Conservatives often have a blind spot about race. This is not, I hasten to add, because they are closet racists — they are not — or because conservatism itself is racist, either subjectively or objectively. I think the real reason is more subtle and more profound: Conservatism places a very high premium on individual responsibility, but racism is best understood not so much as a matter of individual vice, but as a systemic evil.
Now, I happen to believe that a public square that places a high premium on individual responsibility leads a nation to flourish, which is why I do identify as a conservative. But as a Christian, I am compelled to admit that every ideology has blind spots, and I think the conservative emphasis on individual responsibility does lead to a lack of understanding of the systemic nature of some evils.
I say this because many conservatives in the United States happen to be Christian, and I think if most were presented with Ta-Nehisi Coates' argument for reparations in The Atlantic, they would reject the idea out of hand, on the basis of individual responsibility. Why should taxpayers who never personally participated in slavery be forced to pay for reparations for people who never were slaves? As tragic and awful as slavery and Jim Crow were, it remains immoral to make someone pay for something they didn't personally do.
This is an honorable position. I just want to complicate things somewhat by noting that Christianity offers us another lens for looking at the question. While individual responsibility is very important to Christianity — every one of us must make a free choice for Christ — it nonetheless presents a bigger perspective. Indeed, two of the key articles of faith fly in the face of individual responsibility; after all, in Christianity, all men are held guilty of the sin of one man, Adam, and all men are saved through the redemptive act of just one man, Jesus.
As Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, explains very well in this speech (starting at minute 26), biblical morality accounts not only for individual sin but also collective sin. Under Christianity, we do have some responsibility for the sins of our kin, just like God punished or rewarded the ancient Israelites collectively for their sins or faithfulness.
Individual responsibility is tremendously important, but collective responsibility is a deep human truth as well, as anyone who feels proud when their favorite sports team wins knows.
You can say that a family of white people who immigrated to America in the 1920s has no responsibility for the enslavement of black people — but actually, they do. That family decided to sign up for a package deal called "America," a package deal they wanted (otherwise they wouldn't have immigrated), and a package deal which was shaped, for better or worse, by the institution of slavery. While it's important to note that slavery limited the economic development of white Americans as well as black, at the micro level, plenty of white Americans directly or indirectly benefited from the systematic discrimination of black people, in the realms of housing, education, employment, and so on. The discrimination was pervasive enough that each of the myriad institutions that make up American life — politics, schools, colleges, sports, media, culture — has been affected. Those participating in these institutions incur, in turn, at least some degree of responsibility for that injustice.
This is why there was perhaps something left to be desired in the response to Coates' article by his sometimes-antagonist John McWhorter. Coates is asking for, if not outright reparations, then, a "national conversation on race." McWhorter notes, correctly, that America is already completely obsessed with race, and always scrupulous about condemning racism and atoning for past injustice. Basically, he says, we already have what Coates wants. But what McWhorter misses about Coates' point is that America's national conversation on race is entirely focused on the denunciation of racism as a personal failing. Everybody agrees that being racist is bad. And most think that to finally reach the sunlit uplands of Post-Racial America, all we need to do is hunt down the last racists and cast them out of polite society. But this is all wrong.
It is the phenomenon of scapegoating, as analyzed by the French thinker René Girard. The reason why we spend all this time hunting down racists — some real, but some imagined — and heaping massive amounts of opprobrium upon them is precisely because we feel, deep down, that we are implicated, that we are not pure as driven snow. And so, like the Soviet apparatchik heaping scorn on the latest purge victim while knowing full well he could be next, we join in the collective hatred of the day's Official Racist to establish, both to the community and to our faintly disturbed selves, our non-racist bona fides. So yes, McWhorter is right, we already have a national conversation on race, and it is utterly stupid. But the central point of Coates' piece — and its great virtue — is precisely that it does not treat racism as mere personal animus, but as a systemic evil. And this conversation is one worth having — including with conservatives as full participants, not as punching bags, as any such conversation needs a very heavy dose of skepticism toward potential government solutions to the problem.
Which brings us to the best objection to reparations, from my friend and former co-blogger Noah Millman. The problem with reparations, Millman argues, is that in order to be effective, they have to repair. Suppose the United States government really paid out an astonishing number as reparations. And suppose that after that the various disparities between black and white don't vanish, and racism still exists. Are we healed as a nation? Have we reached Post-Racialtopia? No. In fact, we might very well be worse off, in terms of social cohesion, if it all comes to naught.
Indeed, the practical objections are immense, which is why as a policy idea, reparations probably remains a nonstarter. But Christians (and others of good will), still ought to meditate on the systemic nature of some evils, and how we, despite all our best intentions, still bear some responsibility for them. And we should all wish for a less ridiculous conversation on race.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should really take a nap this afternoon, according to science
- How U.S. special forces are preparing for the worst-case scenario in North Korea
- Why Israel can no longer let the Palestinian Authority be responsible for security in the West Bank
- Why you shouldn't eat dog. Not even once.
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- How social conservatives became a minority in need of protection
- Why charity can't solve society's deepest problems
- I hate Ayn Rand — but here's why my fellow conservatives love her
- The biggest lesson Obama failed to learn from Bush
Subscribe to the Week