Saturday, February 25, 2012

An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Or an idea whose time is overdue?  You decide.  Personally, I think the answer lies very much in two facts cited in the article:  (a) Martin Luther King, Jr. was in favor of it, and (b) it would very much suit the populist case that the President wants to make.  Indeed, if anything would make him a "post-racial" President, this would certainly seem to be it.

I have no doubt that the segment of the African-American community that focuses on the need for reparations would object.  But (I write this on my knees, because I have no business slighting the injustice of racism) I have long thought that the pursuit of reparations is the pursuit of a fantasy, and I say this for one reason only.  In the civil justice system, compensatory damages are meant to return the plaintiff to the status they would otherwise have had they not been injured in the first place.  Most legal experts agree that, except for the most minor of cases, this is ultimately an exercise in guesswork. 

And three to four hundred years of racism is anything but a minor case.  Who knows what the individual life of every African-American would be had that racism never occurred?  Do you measure it by life in Africa, itself infected with the remnants of colonialism?  Do you calculate the present value of the old plantations, and divide it up by the number of descendants of slaves?  Do you do that on a per capita basis, or do you divide it up by families?  If the latter, do you account for the fact that some siblings had more children than others?  What about lines of descent that died out?

I write all of this to illustrate the complexity of the problem, not to sugar-coat its essence or demean its impact.  Ultimately, all we can do with the past is to learn from it, and use its lessons to make today the foundation of a better tomorrow.  I believe class-based preferences can do that; I'm hoping that the President will believe that, too.

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