Editorial: Opening a dialogue on reparations

Published: 7/6/2019 9:00:10 PM

There is a fear, one this newspaper shares, that the Democratic Party could move so far to the left that it leaves the middle behind, further dividing rather than uniting a politically riven nation. No issue poses more risk of doing so than the decades-long debate over whether to pay financial reparations to the descendants of slaves for past and present harms.

Most of the 2020 presidential candidates support the latest form of a decades old effort to create a bipartisan commission to study whether to pay reparations – estimates run to a trillion dollars or more – and to whom and in what form. None of the candidates have offered anything close to specifics.

The racism that pervades American life cannot be explained simply by citing the country’s beginnings as a slave-owning nation, nor emancipation’s sordid aftermath of theft, lynchings, disenfranchisement and discrimination. Legal challenges to awarding reparations would be inevitable, as would unfairness and anger. In short, the issue of reparations is political dynamite, all the more explosive in the traditionally blue or purple Midwestern states that voted for Trump.

Poll after poll shows that reparations are enormously unpopular, especially among whites. It’s nonetheless a national conversation that must be held, so we support House Resolution 40, the proposal to create a commission to study reparations. The measure’s prime sponsor is Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. Neither of New Hampshire’s representatives, Annie Kuster or Chris Pappas, are listed as co-sponsors.

Congress began a discussion of HR40 last month. Reparations have precedents, notably the apology and $20,000 per survivor payment awarded under the Reagan administration to Japanese citizens and legal residents who were interned in camps during World War II. We would welcome a study of the effect of those payments to victims whose families lost many times that sum in property, dignity, lost income and more.

Notably absent from the current discussion is atonement, fiscal and otherwise, for what California Gov. Gavin Newson recently called the “genocide” of Native Americans and theft of their lands by America’s government. Any discussion of reparations must include those founding sins. To this day, the poverty and deprivation of Native Americans exceeds that of poor blacks.

Estimates of payments, if similar to those awarded Japanese internment victims, range from roughly $16,000 to $30,000 apiece to 30 million or more African Americans. Discussions could swiftly drown in the practical, financial, legal and moral issues in play.

“It would be hard to figure out who to compensate” for slavery, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, an Alabama native, said. “No one currently alive was responsible for that.”

True, but slavery vastly enriched the economy of the United States at the expense of African Americans. The expropriation of Indian lands allowed America to exist. How to atone, and who owes the debt?

Tens of millions of people became Americans long after slavery ended. Many of them faced discrimination and exploitation. Should they be taxed for past sins? The graves in many a New Hampshire cemetery are those of residents who fought, at least in part, to end slavery. Is it fair to tax their descendants to pay reparations? It’s a matter worth debating. The economy of the North was built in great measure on textile mills whose raw material was cotton tended by slaves, former slaves and their descendants. Slave labor made cotton cheap and northern mill owners rich. New Hampshire residents share in that wealth today. The long brick mills in many a riparian city are again engines of the state’s economy.

The national debate over reparations is necessary and overdue. But it could contribute to a second term for a president who, not without cause, has been accused of racism.

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