David Brooks’ Destructive Call for Reparations

Needless and harmful guilt and burdens in the worst of times.

What happens when a man tries to make cold and hard reality answerable to his warm and soft feelings, instead of the other way around? Rarely anything good.

With his March 7 New York Times column, “The Case for Reparations,” David Brooks has given us an occasion to recall this important truth. “A slow convert to the cause,” the paper of record’s so-called conservative tells us he’s been “traveling around the country for the past few years studying America’s divides — urban/rural, red/blue, rich/poor.” Meanwhile, he’s experienced “a haunting sensation the whole time that is hard to define. It is that the racial divide doesn’t feel like the other divides. There is a dimension of depth to it that the other divides don’t have. It is more central to the American experience.”

They’re quite revealing, these words from the first paragraph of Brooks’ sermon, for the writer’s new position on reparations stems not from logical analysis, but from “sensation” and what “doesn’t feel like the other divides.”

“The racial divide,” Brooks writes, “is born out of sin,” yet it’s not clear what he means by “racial divide” per se. On average, Hispanics make less money than whites, who make less money than Jews, who make less money than Asians. By “sin” Brooks means black slavery, but though few people, myself included, will deny that it was a moral evil, it does not explain race differences in income as such. Nor does it explain how Ben Carson, Toni Morrison, Corey Booker, Kamala Harris, among many other examples, were able to be far more successful than most Americans, irrespective of race. In short, Brooks’ language is confused, reflecting the confused character of his thought.

Good team member playbook in hand, Brooks quotes Abraham Lincoln, the supreme idol of American levelers:

[I]f God wills that it [i.e., the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

This famous sentence is from Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address. It was Lincoln’s desire to end slavery that caused the Civil War, Brooks appears to believe. One wonders whether he knows that many historians question this interpretation. It is arguable that the Civil War had many causes, but that like most wars, it was motivated more than anything else by economic interests: although Lincoln’s high Biblical rhetoric, the work of a gifted prose poet, served (and still serves) to obscure this dark truth. To be sure, nations are very like the people who compose them, forever putting a lofty spin on their egoistic ends after the fact.

Anyway, commenting on the sentence, Brooks writes that “moral actions are connected to each other,” that “sin travels down society through the centuries,” and “that sometimes the costs of repairing sin have to be borne generations after the sin was first committed.” Now it is certainly true that some “moral actions are connected to each other,” and that as a practical matter we must deal with the bad effects of the past. The problem, though, is that Brooks wants to punish people who had nothing to do with slavery for the alleged present injustices suffered by those who descend from slaves. Far from “repairing sin,” this aim is utterly incoherent, and unjust besides. Nor is it difficult to see this. The point is simple, and has been made again and again. The last thing we need is for conservatives—of all people!—to impede understanding of such a straightforward matter.

“All sorts of practical objections leapt to mind,” says Brooks in a moment of clarity. “What about the recent African immigrants? What about the poor whites who have nothing of what you would call privilege? Do we pay Oprah and LeBron?” And yet, these apt questions are immediately superseded by sheer feeling, Brooks’ guide, as it were:

But I have had so many experiences over the past year — sitting, for example, with an elderly black woman in South Carolina shaking in rage because the kids in her neighborhood face greater challenges than she did growing up in 1953 — that suggest we are at another moment of make-or-break racial reckoning.

Here, as elsewhere, Brooks doesn’t make a substantive argument. It is telling that he uncritically accepts the dubious belief that conditions for blacks are worse now than in 1953, worse since the civil rights movement. Like a clumsy man with a knack for tripping on obstacles in his path, Brooks simply reacts to how others feel, and so, all warm and fuzzy, claims that

the need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

How vague all this is. To begin with, how are we to identify, with accuracy, the descendants of slaves? Seeing as Africans themselves sold their fellows into slavery, why is it that only whites should be culpable for this “sin [that] travels down society through the centuries”? What would it mean to “consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known”? What is there here besides sentimental confusion? How would Brooks’ desideratum be achieved by taking money from whites and giving it to blacks? How does the mere act of “of talking about and designing” reparations “heal a wound and open a new story”? And what “wound,” really? The descendants of slaves did not experience slavery themselves! And if the actual problem is black slavery, why talk about “narratives,” as if the plights of Hispanics and whoever else were relevant? Brooks may be well meaning, and for some very moving, but his language shows he is clueless.

For instance, 74% of black children are born out of wedlock. This is closely correlated to all sorts of negative outcomes. How will reparations provide “a new story” here? How can money, by itself, change what people value, and therefore the choices they make? Is there any evidence that our welfare state has brought that about? No. On the other hand, even Michel Foucault himself was aware that the welfare state produces dependency and promotes vice in undisciplined characters.

