Ibram Kendi’s new piece in The Atlantic is spot on. To oppose reparations, or to simply not support them in any meaningful way, is an act of racism. Opposing or withholding support from reparations is to purposefully elide the ways that reparations-by-a-different-name has been the inheritance of white Americans for generations, up to, including, and past June 19, 2019. To suggest otherwise is a bad-faith argument that does violence to history and the present alike.
Today, many Americans who oppose reparations, including a slight majority of Democrats, stand on this middle ground. These Americans self-identify as “not racist,” but do nothing in the face of the racial wealth gap that grows as white people are compensated by past and present racist policies. Or they support small-scale solutions that barely keep up with this growth. Or they support class-based solutions that are bound to partially fail in solving this class- andrace-based problem. Or they oppose reparations because they’ve consumed the racist idea that black people will waste the “handouts,” that the reparations bill will be too expensive, or that black America is not too big to fail.
Americans who prefer gradual approaches that do not radically disrupt inequality and who label their approaches “plain, peaceful, generous, just,” to use Lincoln’s words, carelessly ignore or understate the complex, violent, stingy, and unjust damage wrought by inequality. These Americans care more about responding to political expediency than the emergency of inequality, care more about repairing alienated white Americans than repairing pillaged black coffers, and claim to be horrified by slavery and “not racist” but end up, knowingly or unknowingly, compensating the white beneficiaries of slavery and racism.
These Americans claim they oppose racism and reparations. They support the drive for economic equality between the races at the same time they are pumping the brakes on the only foreseeable policy that can dramatically close the growing racial wealth gap between the races. Only an expansive and expensive compensation policy for the descendants of the enslaved and relegated of the scale Lincoln proposed for the enslavers and subsidized could prevent the racial wealth gap from compounding and being passed onto another generation.
Throughout this alternative history, white people were collectively accumulating, compounding, and passing down wealth from selling black bodies; exploiting no-wage or low-wage black labor; stealing black assets, from the days of whitecapping to the foreclosure era; seizing opportunities, like the New Deal or GI Bill, that were denied to black people; utilizing family wealth to start businesses; owning government-subsidized homes in government-subsidized white suburbs or gentrified neighborhoods; and cashing in on Reagan-, Bush-, and Trump-era tax cuts for the already wealthy.
Racist policies have historically compensated people for their whiteness and extracted wealth from people due to their blackness. But Americans occupying the middle ground do not attack these policies like they attack reparations. They support (what they don’t call) reparations for white people at the same time they oppose reparations for black people.
When the so-called not-racist express their opposition to reparations, I do not quarrel with them over their reasoning. I do not point out the history of white compensation to repair damages that hardly existed. I do not point out their middle ground. I ask a simple question: How does the United States close the growing racial wealth gap without reparations?
Nearly all Americans claim to be not-racist, but the so-called not-racists are usually not up to supporting a policy that can create racial equity.
Reparations is not my litmus test for presidential candidates. But it is a litmus test on whether a person is being a racist or antiracist when it comes to one of the most damaging racial inequities of our time, of all American time—the racial wealth gap. To oppose reparations is to be racist. To support reparations is to be antiracist. The middle ground is racist ground. It is occupied by people passively doing nothing in the face of racial inequity, or actively supporting policies that reproduce racial inequity. The antiracist approach requires standing up for the policies like reparations that can create racial equity.
Also, while I wish that professional historians had (also) been asked to present testimony today, today’s opening statement from Coates, calling the racist Mitch McConnell to the mat, is fantastic.