Discover more from Glenn Loury
The Left-Wing Case against Reparations
with John McWhorter
There are any number of right-of-center arguments against reparations. I’ve made them before. Now, with cities around the US considering cash reparations payments to black Americans, I’m dismayed to find that I have to make them again. But why do we most often hear objections to reparations coming from conservatives? The left, if it was thinking about its broader long-term electoral viability, ought to reject reparations claims as well.
Imagine, for example, a white working-class voter in a Rust Belt state that is suffering the effects of deindustrialization, inadequate public services, and the opioid crisis. Such a voter might be quite receptive to a senatorial candidate calling for class-based solidarity in order to address these serious problems with large-scale structural reform, a more robust social safety net, and higher taxes on the wealthy. But if the candidate, at the same time, also promises to distribute huge cash payouts to this hypothetical voter’s African American neighbors while leaving him to fend for himself, the voter might question how serious those calls to solidarity really are.
As well he should. We hardly ever hear this contradiction addressed by progressives calling for reparations, and yet it violates the very premise on which the likes of Bernie Sanders and John Fetterman have based their appeals to voters. Perhaps, as John McWhorter suggests in this excerpt from our most recent conversation, people would be willing to go along with reparations if they would finally end calls for race-based benefits. But, as John also suggests, reparations wouldn’t be the end. And if the payments go out and race remains a divisive issue, our hypothetical white working-class voter, and millions like him, may decide the only thing that’s finished is the left.
This is a clip from the episode that went out to paying subscribers on Monday. To get early access to full episodes, as well as an ad-free podcast feed, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below.
GLENN LOURY: Let me try something else here. I've given the right-wing objection [to reparations]. It's unfair, it's unjustified, it's racist, it's South Africa-esque. That would be a classical liberal objection. But I could give a left-wing objection, too, which is that it sunders the working-class coalition that you need to get real reform, that the claims of historical racial victimization, while perhaps valid in terms of historical truth, are secondary to the imperatives of contemporary structural reform.
Suppose you don't like capitalism. Suppose you think the welfare state should be bigger. Suppose you think there should be universal early childhood education. Suppose you think there should be a guaranteed minimum income. And on in that vein, which are structural reforms of a progressive character that can only be brought fully into being through the support of a broad-based coalition that cuts across racial lines of people addressing themselves to those reforms.
Do those reforms, and you'll have a much better society. You'll have a society where kids don't go to school hungry, where wayward teenagers don't end up being consigned to life in prison because they go from one crime to another to another. There'll be help for drug addicts. There'll be help for the homeless. There'll be decent housing, everything.
Matthew Desmond, the sociologist at Princeton whose famous book about housing insecurity in Milwaukee, Evicted, won a Pulitzer Prize and who's got a new book out now about American poverty that's very trenchant and powerful. It was excerpted in the Times Magazine, and he's a force to be reckoned with. Everything he wants—Matt Desmond, my buddy, lefty—everything he wants can only be gotten if black people who work for a living and white people who work for a living and the Asians and the Latinas and all of that get on the same page.
Now, if you've got a symbolic identitarian politics of racial reparations, you're cutting against that. Why would you frame your effort to make the society a better place in those terms? Blacks want to cut a side deal with America so that the racial wealth gap will get narrowed instead of lending a hand to the generation's long project of creating a decent society for everybody. If you did the latter, the former would take care of itself.
So there you are. I'm against it for all those reasons, too. I'm not a Sanders supporter, my wife will be the first person to tell you that—who is a rabid Bernie Sanders supporter, at least the old Bernie Sanders back in the day before he compromised and sold out to a Democratic party. That's what my wife would say. But I think Bernie Sanders, during that 2016 campaign and also during the 2020 campaign, represented an idea about progressive reform that transcended. He took flack, Bernie Sanders did, from certain diversity, equity, and inclusion advocates for not being foursquare behind reparations, because he recognized that his movement required a trans-ethnic span that the reparations issue cut against. So I do think that you can make that argument.
JOHN MCWHORTER: But you know, Glenn, I actually think if these new reparations efforts actually bear fruit—and you know most of them won't, but let's say it happened—I'm not gonna stand athwart black people in Evanston, Illinois being given a good deal on mortgages. I don't think I would stand athwart every black person in San Francisco—like all 16 of them—being given a million dollars. But the thing is—
Well, why not? I just want to press you on that a little bit. Why would you not put your credibility on the line, as I just did, to object to these policies?
You see, in a way, I am standing athwart. But I would say I would not stand athwart, because what would it hurt? Okay, so there's this woman with three kids, and she gets a million dollars. First of all, it would be taxed. But she puts some of it away, and she uses some of it to get a nice house. What's so terrible about that in itself?
But the white woman didn't get it. There's no free lunch. You just redistributed it. You didn't create anything. You just took somebody else's money and gave it to someone on the basis of their race. That's what's wrong with that.
And here's what I say: I cannot get behind that if it wouldn't be the end. Like if that's the way it's gonna be and this Irish-descended person doesn't get it because they were white and black people are black, for me, if that happens, it has to be it. It has to be, “Okay, problem solved. We have atoned for the racism of the past, including up to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Now we move on living.”
And the problem is that you can tell from things that reparations advocates even now say, all that money, even that would be just the beginning. The same people would be making the same noise, same stuff. “Societal racism is everywhere.” And the idea would be, “They better not think reparations solves the problem. They better not think they can treat us like animals for 400 years and just pay us off.” That's what it would be. And so reparations are just the beginning. That would be the screensaver. No, not if it's not gonna change anything. I would only be able to support this if a representative number of people said, “This will give us a sense that race has really turned a corner in this country.” But I don't think that those people are gonna do it, because their anti-racism is a state of mind, not a pragmatic political plan.
So in a way, it brings me to you. No, we're not gonna give that woman $1 million if people who consider themselves black leaders and black creators and black artists are then the next day gonna still have their arms crossed and saying they live in a racist Armageddon. No, not if it's just a beginning. And I hate to say about people who have good intentions that I don't know that I could trust them to let the theatrics go. Because they want to be Stokely Carmichael. That's all they're ever gonna do.
But you'd be willing to pay them off if they could commit, upon receiving the payment, not to make any more trouble. You'd be willing to pay them off.
I don't know about that woman, but black leaders, black writers, people who supposedly speak for us, they'd have to make that commitment. And they won't. They can't. That's what reparations is for me. All the movers and shakers would insist it was just the beginning, whereas I would only accept it if it were considered the end.
I've written contemptuous articles about reparations in the past, just saying it already happened and it's not necessary now. And then there's also the argument that to trace black ills now to slavery or Jim Crow or redlining is vastly oversimplified. But there comes a time, Glenn, when at least I want not to be a contrarian just to be a contrarian. I just want to be honest with myself. And if reparations really is showing some chance of happening—and this business of it happening in city after city possibly makes it look like it might happen—I don't know if I feel so strongly against the payments in themselves that I'm gonna keep on saying no, no, no, no, no for the same reasons.
But I would definitely say it would be the most depressing thing I had ever seen on race in my life. And yes, including George Floyd. The most depressing thing I've ever seen on race in my lifetime would be if in 50 or 60 cities across the nation, generous reparations payments were given to everybody who chalks themselves up as black, and yet the race debates stayed exactly the way it is, with the same DEI nonsense and the same apocalyptic vision of the role that racism supposedly plays. It would break my heart to see that happen, and unfortunately, it's the only way I can conceive of it being, although maybe I lack imagination.