Wednesday, July 13, 2005

They're Boycotting WHAT? And Other Thoughts on Reparations

Over at The Moderate Voice, Joe Gandelman notes the revival of slave reparations by American companies. Though these aren't your stereotypical reparations--they're offering scholarships and education funds, not blanket checks--TMV still believes that any effort by groups like the NAACP to boycott companies who refuse to pay will be met by "a boycott by a counter group (or two) to get businesses not to participate."

I don't think that will happen, especially since the reparations are not in the form of plain cash. It's easy for commentators to grumble about reparations in the abstract. They can recite tired old arguments like "it assigns blame to innocent parties" and "it isn't what we should focus on today" (see below for more). But opposing a real-life policy of scholarship funds for minorities--and taking it to the extreme of boycotting companies that provide them? I'm cynical about racial relations in America, and I can't imagine any group stupid enough to invite that much bad press. Because, let's be honest--they're boycotting a company because said company is giving scholarships to blacks. That's how it will be reported in the media, and that's how the casual American will see it. Gee, how could that ever be taken the wrong way?

Of course, the issue of reparations as a normative matter is entirely separate. Yet, after a fair bit of the thought on the issue, I've concluded that reparations are a moral obligation for a country which too long has shirked it's obligations to remedy systematic white supremacy, both past (de jure) and present (de facto). Larry Bernard argues that reparations are wrong because
Reparations ignores [sic] the fact that the US government/Colonial government was a force that freed many slaves.
the role of abolitionists to the freedom of slaves.
the role of Africans in selling them into slavery.

The blame can go back to multiple countries that don't even have the capacity to pay for reparations.

Arguments which, themselves, miss the point. First of all, Bernard's history is way too rosy. In some cases at some times, the US government was a force for abolition. At other times, it was a force for enslavement. For the vast majority of the time (at least up until Brown in 1954), American governments were nearly universally a force for racial subordination, slavery or no. I think it's historically undeniable that America, as a nation, is still well in the negative in terms of its racial debts--a fact that exists independent of whatever blame specific African tribes had in the slave trade (this issue is also severable--as Bernard admits, most African nations couldn't even afford to pay reparations, so that "solution" is inapplicable. But while they can't, we can). But even if you don't believe that, the narrative he tells has absolutely nothing to do with corporations that benefited from slavery, which is where the NAACP is pressing the issue.

Second, Bernard mentions the role of abolitionists in freeing the slaves. I do not deny their role, but I question the relevancy to the debate at hand. The implicit argument Bernard is making is that "reparations damage white people, which is unfair because not only is it untrue that all whites were slave owners, but some whites affirmatively opposed slavery." The problem is twofold. First, again, the NAACP is specifically focusing on companies which benefited from slavery--not whites in general. Second and more importantly, however, it misconstrues the purpose of reparations. It isn't to "get back at Whitey." Rather, it is to remedy inadequacies and inequalities that have resulted from the slave system--inequalities in which all whites benefit. In a system which structurally advantages whites, all whites are advantaged, at least to some degree. A company which utilized slaves gained profits it would not have gained, which is then passed on to its (white) executives and its (white) shareholders. Those gains are illegitimately taken. While it is true that today there are some black shareholders and executives sharing the wealth, they are in a distinct minority (well behind the proportion you'd expect given their numbers in American society). The benefit to them is incidental and de minimis, about as relevant as saying that our obligations to slaves were fulfilled because we gave them housing and food.

Of course, most white beneficiaries of slavery have no racist motivations in their behavior--indeed, they probably aren't even aware of the racial dimensions. And no white alive today had a direct hand in creating the unjust system. That's all well and good, and it explains why reparations doesn't and shouldn't consist of reaching into white bank accounts and drawing out enough money until the "debt is paid." In this respect, reparations in the form of scholarships and education funds satisfy both interests at stake--not punishing whites for being unwitting beneficiaries of a system they had no role in creating, while still providing compensation for Blacks who to this day are harmed by racial subordination.

Bernard continues with a political critique of the NAACP's advocacy focus:
When black kids are getting poor educations in the inner cities, the NAACP isn't going out there and pressing on that issue.
When black parents are not just allowing, but encouraging their children to fail in this society the NAACP is silent on this issue.

But when a company can be shook down for cash, the NAACP has their hands out.

This is simply repugnant.

No, this is simply wrong. A cursory check of the NAACP's website shows that education advocacy is one of their core issues, as well as their youth and college department. These departments are two of just five issue-specific categories in which the NAACP specifically advocates (the others being Health, Development, and Legal). To say that they are "silent" on the sub-par education received by many black Americans is false, plain and simple. Perhaps we don't hear the calls of the NAACP for improved educational access for minorities, but that I think says more about how race relations is descriptively portrayed in America today (a bunch of whiny leftist radicals complaining about ridiculous things like 100 year old wrongs and too few minorities in TV shows) rather than how most minority advocacy groups would like to hear it discussed.

