The UN wants the US to make reparations to the descendants of slaves. It’s not the right way to help the oppressed

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains people more than having to think.  — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Pixabay photo)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Pixabay photo)

I was helping my son with a writing prompt that started with that quote this weekend when I heard the news about the UN report recommending that the United States government make reparations to the descendants of slaves. It got me wondering what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would think of the reparations report and its recommendations. Would he think the idea was an easy answer?

Personally, I struggle with the idea of things like reparations and affirmative action, even though I totally agree with the inequities and injustices these solutions seek to ameliorate. But, let’s face it, we really suck as a society at trying to make up for past mistakes, especially if lawyers get involved — no offensive to all you wonderful lawyers out there. Our government’s track record with Native peoples is a good example of what didn’t work.

In 1990, 645 Native American tribes sued the United States government for failing to make good on full funding for contracts for programs like housing, law enforcement and education. The contracts date back to the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975. The lawsuit made it all the way to the Supreme Court and was just settled in 2015 for $940 million.

Twenty-five years of litigation, 25 years of legal fees and legal salaries and court costs to make good on a now 40-year-old agreement. Meanwhile, back at the reservation, unemployment remains high, and social issues fester for lack of adequately funded programming. I have no reason to think any process to make reparations to descendants of slaves would go any better.

Just the phrase “descendants of slaves” is a Pandora’s box of assumptions that would be hard to dice out in actuality. Where will we draw the line? When my fair, but mixed-race teenager asked me what I was writing about, and I gave a quick answer about reparations, he sarcastically smiled, raised his eyebrows and said, “Yeah, give me some of those.” Teen snarky face and tone freely translated for readers: He was clearly identifying one of the biggest flaws in such a plan.

His experience as a mixed-race youth in central Maine, as pertaining to race, is not at all the same as a mixed-race young man in Baltimore, Maryland. It would be unfair to equate his circumstances to the circumstances of that theoretical young man on a purely race basis.

However, his life may have commonalities with that theoretical young man in Baltimore, and these commonalities would be economically based and economic opportunity based — which brings me to my point.

While we suck at making up for past mistakes, we are getting much better at seeing our past mistakes for what they are and the ways these mistakes impact present realities. While it’s obvious blacks are being disproportionately harmed on a number of measures, there are many circumstances beyond race that can land Americans in poverty, incarceration, etc., and we need to care about them all.

Now. Not 40 years or more from now. After we work out the reparations for descendants of slaves, we’ll realize we still need to help poor whites, especially in rural, predominately white regions that may not benefit from reparations made to descendants of slaves.

Perhaps the next evolution in thought regarding our past mistakes is to leave them in the past. We need to learn about them and learn from them, but not let them dictate all our decisions now.

We don’t have enough time, money or lawyers to keep doing it that way.

At the end of his life, Dr. King began to change his thinking slightly, broadening it to a larger focus on all poor in our society. As Dr. King wrote on a telegram inviting an activist to a gathering to discuss poverty:

The time to present the case of poor people nationally draws near. I hope you will agree with me that this can only be done effectively if there is joint thinking of representatives of all racial, religious and ethnic groups.

Some of Dr. King’s ideas were pretty radical, including establishing a guaranteed-base income. Conservatives might appreciate that part of his justification for such an effort was the fact that all the separate welfare programs to address the various needs of the poor weren’t working to uplift people. He wanted solutions that worked, and it’s truly tragic that he died before he could work collaboratively with other bright minds of the time to develop them.

Whether we look to ideas like King’s or to modifications of what we are currently doing, we need to cast a net that includes all poor Americans, who are not represented in our systems of governance to the same extent that other interests are.

It may be painful to start bending our minds that way, but it’s time to start.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.