Concerned that Republicans haven't tried hard enough to reach out to black voters, Bruce Bartlett, a former advisor to President Ronald Reagan and treasury official under President George H. W. Bush, suggests a shocker: Republicans should come out in favor of reparations for slavery.
Republicans for reparations? Bartlett makes the suggestion in Wrong on Race, an expose on the "hidden" racist history of the Democratic Party. Bartlett skewers former Democratic presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson for bigotry and cowardice on the issue of race and assails a number of Democratic senators, representatives and governors for their do-or-die defense of slavery and Jim Crow.
Skipping ahead to today, Bartlett writes that black voters are taken for granted by Democrats and have been written off by Republicans. He argues that blacks would benefit from having the two parties compete for their votes.
But Republicans for reparations?
The recommendation has already met resistance—from black commentators. Columnist and blogger La Shawn Barber has dismissed the suggestion as "race pandering" for votes. Manhattan Institute scholar John McWhorter has said that blacks are likely to react "indignantly" to Bartlett's "bribe" (reparations would be offered in exchange for ending affirmative action). Robert A. George of the New York Post calls Bartlett's idea "woefully naïve."
To some extent, they are all correct. Bartlett's offer of a deal—blacks giving up affirmative action in exchange for reparations—smacks of political opportunism. But Bartlett, the former party insider, insists that Republicans must try something different. Republican outreach, search for common ground on issues, highlighting the historical accomplishments of the Party of Lincoln and the Radical Republicans, and other tactics have yet to yield results. President Bush barely broke single digits among black voters in 2004.
Bartlett argues that the "anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party has become dominant, thus further pushing Hispanics into the Democratic Party." Republicans are going to have to find new voters somewhere—and Bartlett says that is overlooked and ignored black voters.
Reparations for slavery may be a good political strategy for Republicans. It may even be a good time to remind black Americans that it was Republicans who first proposed reparations for freed slaves. But are reparations for slavery a good idea for blacks? Juan Williams argues persuasively in his book Enough that reparations for slavery are a "mirage" and "self-indulgent waste of time" that diverts attention from pressing issues of today. TV host Tony Brown has called reparations a "fad."
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson asks in his book Scam, "Instead of reparations, how about a free ticket to Africa?" Slavery, which was legal at the time, happened so long ago that it makes no sense to compensate blacks for injustices committed several generations ago. As a practical matter it will be too difficult to determine who really "deserves" reparations (will we be back at the "one-drop" rule to determine who is "really" black?). Then, there is a problem with expecting people alive today to pay for sins committed by people more than 140 years ago.
While I oppose widespread reparations for slavery, I have heard two different arguments for forms of reparations that are, at least, intriguing. One variation comes from Jonathan Rauch who has argued that blacks deserve reparations—but not for slavery. The actual victims of Jim Crow would be given reparations. Rauch writes that a black person who was forced to attend an all-black school during Jim Crow could make the case that government policy had harmed his chances in life.
That has the potential to get messy, as people then must go through the steps of documenting which schools they attended 5 or 6 decades ago and how they were harmed. Plus, the actual perps—as Bartlett might point out, Democratic officials—are either too old or feeble to be punished today.
A second idea that gets around that problem was championed by Alan Keyes a few years ago when he was running against Barack Obama for the senate. Keyes recommended that black Americans should be allowed to live tax-free for a generation or two "in order to encourage business ownership, create jobs and support the development of strong economic foundations for working families." I see a few problems with that, too. One, President Bush's latest budget proposal is more than $3 trillion. To support it, the government will need more, not fewer, taxpayers. Secondly, black Americans — who are more likely to be supportive of tax-and-spend Democrats — would have even less of a reason to oppose proposals for increased government spending if they aren't paying taxes.
I've been saying for years that I cash any and all checks with my name on them, but that I could never bring myself to go down to a Federal Reparations Office to pick up a slavery reparations check. But being able to live tax-free, as suggested by Keyes? If you want to call it reparations, that's fine with me. Instead of getting a gift as a result of what happened to my ancestors, I could at least argue that the government was just letting me keep more of the money I had earned with my own labor.
By proposing reparations, Bartlett is harking back to a proud time in Republican history and a shameful time for the Democratic Party. After all, it was Republicans who, in 1867, put forth legislation putting aside forty acres of land for black Americans—legislation that was opposed by the Democratic Party. More than 140 years and several generations later, it may be that the Republican Party missed its chance to give reparations to blacks.
Casey Lartigue is a former policy analyst with Cato's Center for Educational Freedom