Self-invention has always been an American ideal. We're supposed to enjoy opportunities to make our own fortunes and control our own fates, in this world and the next. The Calvinism of seventeenthcentury colonials proved less quintessentially American than did the notion that you can choose to be born again in Christ. This is not a culture inclined to embrace ideas of predestination, spiritual or financial. In the mythic, utterly egalitarian America--the democratic America Tocqueville described--we create our own futures, unburdened by our familial pasts.
That is the American dream and a primary ideological obstacle to winning reparations for slavery.
Demands for reparations challenge the vision of an American meritocracy. African Americans have not enjoyed equal opportunities for self-invention, advocates of reparations insist: Tenacious economic discrimination, widespread denials of voting rights, and oppressive brutalities (like lynching) followed the abolition of slavery and made sure that the descendants of slaves would be burdened by their history, not freed from it.
I don't dispute the truth of this assertion; the persistence of discrimination throughout the twentieth century is a primary justification for affirmative action, which I have always supported, a little unhappily. Race-conscious hiring, promotion, and admission policies are not entirely equitable, but they are necessary and, on balance, less inequitable than race-blind policies. Still I don't regard affirmative action as compensation for the past; I regard it as insurance for the future. I don't support affirmative action programs because I believe that white women and racial minorities have somehow earned the right to preferential treatment, by inadvertently inheriting discrimination. I support affirmative action because I can't figure out a better way to achieve equality.
So I hesitate to endorse recent demands for slavery reparations, although they have been thoughtfully presented. Opening a new conversation about reparations, activists and intellectuals, like Randall Robinson and Charles Ogletree, have stressed that they are not asking for direct cash payments to African Americans; reparations may take the form of compensatory social and economic programs. (In a recent article in The Nation, Robinson called for "public initiatives, not personal checks.") They have not accused those Americans whose ancestors were not enslaved of collaborating in the perpetuation of racism. "No one holds any living person responsible for slavery" or its legacies, Robinson stressed. They have made an appeal to our collective conscience, not issued an indictment of collective guilt.
Still, it's hard to imagine how this appeal might be implemented more than 100 years after abolition, without encouraging a belief in inherited guilt. Reparation demands do rest on the conviction that the nation owes a debt to its black citizens. This view implicitly implicates all citizens who constitute the nation, except the victims of slav-ery. First-, second-, or third-generation Americans whose families were busy being persecuted in some other country when slavery was abolished here may be particularly resistant to the demand that they contribute to reparations, but even if you don't believe in inherited guilt, it's difficult to make a case against the descendants of slaveholders.
How will we identify the beneficiaries of reparations? Will they be limited to people of African ancestry? Will they include those Americans of African descent whose ancestors participated in the slave trade? Will they include all those Americans of mixed race descended from slaves and slaveholders? If reparations are intended to atone for racism, will they extend to all self-identified people of color, like Hispanics, Native Americans, or Pacific Islanders? Will the drive for reparations provoke a close examination of our ancestry to determine racial purity and entitlement to compensation?
Irritating questions like these are sure to follow from demands for reparations. They illustrate the difficulties of atoning for sins committed over a century ago. The perpetrators and their victims have been dead for generations, and we can't identify their survivors, which makes the payment of slavery reparations much more complicated and controversial than the compensation of Jewish Holocaust victims, Japanese citizens interned during World War II, or blacks who witnessed the murderous riots in Greenwood, Oklahoma, in the 1920s. (A commission in Oklahoma recently recommended that reparations be paid to the survivors of the Greenwood massacre.) Reparations for slavery should have been paid in the late 1800s, when they were first demanded, or at least in the early 1900s. It's not fair, but it may be inevitable that the failure to recognize claims for compensation within a generation or two makes them virtually impossible to recognize at all.
I'm not offering this as an excuse for amnesia about our history, but the difficulties of designing reparations do suggest that history is sometimes irremediable. I am always nonplussed and a little annoyed when some head of state offers an apology for the crimes of his predecessors. While I understand the symbolic value of Tony Blair's apology to the Irish or Clinton's apology to Africa for the U.S. role in slavery, I still find their contrition rather cloying. It's easy to atone for someone else's sins. Vicarious apologies are cheap thrills for the sanctimonious.
This does not condemn us to inaction when we are confronted with racism and economic inequities in the present. I might support many of the public initiatives offered by advocates for reparations, but I'd justify them differently. Why must we suggest that, by accidents of birth, people have somehow earned the right to government assistance in achieving equality?
There's an ideological paradox at the heart of demands for reparations: They challenge the myth of an American meritocracy, as the civil rights movement once challenged the myth of legal equality. Reparations aim to make the meritocratic ideal a reality for African Americans, as the civil rights movement aimed to realize the constitutional ideal of equality under law. But the campaign for reparations also reflects some of the premises of the aristocracy it attacks: It allows the past to define our entitlements in the present; it relies on a belief in the justice of inheritance.
If equality is an American birth-right, we shouldn't have to rationalize efforts to achieve it by labeling those efforts compensation for the past. Whether or not your great-greatgrandparents were enslaved, you ought not to be consigned to substandard schools, excluded from home ownership by discriminatory lending or sales practices, or subject to arbitrary searches by police because of the color of your skin. If equality is a birthright, you don't have to purchase it with the sufferings of your ancestors, any more than you should be allowed to purchase privileges with your ancestors' achievements.
It's a coincidence worth noting that demands for reparations have followed a drive to reduce or even eliminate estate taxes and allow for tax-free transfers of wealth between generations. George W. Bush, who essentially inherited his place at Yale and hopes to inherit the presidency, opposes the "death tax." I suspect that like many aristocrats, including Al Gore, Bush feels deserving of the privileges he's inherited. I suspect he is irrationally proud of what he considers to be the accomplishments of his father and grandfather (accomplishments for which he can claim no credit); maybe he's proud of his "bloodlines."
I have no quarrel with noblesse oblige (it helped shape Franklin D. Roosevelt). But noblesse oblige reflects a commitment to making yourself worthy of what you've inherited, a commitment to earning your privilege with your own labors--not justifying it with the labors of your forebears. Bush, for one, doesn't exhibit noblesse oblige; he exhibits a sense of inherited entitlement, which is echoed in campaigns for reparations.
Underlying the demand for reparations is one of the great taboos of American politics: the demand for redistribution of wealth. The compensatory programs envisioned by reparations advocates are essentially redistributive; they're intended to raise the economic status of blacks. As Robinson suggests, they would acknowledge and undo the "mechanisms" that have pushed blacks to "the back of the line." But if the problem is a system of inherited poverty and inherited wealth, why not address it directly?
If I were queen, just before abolish-ing my office, I'd raise taxes on intergenerational transfers of wealth and use the proceeds to help build a meritocracy. May be I'd devote the additional revenues to public education, health care, or transportation. Maybe I'd compensate people victimized by racial profiling. Maybe I'd fund some of the public initiatives proposed by Robinson, but I wouldn't call them reparations. We shouldn't have to justify equality. ¤