For the Good of Your Soul: Tribal Stigma and the God of Reparations

[H]e by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” Exodus 34:7

[T]he moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent. Bill H.R. 40 is immoral and a political mistake. —Coleman Hughes

Treating race as an essential feature of human identity is not just a problem in the domain of natural history. It corrupts moral theory, as well. Notions that moral responsibility is carried on our genes or pursued by some transcendent and timeless accountant that informs race identitarianism underpins the resurgence of talk of reparations for African Americans. It is worse than a bad moral theory. It is immoral. And it is divisive.

In a 2018 essay in The Atlantic, linguist John McWhorter characterizes as religious the character of the “third-wave antiracism” that marks the post-civil rights period: “The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave’s version of original sin.” 

This could not be more obvious in the demand for reparations, a race-based scheme to transfer wealth to African Americans that numerous politicians seeking the nomination of Democratic Party climb over one another to proclaim. It is a demand the vast majority of Americans rightly reject.

A couple of days ago, CNN carried a segment with the headline: “Mitch McConnell: Obama Elected to Make Up for ‘Sin of Slavery’.” One of the guests, Robert W. Lee (a descendant of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army) claimed on behalf of white people responsibility for “white privilege” and lamented “the mess that white people have made” of history. Lee, who is white and a Christian minister, referenced his vocation and explicitly advanced the religious standpoint that “asking for forgiveness” is not enough to take away the sin of whiteness. To make the nation whole, white people must seek “atonement” by “reparating for the sins of the past.”

Yesterday, the House of Representatives conducted a hearing on the question of reparations. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, pushing H.R.40—Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for AfricanAmericans Act, said, “The role of the federal government in supporting the institution of slavery and subsequent discrimination directed against blacks is an injustice that must be formally acknowledged and addressed.”

She appears to have forgotten the three-quarters of a million Americans who died in a nineteenth century civil war to end slavery. Missing also is acknowledgment of the fact that in the following century federal courts desegregated schools and lifted bans on miscegenation, legislatures passed civil rights bills outlawing discrimination against blacks, and administrations implemented a myriad of positive measures to open American institutions to people of all races.

However, the religious bent of her conception of justice was confident and explicit. “God bless us as we pursue the final justice for those who lived in slavery,” she said, clutching her bosom.

The same religious spirit was embraced by Eugene Taylor Sutton, the Episcopal Bishop of the State of Maryland, who told the committee that white people must seek atonement for their sins. “When I’m talking for reparations,” he said, “I’m actually talking to my white brothers and sisters.” “You need this more than we do,” he continued. “You need this for your soul. You need this to be able to look black persons in the eye and say, ‘I acknowledge the mistake, and I want to be part of the solution to repair that damage.’”

On the issue of racism (and everything else), I was born albatross-free. I bear no original sin. I am not responsible for things other people did in the past. I have no sins for which I must atone. I don’t even believe in sin. But guilt-suffering liberal Christians and left identitarians are not satisfied with personal suffering; they wish for others to endure the stigma they have accepted for themselves, that they wield as virtue. It makes them morally superior to those who are in denial. And as long as people feel the need to signal virtue, it gives these moral entrepreneurs power over them.

Reparations depends on disappearing the concrete individual into the abstract group and holding every member of that group, really an aggregate (demography carries no agency) responsible for the deeds of some individuals. It is the mirror image of the racist act of blaming all black people for deeds perpetrated by some individuals identified as black. In the Age of Antiracism, one simply trains race prejudice on white people. All white people are guilty for the deeds perpetrated by individuals identified as white.

In “Race and Democracy” I critique critical race theory, the contemporary ideology that puts the biblical logic of collective guilt at the core of its standpoint with its reification of “perpetrator” and “victim” perspectives. In “Viggo Mortensen and ‘the N-word’: Assigning Collective Guilt through Informal Speech Codes,” I point out that antiracism is “a way of recruiting white people, in the absence of racist motive/action, in the project to affirm the claim that all white people are racist by default.” In “Committing the Crime it Condemns,” I write, “If a sin is forever and collectively and intergenerationally applied, then I can always be asked to pay penance. Repent on pain of being accused of not confessing to unearned advantages and privileges responsible for the pain and suffering of others. Unrepentant sinners are the worse. A fallen person must admit he is fallen before he can get better. To deny being a racist is to confess to being one. Resistance twice convicts.” Most recently, I take a look at the linking of reparations with mass immigration in “Reparations and Open Borders,” an angle that feeds into the false depiction of immigrants as a racial minority.

Replacing reason, the concept of racism is extended in time and space, but in one direction, to force through, via smear and sin, particular laws and policies.

At the hearing yesterday, Congressman Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, was booed as he spoke against the act of levying “monetary reparations” against the living “for the sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago.”

