A debate on reparations

Posted: May 13, 2002 12:00 AM
Recently, FOX News commentator Juan Williams and I joined sides in a reparations debate sponsored by the Harvard Black Law Students Association. We were pitted against the high priests of reparations, Harvard Law professor Dr. Charles Ogletree and talk show host Joe Madison. There along the well-manicured lawns of America's premier educational institution, we were joined by hundreds of Harvard students, 99 percent of whom were inclined to believe the Ogletree/Madison mantra that there are - and always will be - victims. Victims of what, you may ask? Victims of the centuries-old crime of slavery. Victims of social hierarchies. Victims all. I took the opposite view. The discussion heated up when a young, African-American student raised his wool gabardine-clad arm (shirt, Dolce, $55), and asked, "Don't you think African Americans have been victimized by the white man and his racist system?" The question caused me to wonder aloud how much these victims paid a year for their Harvard education. "$35,000 a year," a student answered later. I shook my head incredulously. "What, precisely, about your $35,000 a year education has taught you to believe that you are a victim? I mean, why even go to college if you are already defeated?" The questions went unanswered. Instead, a panelist asserted that many black women suffer from breast cancer and a lack of health benefits - twin facts that she attributed to the lack of reparation payments. This was too much. "So let's get this right, if reparations had been paid, no black women would suffer from breast cancer or find themselves in need of health care?" I asked. "The disease would somehow leap over black women if reparations were paid?" Ripples formed across the students' foreheads. Ogletree interceded on behalf of victim status. He made some reasonable points - a shared history of slavery has created certain social hierarchies in this country. Over time, these social hierarchies have given rise to internal sentiments, such as the expectation of future possibilities for white kids and the destruction of future possibilities for poor minority children. Yes, so far this made sense. I concurred: "It is true that there remains quite a bit of hangover in this country from the cultural division that slavery wrought. I firmly believe that the racism of today isn't as much about skin color, as it is about the racial hierarchies that a shared history of slavery and discrimination ingrained into our national identity." Ogletree looked stunned and perhaps appalled that I was agreeing with him. He kicked it up a notch. Civil rights in this country, he insinuated, is not simply a matter of individual rights, but rather a collective effort to reverse those social hierarchies that deem minorities inferior. I was being set up as a betrayer of the race, a self-hater for opposing quotas and affirmative action and countless other measures designed to engineer racial progress. I cut him off: "The question isn't really whether minorities have been victimized. We have. The question is whether embracing victim status really helps us achieve equality. In other words, how do we move beyond initial steps of civil rights legislation? Many of our civil rights leaders have created the myth of retribution - the idea that seeking payback will somehow create equality. That's how they stay in business. By nurturing other people's anger and ignorance. But this is dangerous because it encourages society to regard all members of a fixed group as victims. It even convinces bright, capable Harvard students to regard themselves as victims." I tossed out a few examples of people fattening themselves on the racial angst of others: from Jesse Jackson-style racketeering to the recent scam in which black accountants collected fees by encouraging other black Americans to file for reparations on their tax returns. I then quoted my mentor, Justice Clarence Thomas, who once observed that "the (civil rights) revolution missed a larger point by merely changing the status (of minorities) from invisible to victimized." "How shameful," I concluded with a dramatic sweeping gesture (I had been practicing the move all week in the mirror). My opponent observed that I had failed to argue in terms of alternatives. That eschewing victim status does little to confront the reality of prejudice and inequality. He received a smattering of applause. I fell back on the Declaration of Independence, and its guiding spirit "that all men are created equal." My opponent countered that The Declaration of Independence was intended as a notice to the world and, therefore, was written with a rhetorical flair appropriate to the occasion. Needless to say there was an obvious disconnect between what our founding fathers espoused in general terms of equality and what they practiced in the specific. Nonetheless, I argued that if we are to embrace common rights, we must accept common humanity. That means protecting individual rights, rather than legislating group rights. "In other words, minorities should be treated as other humans," shouted a member of the student body. "Yes!" I effused. I then congratulated the Harvard student on doing something rather extraordinary - grasping the obvious.