricature of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, does it not? Well, I assure you, it is the very same Krauthammer who bitterly opposes the Democratic Party and President Obama, the same one who lent his full-throated supported to neocons such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.

Fleshing out his program for reparations, Krauthammer goes on to suggest that something on the order of $50,000 be given to every African-American family in exchange for, well, shutting up forever about the whole effects of slavery, rape, lynching, joblessness, arson, depressed wages, baseless incarceration, and residential segregation thing. One wonders if he still feels the same way now that the "budget surplus" from which he proposed drawing the $440 billion in reparations has blown away in an Iraqi sandstorm...

I have my own reservations about some of the premises and details of the project, but I do not disagree with its basic vision of redress. However, I would imagine that most white Americans would balk at Krauthammer's proposal, even in the best of economic times. Across the broad middle of the ideological spectrum and across a variety of class positions, most would offer an alliterative slogan of Hard Work and not Handouts. At this point, many would begin to talk about an immigrant grandfather who "came to this country with nothing" but, through a disciplined work ethic and frugality, moved the family into the middle class. 

I do not dispute the existence of these Grand Fathers. But is the story of the middle class, told in aggregate, a story of self-reliant individuals who, spontaneously and simultaneously, chose to work hard and save their money? Or is the American middle-class the product of large-scale social projects? After the jump, I synthesize the work of historians to show that the middle class was the product of elite political and financial decision-makers. Were it not for these large-scale social projects, American society would have settled into something like feudalism or the oligarchies of the decolonized world.

(Note: The history I offer below is largely indebted to historians Edmund Morgan and Theodore Allen on the issue of "freedom dues" and Lizabeth Cohen on the expansion of the consumer economy after WWII).  

According to historians, the creation of a middle class in the United States occurred primarily in two specific episodes, undertaken with full-scale societal commitment--in other words, big government involvement, accompanied by innovations in economic markets.

1) The long campaign of Indian Removal (1609-1918): Beginning in the colonial period, landless whites--usually freed indentured servants--were the leading edge of the push into Indian territory. While indentured servants were a fairly good bargain during the terms of their contracts, those who survived these grueling years would have become a charge on the local government if they were simply turned out from their masters' households with no seed money. Therefore, to relieve the colony's wealthy from having to support people who were no longer required to be of service, legislatures mandated that freed servants be given "freedom dues"--usually including land, seed for a cash crop, and a gun. The governments realized that only a slave or a dependent could live in society empty-handed, a free citizen required property, a means of making profit, and a means of protecting property. 

Of course, the landed gentry did not take much from their own store to give to the servants they released. Instead, they simply offered Indian country and a gun. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the colonies restricted both land and gun ownership, and the freedom they entailed, to whites. Africans in the Americas lost the capacity to petition the law for manumission, and Indian claims to land were considered invalid. They had not developed the land, if development meant implementing large-scale plantation agriculture. Without having put their own labor into the land in this way, the Lockean principles that have governed Anglo-American law held that migrating Indians were not landowners.

Government played a massive role in these matters, mandating the receipt of freedom dues, negotiating trade treaties with Indian nations and, eventually, mounting a costly military campaign for their removal. Crucially, the role of government did not preclude business. Instead, Indian land and African persons stood alongside rice, tobacco, and King Cotton as early America's hot commodities, and new speculative markets arose around their valuation and sale.

2) The WWII Boom (1942-1975):  By the Gilded Age, the Jacksonian ideal of social equality had proven illusory--even for white men. By the Great Depression, a wide chasm separated the robber barons from the people on the bread lines. Hoping to stave off a home-grown Bolshevik revolution, government and business interests collaborated to create  a middle class to fill that chasm. The most important governments initiatives were the G.I. Bill and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The G.I. Bill provided federal funds for returning WWII soldiers to attend college and enter white-collar professions, start small businesses, and buy homes. Assisting non-veterans, the FHA provided the home loans that made the 1950s picket-fence ideal.

In 1945, William Levitt, the builder of Levittown, argued in support of government involvement in the production of low-cost suburban houses with the promise that “no man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.”  Levittowns were residentially segregated spaces in which whites of the urban ghettoes experienced a small taste of American dreams. Obviously, a large-scale social commitment to building a middle class did not stifle his business. Federal loans to homeowners created new markets for real estate developers and speculators. The credit card market, as we know it today, opened up to facilitate consumption of real estate, education, and consumer goods by people who would otherwise have been unable to afford them.

Bottom line: there would be no middle class if it weren't for government involvement. And business has always found a way to capitalize on these expansions of the middle class.
Freedom dues, the GI Bill and the FHA were handouts given to produce a set of propertied citizens. Backing the rhetoric of free citizenry with money, the state and corporate sectors made out of formerly marginalized peoples stakeholders in society, people of consequence. This is the story historians tell of how the Irish, Jews, Italians, and the like went from living in ethnic ghettoes to being more or less embraced within middle-American WASP culture.

What becomes fascinating, then, is why there has been such resistance to undertaking such efforts to bring the descendants of slaves and dispossessed Indians into the American middle class. 

