Reparations? Forget About It!
Even if everyone accepts responsibility for the slave trade, don't expect to see any money.
For African Americans, the only worthwhile debate about reparations is whether we can force the United States, the country which enslaved our ancestors for centuries and then subjected them to eons of second-class citizenship, to pay up and how much we should get. The sum involved could be staggering--as much as $24 trillion, I wrote in a column I did for Time many years ago. The size of the settlement alone means that the United States is never going to pay it, no matter how strong a case we make. We're never going to see any cash. The most we're ever going to get is a belated apology like the 2008 congressional resolution expressing regret for ''fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow.''
Which brings me to the part of Gates' piece that puzzled me most--why would he want to stick Barack Obama with this hot potato? Gates writes that Obama, because he is the nation's first African-American president, is ''uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic,'' but, in reality, it's the other way around. I can't imagine him lecturing Africans about their inherited collective guilt for the slave trade. At home, Obama has shied away from hot racial issues. He has been especially wary since he caught hell for saying that it was ''stupid'' for the cops to arrest Gates in his own house.
The truth of the matter, as Gates and Obama know, is that championing this issue would be instant political suicide for Obama--or any liberal president, regardless of race. As Obama has made clear in the past, he agrees with the arguments for reparations, but he does not believe they are practical. He's dead right about that. The prospects for shaking them loose from the United States won't get any better even if some Africans finally 'fess up about their ancestors' sins. Gates' thesis is provocative, but as a strategy, it's going nowhere.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.