One of the Biggest Arguments Against Reparations Is Based on a Lie

Representative Mike Johnson, Republican from Louisiana, at Wednesday's House Judiciary hearing on reparations.
Representative Mike Johnson, Republican from Louisiana, at Wednesday’s House Judiciary hearing on reparations. Photo: C-SPAN

Representative Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, issued his party’s opening statement at Wednesday’s House Judiciary hearing on reparations. The committee was gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss House Resolution 40, known officially as the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. The bill was first brought before the House of Representatives in 1989 by former representative John Conyers. It has been reintroduced every Congress since to no avail.

By most accounts, reparations are unpopular. Only about 26 percent of Americans support compensation or cash benefits to descendants of black American slaves, and while a majority of black Americans endorse the idea, few polls show their support topping 60 percent. The most common objections are familiar, and hinge on the notion that Americans today are not liable for the conduct of their forebears — as if we do not routinely uphold treaties or claim stewardship of legacies and ideals that long predate our lifetimes.

But Johnson went further than this: In his statement, he invoked the will of God, Martin Luther King Jr., and the opinion of his adopted 35-year-old black son, Michael, to argue not only that reparations are wrong, impractical, and probably illegal, but that they would harm black Americans’ dignity by depriving them of the “meaning” injected into their lives by having to achieve equality without government aid.

A portion of his remarks are worth printing in full:

I asked [my son] Michael this weekend what he thinks about the idea of reparations. In a very thoughtful way, he explained his opposition. And it reminded me of something that Harvard history professor Steven Thernstrom has previously testified in this very committee. And he said this quote, as I’m wrapping up:

“Finally, I would urge the members of this subcommittee and the House of Representatives as a whole to ponder carefully the message that will be conveyed by the passage of this bill [HR 40]. ‘When you’re behind in a foot race,’ the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1963, ‘The only way to get ahead is to run faster than the man in front of you. So when your white roommate is tired and goes to sleep, you stay up and burn the midnight oil.’ Dr. King’s words reflect an important tradition of self-reliance” — I’m still quoting — “that has had eloquent advocates in the African-American community. Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others. All of them were saying, in their different ways, that African-Americans were not powerless to better their lives until America owned up to its historical sins and offered them a generous financial settlement. The point is as important today as ever.”

Johnson concluded, “That’s what [Thernstrom] wrote to this committee the last time, or one of the last times this was debated. Those great leaders encouraged people to take control of and responsibility for their own lives because that gives every human being a greater sense of meaning, purpose, and satisfaction. And I know everybody in this room probably agrees with that idea, that principle.”

It seems unlikely — given the frequency with which Johnson’s testimony was booed by members of the audience — that everyone gathered actually agreed with such a principle. But while there is plenty in his remarks with which to take issue, among the most remarkable is the idea that black life would be sapped of meaning were black people aided too demonstrably in their fight against racism.

In Johnson’s conception, there is special purpose to be derived from this sort of overcoming — or running the “foot race” from behind, to use Dr. King’s analogy. If the government were to pay black people reparations, Johnson argues, it would rob them of the satisfaction of knowing that they made it on their own. This would be to their detriment. After all, the pursuit of such satisfaction is what gives meaning to people’s lives. And who better to determine where black people should seek out meaning than a white congressman quoting a white historian misappropriating the words of a black civil-rights leader for the purpose of helping the government avoid accountability?

It is an odd conception of purpose, to be sure. Overcoming racism gives purpose to black people in much the same way that overcoming hunger gives purpose to the starving. Suffering through such a travail might make a person extraordinary, or extraordinarily resilient. But it does not make them virtuous — only human. And whatever character-building capacity such an ordeal possesses does not supersede the injustice of hunger in the first place. Nor are the two mandates — suggesting that people work hard and implementing societal prescriptions to help them — in conflict. Advancing one does not necessitate foregoing the other.

But maybe the most insidious myth underlying Johnson’s anti-reparations argument is the idea that white people are winning the proverbial “foot race” without institutional help. This would be news to the beneficiaries of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, for example, the spoils of which were denied to most black Americans as a concession to white segregationist congressmen. An unprecedented government investment in social welfare, the New Deal created union protections for workers, established social security for older Americans, and insured home loans, funded college, and provided job training and employment opportunities for military veterans, more than half of whom were men in their 20s and 30s. It amounted cumulatively to the most significant government handout in American history. And the results were devastating for most black Americans.

By 1984, when most of the GI Bill mortgages had matured, the median white household had a net worth of more than $39,000 compared to less than $3,400 for the median black household, according to historian Ira Katnelson. “Imagine two countries, one the richest in the world, and the other amongst its most destitute,” writes Katznelson in his history of the era, When Affirmative Action Was White. “Then suppose that a global program of foreign aid transferred well over $100 billion, but to the rich nation, not the poor. That is exactly what happened in the United States as a result of the cumulative impact of the most important domestic policies of the 1930s and 1940s.”

All of which unfolded not while black people were being left to their own devices, but while they were being actively subjected to segregation and terrorism at the hands of their white neighbors and police. That is to say nothing of the extent to which housing and employment discrimination so narrowed the field of available opportunities that for centuries — and continuing in many arenas to this day — white Americans could expect near-monopolistic access to America’s most prized institutions and privileges without having to worry about competing with black people.

And yet, as Representative Johnson aptly demonstrated on Wednesday, many white Americans still insist that they made good by virtue of their own grit, determination, and self-reliance. This ignores history, but they seem to have no problem profiting so richly from societal largesse without suffering empty, meaningless lives as a result. It seems reasonable, then, to expect that if black people were paid reparations, they would also figure it out. Perhaps people like Johnson can more readily acknowledge that they, too, are the sum of investments — rather than insist that they are self-made and deny others aid that pales in comparison to the advantages that sustain them.

The Big Lie Fueling the Right’s Anti-Reparations Argument