Of all the issues I expected Dick Posthumus (giggle) and Jennifer Granholm to babble on about during the governor’s race, slave reparations was pretty near the bottom of the list. But Dick has insisted – because he inanely deems even tacit support of reparations to be radical – that the issue be part of the campaign. As you wish, Dick; let’s banter:

The discourse on reparations is so far away from the mainstream today that the public rarely understands it. Rather than participate in a discussion about what reparations can mean and how they can be carried out, we react a la Posthumus and immediately dismiss the idea as radical. The very word – reparations – connotes special privileges and reverse racism for large portions of the public.

It’s unfortunate that we are so skittish about the subject. There’s very little in our country as pressing as the need to reconcile the disproportionate economic burden that blacks (and other minorities) have borne since slavery. Still today the unemployment rate remains cripplingly higher for blacks than for whites; blacks attend universities at a lower rate than whites; majority-black cities continue to crumble; etc. When this is our history, we cringe. When it is our present, we simply look the other way.

The federal government has been addressing, to varying degrees, the problem of disparity between races since World War II. Yet many of our best efforts have been undermined by misguided, but dogged, individuals, organizations and legislators. At the same time, the federal government has subsidized segregation through policies that have enabled white flight and suburbanization. There has been little continuity in the ways in which we’ve fought segregation and inequality, and as a result the campaign has been stilted and often ineffective.

Reparations offer an wonderful opportunity to address the problem. What we lack, though, is a bridge between the reparations discussion and the project of eradicating racial inequity. Perhaps their mutual constructiveness would be clearer if reparations wasn’t such a knee-jerk.

Reparations do not have to come in the form of blank checks. Rather they can come in the form of a large-scale, federally-directed program organized to channel money and energy toward narrowing the economic gap between blacks (and again, other minorities) and whites. Equally as important, our leaders must be the impetus. They must assert that addressing historic racial inequality is an urgent and significant priority.

Our past Deals, New and Fair, our Frontiers and Societies, have all shaped the political and cultural landscapes of their respective epochs. Imagine the sea change that an administration-championed, reparations-based program could mean for race relations in this country. Of course there’d be dissenters – there always are – but the effects on Americans, especially teenagers and children, would be invaluable.

The president and his administration wield an enormous amount of influence on the attitudes of the American public. Transforming racial attitudes might take years. But an executive acknowledgement and a redirection of government priorities toward the problem have the potential to change the way that American people view racial inequality.

Any reparations program must be extensive, and it must be aimed at long-term results. It should combine a variety of programs aimed at eradicating racial inequality – improving education, providing better access to jobs, adequate housing and health care – under a well-articulated and genuine resolution. It’s also essential that the beneficiaries’ agency be considered. No Spurious George-esque initiatives that force women to marry the fathers of their babies in order qualify for aid.

One of democracy’s fundamental features is its ability to fix mistakes we’ve made in the past. But almost a century and a half after the Civil War, we are still living with the awful consequences of slavery. Institutional racism and economic inequality along racial lines are problems that demand resolution. Race relations will not wholly improve until our leaders and we make a determined and genuine effort to confront the historic racial inequality that is part of the very fabric of American society. Reparations offer us a convenient mechanism for launching a direct assault on that inequality. We should be talking about them.

John Honkala can be reached at jhonkala@umich.edu.

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