Thomas Sowell
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SELF PRESERVATION is said to be the first law of nature, and this applies not only to human beings but also to organizations and movements. The March of Dimes was set up to fight polio but it did not disband when polio was wiped out by vaccines. Nor did civil rights organizations disband after civil rights laws were passed.

The fatal mistake made by those who imagine that they can appease movements and organizations with concessions is that concessions are incidental trophies for those who receive them, but unmet grievances are fundamental to their continued viability.

Back in the 1930s, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought that he could buy off Hitler with concessions to avoid war. More recently, both Israel and the Clinton administration discovered that offering even the most extraordinary concessions could not buy off Yasser Arafat. For either Hitler or Arafat to have made a lasting peace would have been to say that his grievances had now been met -- and that would have been a devastating blow to the movement which provided his power.

Against this background, it may be easier to understand why a demand can be made and a crusade launched to get something that everyone knows in advance will not be given -- reparations for slavery. No way are millions of white, Asian, and Hispanic Americans going to pay reparations for something that happened before their ancestors ever set foot on American Soil. Even those whites whose ancestors were here before the Civil War know that most of those ancestors -- whether they lived in the North or the South -- owned no slaves.

Seen in this light, the demand for reparations may seem like an exercise in futility. However, seen as a source of a lasting unmet grievance, it is a stroke of genius to keep blacks separated from other Americans and an aggrieved constituency to support black "leaders" in politics, organizations and movements.

This demand also mobilizes a certain amount of support or sympathy among whites, especially those in the media and in academia, where such support or sympathy costs nothing, and allows those who give it to relieve their own sense of guilt, while risking other people's money -- and national cohesion. Some white politicians can also benefit at little or no cost to themselves by expressing sympathy with the reparations cause or even voting for meaningless apologies for what others did centuries ago.

For these various groups, reparations is a win-win issue. For everyone else, including the vast majority of blacks, it is a lose-lose issue.

Blacks have already begun suffering losses from con men who have asked them to sign up for their individual shares of the reparations -- and have then stolen their identity and used it to defraud them. But this is just a down payment on the losses from this futile crusade.

In a democracy, a minority that is no longer even the largest minority cannot afford to alienate, much less embitter, the majority which ultimately holds the political power in the country. Too often, unending demands and grievances from black leaders and spokesmen create the impression that most blacks want something for nothing. In reality, most blacks lifted themselves out of poverty before the civil rights laws or the welfare state programs took effect.

Not only do most whites not know this, neither do most blacks today, for their leaders have taken credit for this progress by depicting it as the fruits of their civil rights movements and political efforts. But the poverty rate among blacks fell by half between 1940 and 1960, before any of the major federal civil rights legislation or the vast expansion of the welfare state under President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs.

Between 1940 and 1960, black males' number of years of schooling doubled. How surprising is it that doubling your education raises your income? In short, most blacks raised themselves out of poverty, but their leaders robbed them of this achievement and the respect it deserved -- in the eyes of blacks and whites alike -- by making it seem like a concession from the government and a product of agitation.

Pointing blacks in a direction from which little can be expected, and away from the enormous opportunities open today in the economy, is a formula for personal frustration, even if it benefits "leaders." But then, that frustration is itself a benefit to "leaders," who need a constituency with a sense of grievance.

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Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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