Last week I promised a series of columns making deliberately unrealistic policy proposals, on the theory that the Trump era has overturned a lot of basic political assumptions (my own included), making it a reasonable time to entertain unusual ideas.
This week’s proposal is directly related to one of those overturned assumptions: the theory, beloved of liberals but accepted as well by many conservatives, that a multiracial society requires both parties to compete across lines of ethnicity and color, and that white-identity politics is a path to the political wilderness.
Not so. Instead, the demographic transformation of America has given us a Democratic Party more attuned to racial injustice or committed to ethnic patronage (depending on your point of view) than ever, and a Republican Party that has exploited white racism or ridden a white backlash against ethnic patronage (again, depending on your perspective) on its way to control of the House, the Senate and the White House.
At one end of this polarized political landscape, you have the liberal acclaim that greeted Ta-Nehisi Coates’ case for reparations, his argument that the debt owed by “the people who believe themselves to be white” to the descendants of African slaves is vast and essentially unpaid.
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At the other end you have the fears of those white Trump voters who feel like the new liberalism offers affirmative action for everyone but them, allowing immigrants and minorities to “cut the line” (to borrow an image from Arlie Russell Hochschild’s recent study of working-class Republicans) and claim an American dream that they themselves can no longer reach.
These views are worlds apart, but it is actually possible to accept elements of both. It can be simultaneously true that slavery and Jim Crow robbed black Americans on a scale that still requires redress, and that offering redress through a haphazard system of minority preferences in hiring, contracting and higher education creates a new set of reasonable white grievances in its turn.
After all, what are white Americans supposed to make of a system that offers Hispanic or Asian business owners an advantage never enjoyed by their own Irish or Polish or Scots-Irish forefathers, or boosts upper-class African and Caribbean college applicants whose ancestors never lived in slavery? What are they supposed to think of a system that was established 50 years ago as a temporary experiment, but keeps gaining new half-lives and further beneficiaries – moving “swiftly and imperceptibly,” as Chris Caldwell once put it, “from a world in which affirmative action can’t be ended because its beneficiaries are too weak to a world in which it can’t be ended because its beneficiaries are too strong”?
At the same time, how much do Americans for whom the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is still a heavy anchor – the black underclass of inner cities and the cotton-belt South – gain from a system whose hiring nudges and contracting dollars and college acceptances mostly benefit minorities in the middle class? And how does it memorialize the distinctive crime of chattel slavery to conflate the native-black experience with immigrant struggles – which are real enough, but not remotely the same thing?
Instead of reparations as an addition to our current affirmative-action regime, then, maybe they should be considered as an alternative – one that directly addresses a unique government-sanctioned crime against part of the American people, without requiring a preference regime that makes lower-class white Americans feel like victims of a multicultural version of The Man.
So, this week’s immodest proposal: Abolish racial preferences in college admissions, phase out preferences in government hiring and contracting, eliminate the disparate-impact standard in the private sector, and allow state-sanctioned discrimination only on the basis of socioeconomic status, if at all. Then at the same time, create a reparations program – the Frederick Douglass Fund, let’s call it – that pays out exclusively, directly and one time only to the proven descendants of American slaves.
What would it pay out? Reparations advocates talk in trillions, which would take this already-unrealistic proposal into the realm of the utopian. But right now, giving every single African-American $10,000, perhaps in a specially-designed annuity, would cost about $370 billion, modest relative to supply-side tax plans and single-payer schemes alike. The wealth of the median black household in the United States was $11,200 as of 2013; a $10,000 per-person annuity would more than double it.
In so doing it would hardly eliminate racial disadvantage, but then again neither has 50 years of affirmative action. What it would offer is a meaningful response to an extraordinary injustice, but a response that does not involve permanent discrimination.
There is no clear or easy path to becoming a multiracial nation that isn’t divided politically by race. But reparations for the descendants of slaves today, rather than affirmative action for nonwhites forever, might be a better path than the one we’re on right now.