The subject of reparations for slavery and other incidents in the rich American history of racism is, of course, very controversial. People of goodwill differ on whether they are appropriate and on how they can be calculated and fairly administered. Proposals to address this legacy range from specific cash amounts for the descendants of slaves to the suggestion of a moral obligation to fight the poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration, and bad schools that various forms of racism have produced.
But then you have the people of not-so-good will who don’t even want to engage in a discussion of America’s residual and still-developing debts to those who have been denied rights in the past and the present. Mitch McConnell is one of their spokesmen, as he made clear today in remarks quoted by The Hill:
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” McConnell said. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil-rights legislation. We elected an African-American president.”
I don’t know what’s worse: the belief that once slavery ended, the outrages associated with this particular “original” form of white supremacy ended, too, or the idea that civil-rights legislation (simply to give a distinct category of Americans what we all expect) and one president out of 45 are “reparations” in themselves and ought to be enough. It is credible that McConnell thinks the minute Obama took office any obligation to treat him with respect ended, since the Republican leader and his party spent the entire eight years of the Obama presidency seeking to deny him any positive legacy.
Certainly, McConnell’s “that’s enough justice for you people” attitude does reflect that of many of his party’s voters. A Pew survey in April showed 77 percent of white self-identified Republicans agreeing that “seeing [racial] discrimination where it does not exist” was a bigger problem than “not seeing discrimination where it does exist.” And in March, a Hill–HarrisX poll found 75 percent of Republican voters claiming that white people face racial discrimination.
So hostility not only to reparations but to once-sacrosanct bipartisan causes, like voting rights, is par for the course for contemporary members of the party of Abraham Lincoln. Slavery was so long ago! Jim Crow ended long ago too, with that key “landmark civil-rights legislation” that passed when McConnell was a Senate intern. Surely nobody who practiced or suffered from racism is still alive, are they? (Except for today’s white victims of racial discrimination, of course.) And if African-Americans persist in complaining about all that ancient history, “we” can presumably “give” them another president in a century or so. That’s McConnell’s formula for racial justice.