A specter is haunting America—the specter of reparations

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. —Psalm 51:5

I have written quite a lot on the fallacious construct “white privilege” and the demand for reparations for slavery (see You are Broken. We Will Fix You; For the Good of Your Soul: Tribal Stigma and the God of Reparations; Such a Beautiful Moment—The Self-Flagellating of White People). But as long as folks keep running up the flagpole the banner of reparations, I don’t know if I can ever write enough condemning this regressive and (really) racist and religious project. Indeed, it is more important now than ever to criticize the demand for reparations and expose the insinuation of its supporting politics into our rational institutions.

White folks: Turn your outrage into reparations – Ami Worthen

There are many things that make reparations for slavery and de jure segregation objectionable. For example, making victims of people without their consent (thank you, Coleman Hughes). But what makes reparations straightaway something those who believe in a rational sense of justice must condemn—and those with a primitive or deformed sense of justice can never reasonably demand from others—is this: the racialist notion of reparations (besides being intrinsically racist) is a form of substitutionary or vicarious atonement requiring the living to accept the blame for errors and sins they could not possibly have committed and to atone for iniquity of corpses. I am an atheist. A citizen in a secular republic. I have in back of me the right to be free from such tyranny.

Not even particular corpses. One abstract racialized corpse—as if the skeleton of an Appalachian coal miner ever owned in common the human chattel of a Red Hills plantation owner by virtue of shared superficial phenotypic characteristics. As if their descendants carry crime and sin in their genes. What madness this is. As if the living can repair or undo the past—and not double down on racism—by being forced to give money to the racialized other. As if magic can be worked by prostrating oneself before self-declared representatives of an imagined community supposed by an ideology to which few people still subscribe—except, of course, those demanding reparations. Do those making this argument recognize how profoundly racist its premise is? It’s as if they want us all to be racists.

Reparations for slavery rests on arguably the most destructive idea in world history: imposed religious (or religious-like, if you wish) thinking, an ideological form the Enlightenment relegated to individual conscience via secularism. You know, keep it to yourself and we might all get along? Reparations emanates from a mythological worldview, a religious cosmology, from fantastic precepts, where the primitive constructs of collective and intergenerational guilt and responsibility dwell. Reparations depends on our trust in those with esoteric notions presuming an eschatology, a view of the final judgment, of humankind’s destiny—indeed of souls. I trust no one leveling charges of blood guilt. Making it doubly dangerous, the theology from which the (il)logic of reparations hails—antiracism—is a quasi-religion that dovetails effortlessly with the Abrahamic traditions, ironically the same body of religious thought used for centuries to justify slavery and racial separation. This makes decent people of faith susceptible to the pathology of racecraft. Tragedy upon tragedy.

The desire for reparations for slavery or de jure segregation, the desire of race identitarianism, is a secret wish to preserve a black and white world, to live in the past, to alienate people from one another via an obnoxious construct (race), to base social justice on claims of past oppressions that our ancestors—and some still living—overcame through war and democratic republican processes, proof of the validity of the processes of justice that inhere in free and open societies based on individual liberty and civil rights. Reparations seek to erase the individual, to subsume a myriad of human personalities into a reified handful of antagonistic collective identities. (Cultural managers “teach” our youth these delusions in our public schools and universities and press, shame, and coerce participation from recalcitrant faculty.)

Reparations is antithetical to human rights. After all, it is because of the ideals of individual freedom and equality before the law, the birthright of every human being by virtue of being human, that unjust institutions limiting some while advancing others are dismantled. The abolition of slavery and then of de jure segregation testify to the power of Western justice, a sense of justice that should really need no qualifiers.

The reparations countermovement, despite its members claiming to be “progressive,” denies progress. Blaming the living for the deeds of the dead and demanding from them payment for debt they did not incur is regressive. It is, moreover, pathological. It hides behind a rhetoric of “love” and “empathy” the impulse to shame and humiliate. Advocacy of reparations is at its core a rejection of modernity, the development that abolished slavery and produced human rights. Reparations is part of a countermovement that means to undo hard-fought justice based on reason. Despite only a minority subscribing to this wicked idea, they have the ear of powerful forces who see advantage in their delusions. Encouraging the idea risks civilization.

I can’t stop white people giving money to black people any more than I can stop people from putting cash and coins in the offertory. You are free to be charitable. You are free to self-loathe. You are free to self-flagellate. I’m not your therapist. (Because I have empathy, I do feel embarrassed for you, though.) But I cannot permit the state to make me or my sons guilty of the errors and sins of other people. This violates my conscience, the integrity of which, last time I checked, is my birthright (see First Amendment to the US Bill of Rights; UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

I will never apologize for something I did not do. I will not be compelled to say things to which I do not subscribe. I must never be forced to repay debts I did not incur. I will never kneel to anybody or anything. Those who demand these things from me are narcissistic. Those who shame me and my children for existing are cruel. They are not my betters. They seek to oppress me. And when they do it on the basis of race, they are racists. I am a man. My dignity is precious to me. I mean to preserve it.

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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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