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.

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11 Responses

  1. Hellmut says:

    Of course, the opponents of social justice will demagogue any reform efforts by dividing the beneficiaries along ethnic and racial lines. That’s what they always do.

    In part, the demagogues were successful again. Rather than asking themselves how they will digest 25% health insurance premium increases, there will be plenty of tea partiers who are obsessing that somehow, somewhere they might have to support a black person.

    However, the real triumph of the race baiters was with respect to immigration.

    It’s classic divide and rule.

    And that is how the American middle class is losing ground steadily since the Vietnam War. Instead of figuring out why we aren’t better off, we are manipulated with greed and jealousy.

  2. Hellmut says:

    On the merits, health insurance cannot possibly be a substitute for reparations. It’s about keeping fellow Americans healthy, not rectifying an injustice.

    Bear in mind, the Kaiser’s policy advisers invented single payer health insurance. Teddy Roosevelt wanted to bring it to America. The notion that those two worried about the injustices to Black people, especially in this context, is laughable.

  3. Yes, it’s as deliberate and dishonest as most uses of the other “R word” coming from liberals. Shame on them, descending to your level.

  4. To quote from the book, “In many issues of the culture wars, such as abortion, gay marriage, and what should be taught in elementary and secondary school history classes, there is some basic parity. With reparations, judging by public opinion, there is no parity. Reparations are simply viewed with disdain by the vast majority of Americans. Why is this?”

    Perhaps it’s because reparations are so obviously wrong in this case, that it’s practically impossible to support them without the thought you might be getting a check in the mail to warp your judgment?

  5. …and don’t forget noted race-baiter James Clyburn’s attempts to further inflame us knuckle-draggers:

    “This is the Civil Rights Act of the 21st century”

    Seriously, are you upset because of the tactic itself or because of its supposed effectiveness? If the President thought aligning this so-called HCR with the “R Word” would have enhanced the so-called HCR’s popularity, am I to believe that you still wouldn’t think he should have done so?

    Finally, a style note question: why do you capitalize “Blacks” but not “whites”? Is that some kind of Bluebook rule I’ve been blissfully unaware of?

  6. you're not too bright says:

    “…and don’t forget noted race-baiter James Clyburn’s attempts to further inflame us knuckle-draggers:”

    Clyburn isn’t a race-baiter. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are the race baiters.

    Moreover, his calling the bill a civil rights bill doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with race. Civil rights are extended to all persons. That this bill was seen as a shift to the argument that health care is a right now in this country explains why he called it a civil rights bill.

  7. you're not too bright says:

    Lots of people have said that health care should be a right. But when Clyburn said it, he must be going racial. Why did you make that argument? Because you’re a race baiter.

  8. I can’t speak for Beck, not being a listener, but most of Limbaugh’s supposed ‘race baiting’ consists of his quoting or paraphrasing some liberal source, in order to demonstrate that liberals would never let a conservative get away with the exact same sort of reasoning. It’s a basic part of his shtick, he comments on it occasionally, and his audience is quite aware of what’s going on. Every time liberals go berserk accusing Rush of racism, they play right into his hands, demonstrating their own double standard.

  9. Hellmut says:

    James Clyburn is a race baiter? I am sorry that’s ridiculous.

  10. Quidpro says:

    Behold the Professor’s logic: A higher percentage of Blacks than Whites lack health insurance. This is evidence of “how slavery and Jim Crow inflict continuing harm today”. It follows, according to the Professor, that “reparations” must be paid to some members of society based on the level of pigmentation in their skin.

    Is it not interesting that those who advocate legislation which explictly discriminates on the basis of race are among the first to impugn the allegedly racial motives of of those with whom they disagree.

  11. Dan Markel says:

    I’m glad you blogged about Gates’ oped, which I had thought of doing but never got around to over the last coupe days.
    I confess I thought there was an analytic gap in the argument: what is it about the complicity of native Africans in the slave trade that is at all relevant to whether victims of that complicity should be recognized as a social group and “roughly” compensated for the historical losses they endured?
    I take it the best claim can only be that the complicity of some blacks in the immiseration of other blacks renders it more inadministrable or infeasible to enact reparations but assuming one can get over the feasibility concerns, I couldn’t quite see what was the basis for Gates’ core claim–could you?