On Wednesday, Quillette columnist Coleman Hughes testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties regarding H.R. 40, a bill that would, according to its summary heading, “establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations” for the descendants of African American slaves.
Hughes offered the following stunning and cogent testimony against the idea of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves:
It’s an honor to testify on a topic as important as this one. Nothing I’m about to say is meant to minimize the horror and brutality of slavery and Jim Crow. Racism is a bloody stain on this country’s history, and I consider our failure to pay reparations directly to freed slaves after the Civil War to be one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by the U.S. government.
But I worry that our desire to fix the past compromises our ability to fix the present. Think about what we’re doing today. We’re spending our time debating a bill that mentions slavery 25 times but incarceration only once, in an era with zero black slaves but nearly a million black prisoners — a bill that doesn’t mention homicide once, at a time when the Center for Disease Control reports homicide as the number one cause of death for young black men. I’m not saying that acknowledging history doesn’t matter. It does. I’m saying there’s a difference between acknowledging history and allowing history to distract us from the problems we face today.
In 2008, the House of Representatives formally apologized for slavery and Jim Crow. In 2009, the Senate did the same. Black people don’t need another apology. We need safer neighborhoods and better schools. We need a less punitive criminal justice system. We need affordable health care. And none of these things can be achieved through reparations for slavery.
Nearly everyone close to me told me not to testify today. They said that even though I’ve only ever voted for Democrats, I’d be perceived as a Republican — and therefore hated by half the country. Others told me that distancing myself from Republicans would end up angering the other half of the country. And the sad truth is that they were both right. That’s how suspicious we’ve become of one another. That’s how divided we are as a nation.
If we were to pay reparations today, we would only divide the country further, making it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today; we would insult many black Americans by putting a price on the suffering of their ancestors; and we would turn the relationship between black Americans and white Americans from a coalition into a transaction — from a union between citizens into a lawsuit between plaintiffs and defendants.
What we should do is pay reparations to black Americans who actually grew up under Jim Crow and were directly harmed by second-class citizenship — people like my Grandparents.
But paying reparations to all descendants of slaves is a mistake. Take me for example. I was born three decades after Jim Crow ended into a privileged household in the suburbs. I attend an Ivy League school. Yet I’m also descended from slaves who worked on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. So reparations for slavery would allocate federal resources to me but not to an American with the wrong ancestry — even if that person is living paycheck to paycheck and working multiple jobs to support a family. You might call that justice. I call it justice for the dead at the price of justice for the living.
I understand that reparations are about what people are owed, regardless of how well they’re doing. But the people who were owed for slavery are no longer here, and we’re not entitled to collect on their debts. Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims. So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent. Not just that: you’ve made one-third of black Americans — who consistently poll against reparations — into victims without their consent, and black Americans have fought too long for the right to define themselves to be spoken for in such a condescending manner.
The question is not what America owes me by virtue of my ancestry; the question is what all Americans owe each other by virtue of being citizens of the same nation. And the obligation of citizenship is not transactional. It’s not contingent on ancestry, it never expires, and it can’t be paid off. For all these reasons bill H.R. 40 is a moral and political mistake. Thank you.
Hughes elaborated on the issue during a follow-up interview with Quillette’s Jonathan Kay, in which Kay asked Hughes if one could reasonably argue that a single cash payout to low-income black families would help in multiple ways.
I’m not persuaded that if we injected black American households with a one-time large cash donation that that would fix the problems we see because I don’t think a lack of cash is the source of those problems.
When Kay asked Hughes what issue lawmakers should be focusing on that pertains to the black community, Hughes replied:
… the biggest gap of life satisfaction between blacks and whites … in terms of questions like, “Are you satisfied with the quality of your housing?” “The price of your housing?” “The quality of your neighborhood?” On all of these questions, black people are less satisfied than whites — but the biggest was, “Are you satisfied with the safety of your neighborhood?” That’s an issue that is very hard for people to talk about on the Left because it’s hard to plausibly blame it on white people, which is where the wheelhouse of rhetoric is on the Left.
I think, in many cases, the deepest problems caused by growing up in poverty — at least in America — are not merely the material. It’s not that you didn’t have enough stuff necessarily growing up, or that you didn’t have disposable cash, it’s often that poverty is correlated with growing up in a neighborhood where you have to learn to become a type of person in order to survive socially that is enormously stressful psychologically, and harmful to your prospects in various ways, and hardens you, coarsens you.
How do we fix that? Obviously, we have to end the war on drugs, which has created a huge amount of mistrust between black people and the cops, but we also have to be much better at policing violent crime. We need more policing of violent crime in cities where murder clearance rates are sometimes below 30%.
The Daily Wire reached out to Hughes, asking: “If reparations should not be paid to the descendants of slaves, is there an alternative that you believe would be an appropriate measure to aid the black community? (example: author Star Parker wants payroll taxes to be put in an IRA so that low-income people can build a private, transferable asset).”
Hughes stated that we must “invest in charter schools in inner cities, get rid of unnecessary zoning and other regulations that make it harder for developers to build, legalize drugs, invest much more in the policing of violent crime, shorter sentences for violent crimes in many state prison systems, among other things.”