There was a congressional hearing on the topic of reparations on Wednesday. This post isn’t about that congressional hearing, that’s just a neat thing that people should know about if they didn’t already hear about it. No, this post is about what happened before that. Specifically, it’s about what Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said during a news conference after being asked about the topic of reparations on Tuesday the 18th. And… yikes.
The video is only a minute long. It’s worth watching. I listened to it. It was not good. For a lot of different reasons. It was in fact, so not good that I wanted to sit down and write about it. And this won’t include me making a case for reparations, because that’s not necessary to refute this particular line of argumentation and that would actually distract from the important conversation we should have about what the Senate Majority Leader, one of the most powerful men in the world, has said here.
What Are Reparations?
There are some folks who are gonna come here and not know what reparations are. That’s fine. I am just gonna take a second to briefly define the term.
Reparations in the context of slavery are widely understood as the concept that descendants of slaves are owed or at least could/should be compensated in some way for what their ancestors endured. This is an idea that has been discussed in many different places but most notably in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Recently this term has been gaining traction in American social media as part of the buildup to the 2020 election. This is part of a pattern that has been seen in the past, notably in the 2008 election and in the 2016 election. For anyone interested this article discusses how past Democratic presidential candidates have discussed reparations, sharing information about former President Obama’s view, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s view, and Senator Bernie Sander’s view. And it’s worth noting that there is a debate over this, for information on that consider checking out this article by Eugene Scott over at the Washington Post.
So what was wrong with the Senate Majority Leader’s response? Part one: the Obama remark
I’m gonna start off with addressing something people have already spoken about but is worth revisiting anyway. No, the election of former President Obama does not make up for the injustice of slavery. Nor was it an effort to make up for that. That belittles the legitimate appeal of former President Obama and could be read as an implication that he was the presidential equivalent of what some have taken to calling a diversity hire.
I want to examine that implication because I hear it a lot. So-called diversity hires are widely characterized as people who were less qualified for a position and got in on the fact that they helped fulfill some sort of quota. This article by the Huffington Post examines how much experience other presidents had before becoming president, and it shows that the idea that former President Obama was unqualified is untrue. And if you’re curious as to how the former president won his election in the first place, it’s partially because his support was immense and included significant numbers of white voters, showing his universal appeal.
Another thing that was wrong with what the Senate Majority Leader said was that he acted as if the former president and his lived experiences were somehow representative of all of the community that Senator McConnell conflated him with. Much like the Latin-American experience, the African-American experience is a diverse and varied thing and not every ancestor of African Americans came to this country at the same time and under the same circumstances. It’s disingenuous to imply that because Barack Obama made it, someone whose father was a senior government official in another country and who was able to go to an Ivy-league school, that our country has overcome its inhumane roots, become a sort of color-blind meritocracy and therefore reparations could be said to be unnecessary or worse yet already indirectly accomplished.
The whole “it’s old and we aren’t responsible for it” argument:
The very first argument Senator McConnell makes is that it’s old and we personally aren’t responsible for it, therefore, we should do nothing. Neither of those are arguments anyone should take seriously. We are not responsible for many types of cancer, and cancer is old yet we try to cure it because it hurts us and kills people.
Natural disasters have been happening for longer than humanity has existed. And there are some natural disasters that we have nothing to do with. Yet when they happen we step up and help victims, even victims who aren’t American and we even help countries beyond our border devastated by natural disasters. I’ve no doubt that the Senate Majority Leader would not help victims of natural disasters or cancer survivors if he could, but this isn’t about him. He’s trying to make a case against reparations that goes beyond himself and his preferences. He’s appealing to other people or he’s at least trying to appeal to them.
Civil war and civil rights remarks:
The Senate Majority Leader makes remarks that rely on false and naive visions of history. Historian Robert S. McElvaine rightfully points out as early as 1997, and he’s far from the first person to do this, that the American Civil War was not fought to end slavery. It was fought to preserve the Union. Those two things are not the same. In fact, slavery was never outlawed. To this day slavery continues to be legal in the United States in prisons, even if it isn’t legal elsewhere and that is important and should be a greater part of any conversation about racial justice and equality. That alone helps to call into question any notion that the Civil War was fought over slavery itself. Slavery was a key part of the tension between the Confederacy and the Union, sure, but to insist that the war was fought over slavery as it’s core issue is… short-sighted to say the least, but this claim is used as a weapon to insist that we as a country are farther along in handling our past of racial injustices than we actually are. One possible reason why this might be done is to silence voices who urge us to do more in this area.
