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    Reparations would mute racial dialogue

    By STEPHEN BUCKLEY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 6, 2002

    Spring, 1988. I'm a junior in college, in an ethics seminar where we struggle through a passel of hard issues: Is war ever justified? Is abortion moral? Is affirmative action ethical?

    We spend two weeks on affirmative action. The 20 or so students -- a handful of us are minorities -- are civil but honest, cautious but open. A few are dead set against it. Some are fierce supporters. Most of us end up in the middle: We see affirmative action as an awkward but necessary solution to past injustice, and don't want it to last forever.

    I remember being surprised and relieved. I'd expected snide speeches, bitter resignation. Instead, we had provocative, helpful conversations that reminded me that democracies work because people talk.

    Open debate yields solutions. Dialogue births compromise. Conversation ultimately allows reason to triumph.

    Which brings me to America's surging reparations movement: Should the U.S. government pay ancestors of Africans who were enslaved here for 246 years? How much? For how long?

    I see rallies on C-Span, front-page stories in major newspapers, essays by famous commentators, position papers by respected human rights groups, resolutions by city councils.

    And I wonder: What are we thinking?

    Supporters say reparations are about justice, not money.

    They say the government has paid others -- Native Americans who lost their land, Japanese-Americans who lost their homes and their citizenship.

    They say the residual effects of slavery are obvious: Too many blacks remain poor and uneducated, ill-housed and unemployed, frustrated and hopeless.

    And I agree.

    I even agree that it isn't as impractical a solution as some argue. Germany and Austria figured out payments to Holocaust victims and their direct descendants. Our own country has paid Native Americans for lost land and Japanese-Americans for lost homes and lost citizenship. Now we're paying the relatives of Sept. 11's victims.

    And still I'm against reparations.

    Because, in the end, it's a payoff that would strangle our national conversation about race at a moment when we arguably need it more than ever.

    Whites would say: We've paid our debt. Leave us alone. Shut up, please.

    The money would buy silence.

    The debate is as old as the Civil War. Gen. William T. Sherman and the War Department promised 40 acres and a mule in January 1865, but President Andrew Johnson later decided that wasn't a good idea.

    Reparations were once the province of white radicals and black militants. Now moderate voices have joined in. Human Rights Watch supports payments. Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley, no knee-jerk liberal, backs a bill proposing an $8-million federal study. Magazines and academic journals are thick with articles on this issue.

    Pushing the debate are an array of black activists and intellectuals -- from Randall Robinson and Jesse Jackson to Harvard's Charles Ogletree and Princeton's Cornel West. Ogletree is among the lawyers suing three American corporations that allegedly enriched themselves through slavery. Robinson wrote a popular book about reparations (The Debt).

    This is the kind of leadership that has failed African-Americans for years. Leadership that lacks creativity and vitality. Leadership that seems stuck on the victimhood treadmill, which more and more blacks find dishonest and unhelpful.

    It's hard to argue that blacks have made no progress when Colin Powell is secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice is national security adviser, and Rodney Paige is secretary of Education -- in a Republican administration.

    There are more than 9,000 black elected officials in the United States -- a tenfold increase since 1970. Median income among blacks climbed to unprecedented highs in the late 1990s. Poverty among African-Americans has dipped to historic lows, even with a slight increase last year.

    Those gains are tainted by huge challenges -- dysfunctional schools, lack of affordable health care, a stalled middle class, the death penalty, AIDS.

    The mixed progress means traditional strategies no longer work for black activists. African-Americans want solutions, not dogma. But black leaders don't seem to understand that. Instead of building on the enormous range of ideas among the people they serve, they pretend all blacks think alike.

    Some blacks reject school vouchers, but others see them as a practical solution to their children's educational woes.

    There are blacks who cling to affirmative action as the best way to build a black middle class, but many are troubled by how it has played out at universities, in government life, in corporate offices.

    There's even ambivalence about reparations: A USA Today poll found that 55 percent of blacks support payments, a smaller majority than you might expect.

    Civil rights leaders want to focus on the topic of reparations because it's sexy, emotional. It's great for sound-bite activism. But it falls apart in the grayness of real life.

    The leaders' blindness extends to America's shifting racial landscape. The debate is no longer black and white; it's now black and white and yellow and brown. An unprecedented percentage of Americans now classify themselves as biracial or multiracial. So, who's black?

    That's a question at the heart of issues like affirmative action: How should biracial Americans be classified when they apply for college, or for an elementary magnet?

    I don't hear black leaders talk much about Hispanics becoming America's largest minority. How should that coming reality change how African-Americans approach politics? Should blacks be embracing more political coalitions with Hispanics? What are the risks and challenged involved in that?

    Reparations, even if the money is designated for better health care or more school construction, can't address these questions. They'll take a lot of time -- and talk -- to answer.

    Talk -- dialogue, conversation, debate -- is what Americans arguably do better than anyone else. We're a nation addicted to our own voices. The resulting cacophony drives us nuts, but we talk anyway.

    We've used talk -- through radio and TV, through politics, through protest, sometimes even through real town hall meetings -- to work through race, abortion, the death penalty and a host of other bruising issues.

    I think it's one reason America has avoided a race war. Dialogue allows us to keep shaping and reshaping our views; it keeps the debate in the hands of moderates.

    Reparations would turn the conversation over to extremists. Weary moderates, who've been essential to racial progress in this country, would walk away. They would be the ones demanding silence in return for the money.

    In the end, reparations would do worse than deepen their resentment.

    It would justify their indifference.

    -- Stephen Buckley is a national correspondent for the Times.

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