Why America's journey toward racial justice shouldn't include reparations

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America has been paying reparations for slavery for more than 160 years.

President Abraham Lincoln recognized as much in his second inaugural address when he said, "Fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword ... 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' "

The Civil War cost the Union and the Confederacy more than $90 billion, adjusted for inflation, and 750,000 overwhelmingly white lives. That was just the down payment on our reparations.

It is true that there remain wide disparities between Black and white Americans in pay, wealth, health, education and more. We have to do better. That's what America has always been about – a "more perfect union."

But the route to a better, more equal America is through colorblind reform and individual justice, not racial entitlements – programs for Black farmers, Black college students, Black homeowners, Black businesses and so on.

The Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Miss., in 2013. About 750,000 soldiers died in the Civil War on both sides.
The Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Miss., in 2013. About 750,000 soldiers died in the Civil War on both sides.

For instance, African Americans have complained they are hobbled in the quest for home ownership by the fact that years of on-time rental payments don't result in the good credit needed to buy a home. We can add rental payments to all credit reports, helping poor people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds just as much as poor Blacks. It just so happens the help will go disproportionately to Black Americans.

African Americans justly complain of a history of substandard schools that have relegated their children to lives of poverty. Colorblind school choice for kids in failing schools to attend public or private schools that are better will help all students in failing schools. It just so happens the help will go disproportionately to Black families.

In the wake of George Floyd's murder by a cop, reforming police has become a major national cause. Certainly we can find ways to reform policing so violence is not the tool of choice among those with a badge. The colorblind result will save more white lives than Black ones, but Black people will disproportionately benefit.

In other cases, we can repair people's lives for harms they directly suffered. If you were wrongly denied a government loan because you were Black, you should be eligible for compensation, not because of the group you belong to, but because you as an individual were wronged.

All of those steps will take us toward a colorblind equality where all have a fair shot at the American dream if they work hard and play by the rules. Race-based reparations will take us away from that goal by fostering continued racial division and political strife.

Poor whites will see handouts and advantages for Blacks of all economic classes as an insult to their own struggles. Many will object to giving "reparations" to the 17% of Black Americans who are immigrants and their children. They have no history of suffering from slavery or Jim Crow.

Many whites descended from those who fought and died to end slavery might justly object that their families have already paid for America's sins. Millions more Americans, like my grandparents, didn't immigrate to America until the 20th century, leaving them blameless for structural racism.

And it won't just be whites who object. Last year, liberal California had the chance to vote on just this question: Should the state return to race-based admissions policies at public universities? The voters said no overwhelmingly.

If race-based reparations can't pass in a state that has voted for Democratic senators and Democratic presidents in every election this century, and has among the nation's largest minority populations, then the idea won't have support nationally.

Indeed, a majority of Asians, nearly half of Hispanics and a significant minority of Blacks in California said no to race-based affirmative action despite a more than 16 to 1 spending advantage for backers of race-conscious policies.

Race-based reparations are a step back into the world of racial politics that Americans are trying to get away from. The way to end racial discrimination is to stop racial discrimination.

David Mastio is an opinion writer with USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMastio

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Racial equality: Why reparations would be a step back for America