- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

To considerable fanfare among left-wing proponents of redistributionist politics, Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, once again has trotted out his bill to provide reparations to descendants of American slaves.
The measure, which Mr. Conyers has introduced in virtually every session of Congress since the 1960s, is titled H.R. 40, after the post-Civil War proposal to provide each former slave with 40 acres and a mule. The measure would "acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of the United States and the 13 American Colonies between 1619 and 1865" and establish a commission "to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes."
The bill's chances of approval are slim to none in the current session of Congress. But in an era of apologies and reparations to the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and the Jewish slave laborers under Nazism, for example it is perhaps understandable that other victim groups would want to give it a try. Nobody much disputes that the African slave trade was indeed cruel, brutal and inhumane, at least by today's standards.
And it is worth noting that should Democrats regain control of Congress, Mr. Conyers, who is now the senior Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee, would become the committee's chairman. This would make him immensely powerful around Washington.
He could also count on backing from like-minded Black Caucus members occupying other positions of power: New York Rep. Charlie Rangel would become chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which controls the domestic agenda, and California Rep. Ron Dellums would head the National Security Committee, which has a lock on military and foreign policy issues.
But there are serious problems with reparations. For one thing, they would not come cheap. Randall Robinson, one of the American leaders of the fight against South African apartheid, has placed the price tag at more than $1.4 trillion, more than two-thirds of the annual federal budget.
But it's not the money that disturbs. It's the utter bankruptcy of the vision. John Conyers came to Congress in 1964 just as Lyndon Johnson was inventing his Great Society, which amounted to just the sort of Marshall Plan that reparationists seek. Over the next 30 years, Washington threw several hundred billion dollars at urban renewal, job training, housing assistance and the like. But most analysts now agree it did little good indeed, that one of the chief effects was simply to snare poor people in a demoralizing web of dependency, bureaucracy and social pathology.
Mr. Conyers led the redistributionist parade, which rested on an assumption that white racism accounts for nearly all the ills of the black community. He is quick, for example, to jump on a white mayor like New York's Rudy Giuliani when there's suspicion of racism in a police department. But when police in black-led cities like Washington or Detroit are discovered to be gunning down citizens at a record pace, he is silent. He is quick to condemn education vouchers that might provide the poor in our cities with more choices, but he and his colleagues are strangely quiet when the black middle class sends its own children to private schools as Mr. Conyers himself does.
And now Mr. Conyers wants to levy an enormous tax on people who had nothing to do with slavery in order to compensate people who never had to endure slavery themselves. One result would almost certainly be much higher tax rates, which would only make it more difficult for the poor to find well-paying jobs or accumulate some capital on their own. He either refuses or fails to see that redistributionism always carries a heavy price.
In this case, the price would be to further stall the progress that many sectors of the black community are making as a result of the economic expansion. Worse, it would bring massive cynicism about the assumption that African-Americans deserve to be seen as moral agents in their own right, fully capable of working out their own destinies.
And this is the very opposite of the view that undergirded the great civil rights revolution that helped bring Mr. Conyers to Congress in the first place.

Tom Bray is a columnist for the Detroit News.

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