The Atlantic: There is no middle ground on reparations

The Atlantic, June 19, 2019: There is no middle ground on reparations

On December 1, 1862—a month before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation—President Abraham Lincoln proposed a Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the most expansive and expensive slavery-reparations plan ever put forth by a U.S. president. “Every State wherein slavery now exists shall abolish the same therein at any time or times before” January 1, 1900, and slaveholders “shall receive compensation from the United States” for emancipating the enslaved.

Indeed, Lincoln’s proposal did not fail to escape history. His politically expedient plan made and portended history, projecting a middle ground for Americans to stand between permanent slavery and inequality, and immediate emancipation and equality.

Today, many Americans who oppose reparations, including a slight majority of Democrats, stand on this middle ground. These Americans self-identify as “not racist,” but do nothing in the face of the racial wealth gap that grows as white people are compensated by past and present racist policies. Or they support small-scale solutions that barely keep up with this growth. Or they support class-based solutions that are bound to partially fail in solving this class- and race-based problem. Or they oppose reparations because they’ve consumed the racist idea that black people will waste the “handouts,” that the reparations bill will be too expensive, or that black America is not too big to fail.

Racist policies have historically compensated people for their whiteness and extracted wealth from people because of their blackness. But Americans occupying the middle ground do not attack these policies like they attack reparations. They support (what they don’t call) reparations for white people at the same time they oppose reparations for black people.

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