Reparations and Gates-keeping
Henry Louis Gates writes in the New York Times that reparations discussion should include a focus on culpability of Black slave traders in Africa – a move which ultimately serves to weaken many reparations arguments. Why is the President’s advisor making these kinds of arguments — and why now? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that it relates to the existing political environment.
A number of right wing critics have recently claimed that President Obama is seeking reparations. This includes Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh who have both repeatedly called health care reform a form of stealth reparations. The apparent reasoning is that health care reform will proportionately benefit Blacks as a group more than whites, because Blacks have a higher rate of uninsured individuals.
The underlying insurance statistics are clear enough — Black individuals lacking insurance make up about 19% of the group population, while the comparable percent for whites is about 10%. In fact a number of advocates (including me) have argued that this and other major statistical gaps are reasons to support reparations, because they show how slavery and Jim Crow inflict continuing harm today.
Beck and Limbaugh have flipped the argument around. Not only do they argue that reparations would be uncalled for, but they further argue that programs like health care reform which would have the effect of lessening some existing egregious racial gaps should all be treated as stealth reparations. This is not just a Wechsler-esque claim about facially neutral laws; rather it’s the much more outrageous claim that we should lock in place the current racial status quo with its many racialized injustices, and that any attempt to move from the status quo is stealth reparations.
Why does the reparations label matter? Polls show massive, overwhelming white opposition to reparations. Al Brophy summarizes poll findings in Reparations Pro & Con, and they are striking. Overall national support for reparations is between 10% and 15% depending on the poll, but poll results are incredibly racially polarized. While reparations are supported by 2/3 of Blacks in many polls, they are supported by less than 5% of whites — it’s the most racially divisive issue in polling history.
Because reparations is so anathema to whites (even most white progressives), the topic becomes a political third rail. When Limbaugh or Beck characterize health care as “stealth reparations,” it’s an attempt to tap into the huge pool of white disapproval of The R Word, and as such is a deliberate attack on Obama’s moderate-progressive multiracial coalition. And like Clinton’s denunciation of Sister Souljah, Obama and Gates are protecting the middle. He knows he can’t alienate white progressives, because he can’t win with just the Black vote. And Blacks will always be around, but centrist whites are fickle, they’re the Justice O’Connor of the electorate ready to switch sides at any time. So Gates’ article distances Obama from The scary R Word, and in doing so protects the center.
Which is not really unexpected, given the current political climate.