The Civil Rights Movement was not something that the government was on board with. There was a reason why it’s characterized in our history books as an era of protests and demonstrations. The protests and demonstrations were to demand that the government do the right thing because they hadn’t been doing the right thing, not to celebrate how easy the government was to work with or celebrate how happy they were to work with African Americans to dismantle racist institutions and laws. For the Senate Majority Leader’s comments to be taken seriously as part of a broader remark against reparations it would be necessary for the government to have been a willing partner and a party eager to tear down the institutions that upheld racism, which it clearly wasn’t. Every bit of progress that was made in the fight for civil rights was in spite of the government’s efforts, not because of them.
Laziness is not an argument against reparations:
The final line of argumentation against reparations that the Senator proposes is that because of our history we’d have to figure out precisely who is owed reparations and that there are many likely candidates. In what universe is that, the idea that we’d have to work to discover exact circumstances needed to fix a problem, a valid argument against doing something? If a serial killer kills too many people do we stop investigating their crimes? If too many people are unemployed do we cut off our social security net and let them perish? If a plague has infected people and hurt them their whole lives for generations at some point do we stop our efforts to cure that plague?
In what universe is it seen as moral to deny everyone some semblance of justice because there is too much injustice to correct? What the Senate Majority Leader is proposing here isn’t an argument against the possible morality of reparations but an appeal to laziness and apathy. Don’t fall for it.
The Senate Majority Leader doesn’t really appear to believe that reparations are immoral. It appears to me, that the real reason he’s against reparations is this final argument. The appeal to laziness and apathy. He doesn’t want to set a precedent of encouraging us to look into our collective past that might cause us to recognize that the conditions our ancestors inflicted on the poorest among us in the past have impacts that are felt to this day. But we know that the legacy of slavery has an impact that is felt today.
Research shows this. The impact of slavery isn’t abstract to a lot of people. Many of us don’t view reparations as an effort to correct an abstract concept that was bad, to those of us who are reflected in the Pew Research Center poll I linked we may view it as an advisable or even necessary step to correct a direct event in the past that continues to affect our friends, family members, neighbors, and fellow human beings in real ways. And we can debate about this, but what we shouldn’t be debating are some of the things that the Senate Majority Leader suggests.
We shouldn’t have to debate our moral responsibility to do what we can to correct injustice even if that injustice wasn’t or isn’t our fault. We shouldn’t have to debate over whether or not to set a precedent to do the right thing because then we’d have to continue doing the right thing. We shouldn’t have to debate the idea that real solutions to modern problems may require research and yes maybe even require action.
The Senate Majority Leader wants us to be lazy and complacent. He’s not some thought-less oaf who was speaking without thinking. He prepared an answer to a question about reparations that encourages us to do nothing and to favor complacency over action because otherwise we’d make him and other senators have to work. He doesn’t want that. Just like he didn’t want to help 9/11 First-Responders. He wants to get paid to do nothing, maintain the status quo and if we move to even have a legitimate conversation about reparations at the legislative level that would require him to move, do research and pretend to care about someone other than himself.
Intelligent, well-meaning people can debate about reparations. But intelligent, well-meaning people wouldn’t appeal to laziness. They wouldn’t distort history. They wouldn’t insist that because we personally didn’t instate slavery that we can sit in silence and do nothing to aid those affected by the cultural and psychological impacts of being a society with roots so deeply embedded in slavery. Be better than the Senate Majority Leader. Don’t argue like he argues. Thankfully, what I’m asking here isn’t difficult.
Luciano Joshua Gonzalez-Vega runs Sin/God and is the column’s sole author. The Puerto Rican writer is constantly working, whether he’s creating content for his YouTube channel, searching for freelance writing jobs, studying to finish earning a Master’s of Arts degree in peace & conflict studies, discussing various topics with his friends online such as on Wednesday nights with fellow YouTuber Wonder Lady as the co-host of the Humanist Perspectives program, or as a general guest on a range of different YouTube channels. He is an independent content creator and columnist who dreams of being financially independent and able to self-finance a consultant’s business aiding businesses and organizations that find themselves burdened and needing conflict management services and even hoping to one day have a nationally syndicated radio show wherein he aids people dealing with workplace or familial conflicts and also advocates for humanistic approaches to the problems of the day.
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