But perhaps what's most distressing about Bernard's argument is that it entails a wholesale reversal of virtually every standard American legal principle. If entity A illegitimately harms entity B, and gains from it, B has a valid tort claim against A and A's ill-begotten gains. This is axiomatic in American law, and on every other issue but reparations, it is also completely uncontroversial. What is the difference here? Possibly the time elapsed (though that incorrectly assumes that the racial subordination traceable to slavery (and in general, for that matter) is something "in the past," see Delgado below), I guess. But think of the precedent we're setting: that if you can dodge liability for massive injustices for X amount of years, then you're home free. In cases of massive wrongs (and in civil claims in general), this "modified statute of limitations" argument simply doesn't fly--especially since it was our legal system which prevented Blacks from pursuing slavery reparation claims when it would have been timely. For America to a) enslave people, b) prevent newly freed slaves from recovering damages for their unjust treatment for well over a century, and then c) say they can't be compensated because too much time has elapsed is a mockery of justice.

Arguing from a different position, Senor C over at Restless Mania thinks that (in a nutshell) reparations would deprive Blacks of any future ability to claim disadvantage due to their race (a sort of "we covered that already"). Senor C implies that this would be a bad thing, so reparations should be avoided.

First off, this same argument could be used to attack any program which sought to aid blacks for past injustices. Indeed, the argument has parallels to the "backlash" attack on Affirmative Action (roughly, that affirmative action will make whites resentful of blacks and thus will ultimately be a step back in their quest for equality). Likewise, Senor C believes that actions which remedy racial subordination will remove whatever sympathy whites had for their plight--ending in "a complete reversal in the treatment of blacks at all levels of society." However, we can use the example of Affirmative Action to prove this won't happen. As University of Pittsburgh Law Professor Richard Delgado notes:
The [backlash] argument is empirical. It holds that if you do X, something bad will happen. But stigmatization and negative stereotyping of people of color in the media and movies, and as reflected in public opinion polls, has either held constant or decreased in the roughly thirty-year period that affirmative action has been in place. Before this time, stereotyping of blacks and other minorities was rampant -- groveling maids and Aunt Jemimas, shoot-you-in-the-back Mexicans, "ugh-want-um" Indians, and more....Stigma is in plentiful supply still, but it predates and operates independently of affirmative action. [Richard Delgado, 10 Arguments Against Affirmative Action--How Valid?, 50 Ala. L. Rev. 135, 139 (1998)]

Second, it rather weirdly assumes that Blacks don't want a "complete reversal" of their treatment in society. Given the state of our racial condition in America today, I'd imagine this would be a benefit. People often underestimate the plight of minorities in America today--with anti-discrimination laws in place, everything is assumed to be made "right" (and such things as AA and reparations give blacks an out and out advantage!). They are unaware of or ignore evidence which notes that black poverty tends to last longer than whites (Delgado, at 140), that middle class blacks face more economic instability than comparable white families (Id.), that the children of middle-income blacks typically have worse life prospects than those of poor whites (Id., at 141), and other similar issues. A wholesale shift in the racial mapping of our society could very well be exactly what we need.

Third, if blacks aren't allowed to use their disadvantaged status for anything, what good does it do them to have it? Senor C seems to think it has some value (after all, losing it would "catalyze[]...economic, social, and political marginalization"), but the only semi-tangible benefit blacks are allowed to draw from it, apparently, is white sympathy. If I were Black, I'd say "thanks for the sympathy, but what I'd really like is some concrete action to rectify the systemic racial injustices that still exist in American society today." 140 years after abolition, with racial equality still barely on the horizon, I think African-Americans can justly cash in some of their chips. And I think that even an obligation as massive as reparations for slavery only makes a dent in what America as a nation owes the victims of its racially destructive policy. Extreme wrongs require extreme remedies.

1 comment:

Randomscrub said...

I think your legal argument for reparations is terrible:

If entity A illegitimately harms entity B, and gains from it, B has a valid tort claim against A and A's ill-begotten gains. This is axiomatic in American law, and on every other issue but reparations, it is also completely uncontroversial. What is the difference here?

The difference here is that these "illegitimate" gains were legal at the time. You cannot hold any company or individual legally responsible for such "ill gotten gains" if they were legal when they were gained. This is not a case of dodging responsibility until a statute of limitations runs out, it is a case of ex post facto law.

You can feel free to make a moral argument for reparations (which I would disagree with), but a legal one? I would have thought you'd know better.