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Why slavery reparations are a terrible idea

San Francisco’s reparations plans are divisive, demeaning and insane.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Identity Politics USA

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To see how destructive identity politics can be, how toxic and divisive, look no further than San Francisco’s crazy reparations idea. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors appointed a panel to consider whether reparations should be paid to the city’s black residents for the historic crimes of slavery and racism. The panel decreed that, yes, they should be. Every eligible black citizen of San Francisco should get $5million each, it said. They should also get $97,000 a year for the rest of their lives and be able to buy homes in the city for $1. Incredibly, the Board of Supervisors is seriously considering the recommendations rather than hurling them into the trashcan of crackpot ideas that deserve not a split second’s contemplation, which is where they should be.

Every member of the Board of Supervisors accepted the plan on principle. All 11 of them. No decision has been made on exactly how and when the city will fork out financial compensation for historic moral errors – that will be a far longer process – but the board believes that it should happen. That potentially hundreds of millions of dollars should be taken from some taxpayers and handed to others for past events that not a single living soul had any involvement in.

The board members have so completely left the realm of reason that they cannot understand why the public isn’t dancing in the streets over these ideas. Board president Aaron Peskin says he’s ‘startled’ by the negative response from the inhabitants of our ‘allegedly liberal progressive city’. Another board member slammed his own constituents for their ‘overheated and irrational’ response to the reparations idea. Imagine nodding along to the notion that people should be given millions of dollars for something that happened to their great-great-great-great grandmother and calling other people irrational.

These events in San Francisco sum up what a terrible idea it is to have slavery reparations. They show what a disruptive and discordant impact on society reparations would have. Around 50,000 black people live in San Francisco. It’s not clear how many of them would be eligible for the historic-pain handouts. The panel says folk should be able to apply for the money if they’re at least 18 years old and have identified as black or African American for at least a decade. Identified as? Maybe Rachel Dolezal will get some of that sweet slavery cash in the future. The Hoover Institution at Stanford University estimates that if San Francisco adopts the panel’s plans, it will cost each non-black family in the city around $600,000.

Take that in. Elected supervisors in a modern city are thinking about charging non-black families hundreds of thousands of dollars to soothe other people’s alleged historic hurt. And ‘non-black’ doesn’t just mean white. San Francisco has a huge Asian-American population and many Latino citizens, too. Imagine recently arrived, hard-working Latino families having to pay an atonement for past events their ancestors played no role in whatsoever. It’s unhinged. Of course it’s equally mad to expect modern-day whites to cough up cash for the sin of slavery. Especially in California, which was a free state. The madness of wokeness is surely captured in the fact that people who were never slave-owners might have to pay compensation to people who were never slaves in a state that never had African-American slavery.

The racial divisiveness of what San Francisco is seriously considering cannot be overstated. Splitting the city into victim races who deserve millions of dollars in love and care and culpable races who will have to stump up the cash for this mad plan is one of the most poisonous proposals I’ve heard in a long time. The far right can only dream of so expertly fracturing a city along racial lines. San Francisco’s reparations idea exposes the rotten hyper-racialist heart of woke politics. This fatalist ideology condemns whites to permanent culpability and blacks to permanent pain. It impresses the sins of the father on white folk and the agony of the ancestor on black people, condemning all to live in a forever purgatory of historically determined angst. What a dispiriting and anti-democratic way of life they aspire to impose on us.

That is the worst part of the slavery-reparations idea – its historical determinism. The idea that modern-day blacks are shaped and haunted by the crimes of yesteryear is deeply demeaning. Randall Robinson, in his influential tome The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, said reparations are necessary because slavery ‘debilitated a whole people psychologically, socially and economically’. Such thinking presents black people as marionettes pulled this way and that by dead events over which they have no control. Their self-esteem, their opportunities (or lack thereof) – all are apparently moulded by the terrifying force of history. This is ahistorical, apolitical and patronising. It disavows the agency of living black communities. In the words of columnist Gregory Kane, the ‘Victimhood Sweepstakes’ of the reparations ideology actually ‘reinforces’ despondency in African-American circles, rather than challenging it.

Reparations are a con. Paying them might provide a moral thrill to wealthy whites, for whom they will become a kind of modern-day Indulgence, a payment of cash to absolve oneself of the moral stain of whiteness. But such narcissistic privilege-checking would come at the cost of social harmony. And claiming reparations might seem like a good idea to some African Americans, who would get to live more comfortably as a result of modern America’s depressing obsession with historic wrongs. But the financial perk of reparations would be completely outweighed by their sinister compromising of individual agency, of autonomy, of the idea that all of us, whatever our background, are responsible for our lives and our destinies.

I prefer Frederick Douglass’s approach. That great slave turned abolitionist never asked for compensation, despite experiencing the whip and humiliation of enslavement for himself. On the contrary, his response to the question of what should be done with black people post-slavery was: ‘Do nothing with us!’ ‘If the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall’, he said. ‘All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!’ Such words might sound harsh to delicate modern ears, but there’s far more humanity in Douglass’s bet on black autonomy than there is in the politics of racial pity promoted by today’s woke elites. San Francisco, let people alone.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics USA

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