Cold cash can't repay this debt

April 17, 2001|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI -- Here's the gist of the argument:

America owes black people a unique debt. That debt stems from the fact that -- unlike Hispanics, women, gays and other marginalized groups that have laid claim to the nation's conscience in recent years -- blacks were subjected to centuries of mistreatment that was both unimaginably brutal and government-sanctioned.

Sadly, the attempt to pay America's debt through affirmative action has created a moral morass. The solution: End affirmative action -- and embrace reparations. Pay $50,000 to each African-American family of four.

Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group, made that argument in a recent essay. In fact, Mr. Krauthammer -- a political conservative, no less -- has been arguing this line since at least the mid-1980s.

I have to admit this proposal intrigues me. Trade affirmative action for reparations? It seems, at the very least, a creative contribution at a time when much of the nation's thinking on the conundrum of race is anything but.

Unfortunately, creative is not the same as good.

For what it's worth, I support affirmative action, though somewhat less than wholeheartedly. Unlike Mr. Krauthammer, I am not that troubled by the morality of it. Rather, I have a fear that, in creating separate standards and set-aside slots, affirmative action reinforces in the people it purports to help a sense of victimhood, a self-destructive notion that black means less than good enough.

Problem is, affirmative action is the only game in town. Meaning, it's the only machinery government offers -- outside of slow, costly and unwieldy courts -- to directly address the nation's historic and continuing discrimination against its black citizens.

The flaw in Mr. Krauthammer's proposal is that it fails to take that discrimination into account.

Candidly, my first instinct is to quibble with the amount he proposes to offer. Fifty grand per family? Seems a tad meager given what we're talking about. On the other hand, given what we're talking about, I can't name a figure that would be enough.

Besides, the issue isn't money, ultimately. If the only problem besetting African-Americans were poverty, then the solution would be simple: Work harder, work smarter. But racism doesn't care how hard or smart you work. If you don't believe me, find a rich black man and ask him.

Granted, paying reparations to African-American families would have tremendous emotional and symbolic impact. But that money would do nothing to fix -- or confront -- the systemic problems. This would become painfully apparent once some black man was pulled over by police for no apparent reason while driving to the bank to deposit his $50,000 check.

But as long as we're debating wild ideas that will never see the light of day, here's a modest counterproposal:

1. Keep the money. Use it to put a college education within reach of every talented black high school student. Do this for a generation.

2. Encourage young African-Americans to once again invest in the notion of education as a strategy for uplift -- something that seems to have been lost in these days of gangsta nihilism.

3. End Black History Month. Mandate instead that no child of any race can graduate from an American high school without demonstrating proficiency in American history, including the nation's legacy of violence, subjugation and discrimination against African-American peoples.

4. Offer some incentive -- not necessarily financial -- that rewards non-black employers for increasing the representation of African-Americans in their businesses.

5. Create a streamlined structure for the binding arbitration of employment discrimination complaints. When someone is judged guilty, levy punishments that hurt -- a lot.

6. Apologize. Meaning a formal statement from the nation to its African-American citizens.

7. Assuming the aforementioned measures create verifiable progress, end affirmative action.

Pie in the sky? Definitely. But the proposal is, at least, based on an understanding of that "debt" Mr. Krauthammer says black people are owed.

He, on the other hand, recognizes its existence without grasping its nature. Meaning that it's a lovely fiction to think you could make black folks whole by writing a check the way you do when you dent somebody's fender. But it's a fiction nonetheless.

If reparations were ever paid -- a huge if, in my book -- it would be a potent gesture. But only that. The money might buy someone a college education, a small business or a luxury car. But equality of opportunity?

You might as well put the checkbook away.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is and his phone is toll-free 1-888-251-4407.

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