What blacks really need, as my friend Amy Wax says, is “the bourgeois script,” that is to say, virtuous habits. In her words,

Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

This is real conservatism, which Brooks’ column, despite his good intention, can only serve to undermine. Thus, he claims black slavery and “the continuing pattern of discrimination” “shows up today as geographic segregation, the gigantic wealth gap, the lack of a financial safety net…the lack of the psychological and moral safety net,” and on and on. It’s as if blacks were passive agents who can’t overcome the alleged ongoing negative effects of slavery without white reparations. Is there no condescension in this? And what “continuing pattern of discrimination,” exactly? Jim Crow, or rather, a current one?

Notice that, as throughout the column, Brooks merely makes assertions that are supposed to account for a variety of complicated phenomena. And as ever, his language is obscure. What is “the lack of the psychological and moral safety net?” Does it refer to something the state or whites should provide? With respect to safety, the main problem for blacks (and for the rest of us) is black men under 40, who commit more than half of all homicides, and who are disproportionately represented in all violent crimes, even though they’re less than 5 percent of the US population. Presumably, Brooks, who is fundamentally a liberal, would attribute such violence to poverty, but doing so would be fallacious, as there are many places in the world which, though they know greater poverty than our worst cities, are nonetheless much lower in violence.

Brooks’ advocacy for reparations could not come at a worse time, now that leading Democrats—Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Julian Castro—have come out in support of them, with Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and others likely to follow. Of course, offering free goodies can help politicians to get elected, but what is best for the national interest is something else. If anything, reparations—besides being unjust by definition—are likely to increase racial division. These days the white working class understandably resents the decline of American industry. Its wages have been kept down partly because of a surplus of low skilled labor, a problem that results from excessive low skilled immigration (most of which is legal). Now whites are to have their situation made more difficult still? Well, that’s a great way to send more people to the alt-right, but it’s a disaster for race relations.

“There have been many types of discrimination in our history,” Brooks writes, but “the African-American (and the Native American) experiences are unique and different. Theirs are not immigrant experiences but involve a moral injury that simply isn’t there for other groups.” Does Brooks not know that slavery was universal, having existed on every continent? Does he not know that virtually all nations have been founded on conquest and the domination of native peoples? Is he unaware that man has always been a wolf to man, preying on his fellows, and on the other animals, just as they do to each other? I don’t suggest that all this is “right.” The point is that what Brooks calls “unique and different” is not indeed that.

If ever a piece of writing needed an editor, it is Brooks’ column. “Slavery and the continuing pattern of discrimination aren’t only an attempt to steal labor,” he declares; “they are an attempt to cover over a person’s soul, a whole people’s soul.” What does it mean “to cover a person’s soul”? What is “a whole people’s soul”? The trouble with such sentences is that the correct grammar obscures the fact that the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Again, consider the following:

We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.

Precisely how is it that “the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices”? The very concept of racism is fairly new in human history. The sorts of ethnic and religious conflicts between Americans of European descent that have occurred in this country had also occurred in Europe. Little was new about them—brutal in-group bias has been the norm in history. Why, then, think that black slavery, horrible as it was, had some sort of causal relation to the discrimination of the Italians, or of the Irish, or of the Jews, or of the Catholics?

The discrimination Asians face at Harvard and other elite universities today undoubtedly inspires them to resent blacks, because it’s partly in order to make room for blacks that certain Asians are denied meritocratic admission. Let us grant for argument’s sake that “the legacy of slavery” has hindered blacks, and that it has also been used (not to say, justly) to discriminate against Asians. Now we still need to explain why it is that so many Asians and Jews and whites were able to overcome poverty and discrimination to be successful. Contra David Brooks, group differences are not so simple as the proposition: Black slavery once existed; therefore, blacks are still struggling. Once again, what’s needed for blacks is better habits. After all, the relative lack of them is the reason Brooks and others find it necessary to call for reparations (and also for affirmative action). We should recognize, too, that simply throwing money a problem is not only unlikely to solve it; it is likely to sustain and even to make it worse.

It never seems to occur to Brooks and his ilk that “the case for reparations” raises the question as to why other “advantages” should not be “corrected” or “equalized.” Why address only “the legacy of slavery” (somehow applicable only to blacks, despite its universalism)? Why not also differences of intelligence, physical beauty, athletic ability, personal charm, and God-knows-what else? It is important to realize that group differences, as differences, are value neutral: they have only such value as we choose to assign to them. But so long as people differ in any way whatsoever, it will always be possible to make value judgments in virtue of those differences. Hence we come to the final outcome of Brooks’ reasoning: absolute sameness, life lived in test tubes.

Instead of vainly embarking on what Thomas Sowell calls “the quest for cosmic justice,” it would be much wiser, and much less dangerous, I submit, to make peace with natural differences and the vexed inheritance that is history. This does not entail any polices averse to the common good, but it is a freedom from needless and harmful guilt and burdens.

Christopher DeGroot is the editor of The Agonist. Follow him at @CEGrotius.