By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
A politics of reconciliation is needed for America’s racially polarized partisan politics, and Kevin Govern has suggested restorative justice as a means to promote political reconciliation. Many Democrats advocate reparations to Blacks to compensate them for the evils of slavery as a means of restorative justice, but racial reparations would only exacerbate racism in America.
Civil rights laws that prohibit racial and religious discrimination and the Constitutional right to equal protectiion of the law are essential to restorative justice, but ending the racism that polarizes American partisan politics will require more than enforcing the law. It will require changing the hearts and minds of White and Black Americans.
Justice is based on standards of legitimacy based on law, morality and values that originate in religion. The prophet Micah summed up the moral imperatives of ancient Judaism: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
The greatest commandment is more specific on the altruistic moral imperative of justice. It calls us to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions. (see Luke 10:25-37) It’s taken from the Hebrew Bible, was taught by Jesus, and has been accepted by Muslims as a common word of faith and politics.
The altruistic moral imperative to provide for the common good goes beyond the law. Belief in the supremacy of one race or one religion over others is not unlawful, but it’s immoral. In a nation of increasing racial and religious diversity, policies that favor one race or religion over others undermine the common good and threaten the fabric of democracy.
White supremacy in politics has long been at the root of America’s racism, but racial demographics are changing in America. Whites will soon cease to be a majority and become a plurality, while Hispanics and Asians will challenge Blacks as the dominant minority. Those demographic changes will transform racism and the dynamics of American politics.
Restorative justice requires a politics of reconciliation that minimizes America’s racially polarized partisan politics. Reparations based on race would exacerbate racism and prevent a politics of reconciliation. Restorative justice and providing for the common good to end systemic racism depend as much or more on race relations as on enforcing civil rights laws.
Race relations, restorative justice and a politics of reconciliation are inextricably bound together, and they all depend on both the legal and moral standards of political legitimacy. Economic entitlements based on race do not serve the needs of restorative justice, and they oppose the common good and racial reconciliation needed to sustain American democracy.
This Counterpoint relates to the commentary of Kevin Govern posted on February 13 on the topic Truth, Justice and Reconciliation in the Wake of the Second Trump Impeachment.
Democrats in Congress have cited slavery in America as an uncomfortable truth in making a renewed push for a national commission to examine the impact of slavery and reparations for Blacks as a remedy for systemic racism. “Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) announced the reintroduction of H.R. 40 to create a reparations commission last month that would study the history of slavery, the role federal and state governments played in supporting slavery, and racial discrimination against the descendants of enslaved Africans. “Economic issues are the root cause for many critical issues impacting the African American community today,” Lee said. “Truth and reconciliation about the ‘original sin of American slavery’ is necessary to light the way to the beloved community we all seek. The uncomfortable truth is that the United States owes its position as the most powerful nation in the world to its slave-owning past.”
In an earlier House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on H.R. 40 in 2019 that marked the 400th anniversary of slavery, then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) opposed racial reparations saying, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” McConnell told reporters. “We 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 think we are always a work in progress in this country. But no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don’t think we should be trying to figure how to compensate for that.”
Differences among Democrats on racial reparations were cited in the Notes to an earlier commentary at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2020/08/musings-on-racism-reparations-racial.html. Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC) has expressed concern over the effect of racial reparations on race relations, while Chales M. Blow has little concern for race relations. Clyburn understands the importance of race relations to racism in America: “I always say the root word for reparations is repair, repair, repair. We need to repair what's going on in this country. These fault lines that have been opened up need to be repaired. ...When you start talking about reparations in terms of monetary issues, then you lose me because nobody can put a value on the loss of education. Nobody can put a value on the loss of a life. Let's repair what's wrong with America and not allow ourselves to spend the next 150 years studying what a monetary value needs to be assigned to the loss of these freedoms and liberties.” See https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/06/16/james-clyburn-police-reform-protests. Clyburn also said that “he fears reparations would lead to contested debates about who would be eligible due to the sprawling family trees that have evolved in the generations since slavery was abolished. ...Clyburn said he liked a recent comment by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who said in a CNN town hall last week that he would push to increase the usage of Clyburn’s “10-20-30” policy. That formula, which has already been inserted in some federal policies, calls for directing 10 percent of government funds to counties where 20 percent or more of the population has lived below the poverty line for the past 30 years. ‘To me, that’s a much better way to deal with what reparations is supposed to be about,’ Clyburn said.” See https://www.postandcourier.com/politics/scs-clyburn-pans-reparations-opportunity-zones-as-unable-to-address-racial-inequality/article_3bb2e8ba-3eb3-11e9-b75a-a376c84be23f.html.
By way of contrast with Clyburn, “Charles M. Blow supports reparations, which he describes as ‘reasonable and right.’ For a vast majority of black people’s time in this country, they have been suffering under an oppression operating on all levels of government — local, state and federal. It is absolutely a good idea for America to think about how to make that right, to think about how to repair the damage it did, to think about how to do what is morally just. And the idea that too much time has passed makes a mockery of morality. ...Furthermore, this is not about individual guilt or shame but rather about collective responsibility and redemption. America needs to set its soul right. The paying of reparations isn’t at all an outlandish idea. To the contrary, it’s an exceedingly reasonable proposition. Most of all, it’s right.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/opinion/reparations-reasonable-and-right.html. Blow showed contempt for race relations when he wrote: “I have never fully understood what [race relations] meant. It suggests a relationship that swings from harmony to disharmony. But that is not the way race is structured or animated in this country. From the beginning, the racial dynamics in America have been about power, equality and access, or the lack thereof. ...So what are the relations here? It is a linguistic sidestep that avoids the true issue: anti-Black and anti-other white supremacy. It also seems that the way people interpret that question is in direct proportion to the intensity of revolt that’s taking place at a particular time. ...After the rise of Black Lives Matter, satisfaction with race relations suffered a sustained drop.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/opinion/racism-united-states.html?searchResultPosition=1.
The uncomfortable truth is that America’s racially polarized partisan politics are based on deeply embedded negative attitudes on race across the racial and political spectrum. Restorative justice requires changes in hearts and minds along with the enforcement of civil rights laws. Reparations for Blacks as a remedy for the evils of slavery and systemic racism would only exacerbate racism in America. In his commentary on February 13 Kevin Govern cited the theologian Stephen J. Pope in America: “Restorative justice is strikingly different from criminal justice in giving priority to repairing the harm caused by wrongdoing—including first and foremost the harm done to victims but also to the wider community and even the perpetrators.”