Johnson’s is the rational position; living generations are are not responsible for slavery. Causation doesn’t work that way. There is no power possessed by the living to commit injustice in the past. There is no logic beyond the primitive and superstitious to hold individuals responsible for the actions of another individuals—or to hold an entire group or population responsible for the actions of corpses—and that’s no logic at all.

Yesterday was Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the day Texas slaves learned they were free. This was in 1865, two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—one hundred and fifty-four years ago. Nobody who perpetrated the crime of slavery has been alive for decades.

I am well aware that proponents of reparations claim not only slavery as the sin for which white America must atone. The horrors of lynching followed. Jim Crow segregation was in existence when my father was born. Grouped inequality along racial lines still exists.

The history Ta-Nehisi Coates cites in his June 2014 Atlantic article is not disputed. What is disputed is the claim that there is a connection between history and conditions admitted to and responsibility for those things. The most charitable thing one can say about the demand for reparations is that it assumes as given what it must prove.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose June 2014 Atlantic article reignited the campaign for more reparations for the descendants of African slaves.

Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hollow principles of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness to all. But America had other things in mind.”

Are the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness “hollow”? Or are they the guiding lights that suggest Juneteenth as a national holiday?

America is not a person. It doesn’t have anything in mind. This is the fallacy of reification at its most obvious. However, America is governed by a relatively small number of people influenced by a social class to which most Americans do not belong. But where are the calls in Congress to dispossess the bourgeoisie and dismantle capitalism, the living reason for inequality? Are there no poor whites? No white prisoners?

Which brings me back to that CNN headline. Assumption grossly distorts its characterization of Mitch McConnell’s remarks. While the senator did call slavery a sin (which is giving away too much already), he did not say Obama was elected to make up for it. His point was that electing a black president showed that the United States, a work in progress, is moving forward. And he is right—and simply repeating what liberals were saying in 2008.

People of the United States have made vast strides in eliminating racist structure and sentiment over its history. To listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates, you’d think African Americans are no better off today than they were 1950s or even the 1850s. For they must bring the crimes of the past to the present to find living perpetrators. But the perpetrators are ghosts.

Exodus 34:7 is the logic of reparations. Biblical logic is antithetical to logic of the liberal and secular democratic-republic. Ancient biblical justice is primitive superstitious nonsense. Indeed, the United States is explicitly founded upon a godless constitution with a formal legal wall of separation between church and state. It’s one of the things makes the United States great. Reparations for slavery and apartheid must assume white people are born guilty, with original sin, possessing a tribal stigma, for which they must atone.

I was appalled to see a video of Democrats, on April 4, 2019 in New York City, receiving the anointing of the charlatan street preach and race merchant Al Sharpton (and his National Action Network) for confessing imagined sins to thunderous applause. One by one leading Democratic candidates for president pledged to support Sheila Jackson Lee’s bill to establish a commission on the subject. Holding people responsible for deeds they could not have done or for the deeds of others is immoral and unjust. To take time away from other things to study the problems in Congress is not merely a waste of time and resources but an exercise in mainstreaming ressentiment.

Rejecting reparation for slavery or apartheid is not rejecting the principle of social obligation. As members of a nation-state where individual rights and liberties are recognized and defended, that is as citizens in a liberal and secular democratic-republic, a people have an obligation to provide for the needs of the country. Taxation, including progressive taxation, is not reparations, but a necessary imposition to support the machinery of justice, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare. Good government is not a necessary evil, but the machinery of democracy and freedom.

Reparations for slavery or apartheid rests on a different principle. It is rooted in the notion that people owe other people things on the basis of abstract collective identities such as race, ethnicity, or religion. It substitutes the fallacious notion of agency by an imagined community for the actual agency and responsibility of concrete individuals for demonstrable harm caused to others. This is tribal thinking and the greatest accomplishment of the nation-state, and why democratic-republics must be defended against the denationalizing push of capitalist globalization, is the emancipation of the individual from tribal arrangements and defense against the resurrection of such arrangements.

The promise of the modern nation-state is liberation of persons from obligations to race, ethnicity, and religion. This is why we reject the racial state, ethnonationalism, and theocracy. Race, ethnicity, and religion are not yet phantoms because race, ethnic, and religious merchants still truck in imagined communities. They desire to chain the individual to mythic and unjust notions. Race, ethnic, and religious conflict persist because moral entrepreneurs are determined to sell the public an alchemy turning cosmic obligation into concrete debt. It is a movement that strikes at the rational foundation of Western civilization. This must be resisted.

Whether biological or theological, the race essentialism that underpins racism and antiracism keeps race and racism alive in the twenty-first century. This way of thinking is indeed a mistake—a mistake that fractures the proletariat, an actual collectivity resulting from the logic inhering in the material forces of production. Reparations perpetuates the irrationalism of superstitious thinking. It is a mistake we cannot afford to make anymore. It is bending the arc of history away from justice.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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