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"Race Policy, Reparations and Redemption,"

by Howard Winant May/June 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

Bang, bang, bang! The racial hits just keep on coming!

In late March, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman threw out the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action admissions system, declaring that “All racial distinctions are inherently suspect and presumptively invidious.” Then, the day after, former State Attorney General (and recently confirmed New Jersey Supreme Court Justice) Peter G. Verniero sweated out a State Senate hearing, where he ludicrously denied knowing that his state police routinely targeted black motorists in the harassment pattern that has become known as “racial profiling.” These two judges should have met in advance to get their stories straight.

As we wrestle with such inconsistencies and contradictions, the question of race policy immediately moves to front and center. What’s it going to be, America? Are we going to pretend that we don’t see race, that we are (as the phrase goes) “color-blind”? Are we going to deny the obvious, the fact that in this country race always counts? We take race into account in every aspect of life: in deciding where to live, in choosing what radio station we listen to, in determining how much money will be spent on education in a given district, in facilitating or obstructing access to the voting booth, in selecting who gets arrested and convicted and imprisoned and executed....

Or is there enough commitment to democracy remaining in the American soul to allow us to confront our racial demons? Am I naive to think that we can still address this issue that is so deeply entrenched, so terrifyingly basic to our history, our politics, our culture and our identity? And if America even wanted to look directly at its racial dilemmas, and then — as the old civil rights anthem says — wanted to “overcome” them, how would the country do that? How could it even begin?

There’s a lot riding on this decision. Do we want to be one nation, as the Founders (40% of them slave-holders) said? Do we want to be two nations, as the 1968 Kerner Commission (rattled by the 1960s race riots and the assassination of Dr. King) put it? Or do we want to be many nations, no one of which will be a majority of the population, as the 2000 Census figures (despite their undercounting of dark faces) indicate is occurring? Better figure this out, America!

Meanwhile, on the affirmative action front, a right-wing agitator named David Horowitz has been stirring up racial resentment on college campuses. In a series of highly disingenuous advertisements in student newspapers, he attacked the idea of reparations for slavery, the most serious affirmative action program yet advocated, as itself “racist.”

Here’s a racial policy challenge worth wrestling with: reparations. The concept of repairing the damage caused by slavery is facilely dismissed as an unwarranted transfer of assets to individual black people, but of course it is much more serious than that. It is an effort to “overcome” the terrible legacy of the theft that was slavery: a theft of life and time, a theft of labor, a theft of land, of wealth, and resources of every kind.

The reparations proposal raises some vital “what if?” questions: what if slave labor had not been available to build the Capitol and the White House? What if the profits earned by slave labor for the slave-owning Founders (and the early merchants and industrialists of the North as well) had not been available to finance the American Revolution? What if the Radical Republican effort to redistribute plantation land to former slaves after 1865 had not foundered under the administration of Andrew Johnson and the 1877 abandonment of Reconstruction?

Honest answers to such questions are obviously beyond the capabilities of Mr. Horowitz, but they may not yet be beyond the capability of the country. What we must say is that reparations, and affirmative action, are the only sorts of social policies that could even begin to shoulder the herculean task of overcoming America’s racial divisions. Reparations would not be a payoff to anyone, but rather a national payback: a serious commitment to undoing, or at least diminishing, the racial inequality we have inherited from the past and perpetuated in the present. Reparations have been called “a Marshall Plan for the cities.” They would take the form of social investment, social programs, not individual payments. And they would be funded by progressive tax measures, predominantly affecting those wealthy firms and individuals who owe their prosperity today to the collusion with slavery that their predecessors and ancestors practiced yesterday.

Affirmative action is of course a much smaller form of redress, but it is no less significant for that. As Derek Bok and William Bowen showed in their study The Shape of the River, affirmative action is a national investment, a social commitment, to having one nation in which mobility and opportunity are available to all. It is a small but serious step toward racial democracy.

What’s it going to be, America? Today, as ever before, it is still possible to choose democracy and freedom. Consider the alternative.

Howard Winant is Professor of Sociology at Temple University and author of The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (Basic Books).

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