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"Focus on Self-interest, Not Shame,"

by Billy J. Tidwell September/October 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

I want to avoid oversimplifying a matter as complex as the reparations question. Further, I am not inclined to repudiate categorically Dr. America's positions. However, a few brief points should be made, by way of elucidating key areas of agreement and equally important disagreements between our views.

African-Americans are at another strategic juncture in their development. Actions taken now could be as consequential to their well-being in the next century as was the reneged promise of land and mules to their experience in this century. These actions must be based on a judicious assessment of the challenges and prospects facing both the African-American community and the nation as a whole. Both have vital stakes in the outcomes, and neither can afford to be fanciful or facile in pursuing these mutual interests.

Let me begin with the major convergence in thinking, which centers on Dr. America=s assertion that Athe country will not have a bright future if the problems stemming from past economic injustice and inequity aren't solved. He goes on to emphasize the need to invest heavily in those who have been excluded and exploited, suggesting that the nation's economic strength and social stability depend upon it.

Amen! Given the new requirements for economic competitiveness, brought on by dramatic changes in the global marketplace; given the shortsighted domestic policies of recent decades, which have eschewed such investment in human and physical capital as are necessary to maintain a robust, pace-setting economy and high standard of living; given the retrenchments from equal opportunity principles and the related neglect of the inner cities, which have sparked new urban explosions so painfully reminiscent of the 1960s, I could not agree more with Dr. America's assessment.

I disagree with Dr. America, however, in calling for a reparations solution. The efficacy of his proposal hinges on the display of moral rectitude by massa's progeny, whereas behavior motivated by enlightened self-interest is more reliable. Further, from a political standpoint, it is more propitious to address self-interest arguments to the larger mass of white Americans rather than to Dr. America's privileged 30 percent.

If African-American progress is contingent upon the conscience-driven relinquishment of Aunjust enrichments by privileged whites, the prospects do not look good at all. People simply don't behave that way. Therefore, to frame remediation appeals in such terms is at best naive and at worst a fruitless diversion of intellectual energy. Effective political mobilization around the question of investment is less likely to be determined by whites who have benefited the most from the exploitation of African Americans than by those who have suffered the most.

The reparations concept is counterproductive in this context. The white masses must be shown how it is in their material interest to combat the residua of racism, not shamed into supporting repayment for past societal injustices over which they had no control.

Use of the reparations concept might also be counterproductive within the African-American community itself. It is important that the present generation of African Americans not become stagnated by the illusion of reparations. Rather, they must more aggressively and creatively strategize, organize, and mobilize their own resourcefulness toward the self-development of the African-American community. And their collective resources are substantial indeed.

Of course, there are limits to what self-development initiatives can accomplish relative to what is needed. However, I am convinced that these limits have not even been approached. Promulgating reparations could be a serious psychological hindrance to collective action. Unfortunately, few proponents of the concept, including Dr. America. acknowledge this insidious down-side. The National Urban League's AMarshall Plan@ strategy is grounded in the wisdom of mutual interests. It is not a reparations proposal. Instead, the strategy is based on the political and economic realities of the 1990s and the uncertainties all Americans face in the coming decades. Eliminating the persisting disadvantages African Americans experience is a prerequisite for securing the general welfare.

Similarly, the League's promotion of self-development around issues that will decide the future well-being of the African-American community is responsive to today=s exigencies. The reparations thesis obfuscates and potentially undermines the individual and group responsibility of African Americans themselves to influence their own destiny.

Billy Tidwell is Director of Research and Evaluation for the National Urban League (1111 14th St. NW, Washington, DC 20005) and Editor of its annual report, The State of Black America. the current edition of which is devoted to African-American self-development. Dr. Tidwell is also author of two reports that address the subject matter of this commentary, The Price: A Study of the Costs of Racism in America and Playing to Win: A Marshall Plan for America.
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