Reparations can't buy acceptance

STANFORD, CALIF. — STANFORD, Calif. - Blacks have already been the first victims of the campaign to get reparations for slavery. The longer this futile campaign goes on, the more additional blacks will be victimized.

How have blacks been victimized thus far? Some have been asked to supply identifying information so that they can get their individual shares of the reparations. Those who complied and supplied this information have since discovered that it was being used to steal their identities and saddle them with debts run up by con men.


The most important thing to keep in mind about reparations is that it is never going to happen. No Congress is going to pass, and no president is going to sign, a bill that takes money from the great majority of American voters to pay a debt that they don't feel they owe.

You are never going to convince people whose ancestors arrived in America after the Civil War that they owe anybody anything for what happened in the antebellum South. You are never going to convince people outside the South that they owe something for what happened in the South. And you are never going to convince the descendants of the majority of white Southerners, whose ancestors were too poor to buy slaves if they wanted to, that they owe anybody anything.


It doesn't matter what rhetoric or whines or threats there are, no elected body is going to take money from millions of voters who resent the suggestion that they owe it. So the real question is: What are blacks going to gain - and lose - from the continuation of this fruitless effort?

Those who are promoting the reparations campaign will gain publicity, book sales and the political support of some blacks and a few whites. Ideologues will gain self-righteous satisfaction from denouncing other people. But these "leaders" and shouters are a minority within a minority.

The great majority of blacks will gain nothing. Among the things they will lose is the good will of the rest of the society - a society in which they are not even the largest minority any more. In that vulnerable position, blacks can ill afford to come across as people who are constantly trying to get something without earning it.

That negative - and false - impression has already been created by such things as racial preferences and quotas. Despite much of what has been said by both black "leaders" and white critics of affirmative action, most blacks worked their way out of poverty themselves. The greatest reduction of poverty among blacks occurred before the civil rights revolution of the 1960s or the affirmative action policies of the 1970s.

Black politicians and activists have taken credit for obtaining from whites what blacks achieved on their own. This in turn has added to resentments from whites, who are offended by racial double standards and the relatively small percentage of the black population who have been able to take advantage of them.

Those who ask why blacks cannot lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, as other minorities have done, usually have no idea that this is also what most blacks have in fact done. Worse yet, decades of propaganda from black "leaders" have also convinced many - if not most - blacks that their advancement has been due to political activism and that an end to racial preferences and quotas would mean an end to their progress.

Blacks lose most of all by the diversion of their efforts and energies into seeking reparations that they are not going to get, instead of into the many economic opportunities that pay off a lot bigger. Getting in on the computer revolution offers far more bang for the buck than complaining about history.

Being a race hustler is a very lucrative business for people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. But such people can extort money and power from white business and political leaders precisely because it is easier to pay off a relative handful of noise makers than to be bothered fighting them. But tens of millions of blacks cannot duplicate what a small band of extortionists do.


Chasing a will o' the wisp like reparations cannot produce what blacks most want - respect, including the self-respect that comes ultimately from one's own achievements. This is something that whites could not give blacks if they wanted to. And it is something too important to be forfeited by a futile attempt to get reparations.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.