Reconstruction after the Civil War was basically a fairly traditional offer of freedom dues to the new black citizens. Free public schooling, land, the vote, gun ownership--all of this would have been entailed. The fabled 40 acres and a mule were never delivered en masse. Indians got reservations on desert land; African-Americans got vagrancy acts. Should they be found without work in the post-civil war South, they could be convicted of vagrancy and sentenced to convict labor--the only form of forced labor still permitted under the amendments prohibiting slavery. As Douglas Blackmon painfully details, the end of slavery was occasioned by an explosion in prisons in the South.

The Klan's ensuing reign of terror was, of course, not directed solely (or even mostly) at alleged rapists, but primarily against rival storeowners, school teachers, prospective voters, intrepid journalists, and other upstarts. In short, it was designed to ensure the end of federal Reconstruction and to retain as much of the master-slave relationship as could be salvaged.

The mid-twentieth century creation of a middle class was characterized by a strict exclusion of African-Americans from home-ownership, the primary source of intergenerational wealth in this country. The denial of credit to prospective black homebuyers and entrepreneurs is legendary. With its vehement antagonism toward a meddlesome federal government, affirmative action, and wealth transfer, it is not an exaggeration to see the New Right as the heirs of the Klan. Members of the New Right do not usually enact racial terrorism themselves, but they support its continuation through the punishment industry. (It should be no surprise, then, that the second explosion in police ranks and prison construction brought the curtain down on the second attempt at Reconstruction--the civil rights movement).  As unfair as the comparison may seem, the New Right interrupted the Great Society programs it loathes as surely as their predecessors broke up Reconstruction efforts.

The half-hearted attempts at (and easy abandonment of) Reconstruction--take 1 and 2--explain why we do not yet have a postracial society. When it comes to the large-scale social efforts necessary to make African-Americans propertied citizens, the country has quickly aborted projects that it has, in other cases, undertaken with great gusto.

Conservatives today object to such projects as big government and social engineering; objections which do not stand up to scrutiny. We cannot argue that the big government expenditures that made the white middle class stifled individual initiative or economic growth. From real estate and education to credit cards and automobiles, many industries in the contemporary world could not exist were it not for the federal intervention and financial innovations that produced the white American middle class as consumers with disposable income. 

Therefore, one is left to conclude that the consistent refusal to make the same efforts to form an African-American citizenry (to say nothing of dispossessed Indians) tells a somber truth: The United States has never imagined a place beyond the slave for African-Americans, as a whole. Putting aside those exceptions--those "credits to their race" who, white people like to say they "don't think of as black"--black people in the United States are surplus. We have always been, as a mass, undesirable as citizens, shorn of property and protection, desirable only insofar as we are of service, to work or entertain (in their economic and erotic senses).

Most conservatives and a great deal of liberals would say that I am making the argument of someone who  wants the racism problem to go on forever. Yet, it is precisely the opposite. I actually do agree with the spirit (if not all of the details) of the remarks of Charles Krauthammer. If the United States actually made the necessary efforts to bring the descendants of the enslaved and dispossessed into the middle class, then the whole country could shut up about race forever. We really could have the country the conservatives say they want: no affirmative action or mention of race; individual choice and effort as the determinant of social position. 

Now, this isn't the queerfeministmarxistutopia that my friend amc spoke of in jest in our early years of graduate school. I'm not saying it would actually be the society of full and permanent justice. However, it would be a major step in the right direction. And perhaps my conservative friends will consider this the rare instance in which a liberal squirrel finds an acorn.


  1. You said, "At this point, many would begin to talk about an immigrant grandfather who 'came to this country with nothing' but, through a disciplined work ethic and frugality, moved the family into the middle class."

    It may very, very well be true, but what so many people forget is that many immigrants were able to anglicanize their surname and the first generation born here were often as (white) American as apple pie. However, black Americans, unless they were extremely fair skinned, had no chance at this and therefore were confined to the deepest depths of the American caste system well into the 20th century.

    If you've not read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, I highly recommend.

    That being said, I do not believe in reparations. However, I do not believe in separate and unequal educational systems for blacks and whites in this country either, and yet, that is more or less what we have. If we treated education like we treat war, we'd have the most educated children in the world.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Justin. You make an excellent point about the capacity to Anglicize, and your noting of Wilkerson's excellent book is right on time.

    Regarding your support of equal educational systems, I would hesitate to say that education alone opens the doorway to the middle class. Even white skin has never, by itself, guaranteed access to property or middle-classness.

    The point of my piece is that it has always taken a full-scale social commitment from a variety of institutions to turn people with nothing to people with something. So, whether we call them reparations, the Great Society, or a new-New Deal, or what-have-you -- this is the only thing that will create a black middle class.

    I think we might be in agreement about this, as even the necessary investment in education would require a massive commitment from government, business, taxpayers, churches, parents... -- again, a full-scale commitment.

  3. A related story regarding so-called 'black flight' in Detroit: