- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

For a number of years, it seemed reparations for slavery was something of a wild card used by the likes of Jesse Jackson if their names were absent from the papers for a few weeks. Since the proposition was devoid of moral or intellectual merit, I thought it would never be taken seriously.
But now it's upon us and a demonstration was held yesterday in the nation's capital, making the demand official. We had better take it seriously.
I respectfully make the identical recommendation to advocates of the proposition.
Whereas the rule of law outside most of the English-speaking world has been the dream of a few, the Founding Fathers made it reality in America. A major component of this success has been the vesting of rights in individuals as opposed to groups with corresponding individual responsibility. The ancient aspiration of equality before the law was thus placed within the grasp of all who were to come to America.
Unless I am mistaken, the thrust of the civil rights movement as articulated by Martin Luther King was a similar aspiration. Focusing on the "content of character" as opposed to "color of skin" can mean only that people of African ancestry should be treated as individuals.
A great deal of effort has gone into making the foregoing reality effort, and money. Millions used the opportunity to get ahead. But many black leaders ignored the effort to create a truly integrated society and embarked on a never-ending litany of past and present injuries. Over the decades since passage of the civil rights legislation, they have succeeded in building great resentment of white America.
The real danger of embarking on the reparations debate in earnest is that it will put the clock back several decades. It will unavoidably pit black against white and vice versa. It will not only consolidate the influence of the enemies of integration on both sides, but drive wedges between people who today are working together in true harmony.
Early on, I mentioned the absence of any moral or intellectual merit. Though obvious, a point or two may be worth recalling. Since the past cannot be changed, there is no such thing as "righting a historic wrong." If people come to believe injustice is being committed, they can change the terms for the future. Significantly, in the present case, those who were wronged, and those who wronged them, are long dead. Consequently, extorting money from people who have done nothing wrong for people who have not been wronged is possible only by invoking collective responsibility.
Aye, there's the rub, Shakespeare would say.
Hand in hand with collective responsibility goes collective evaluation of every kind. And it's not a one-sided game, nor is wishful thinking of much practical value. Current example: The Arab/Muslim world holds America responsible for all its woes, but protests erupt when America holds the Arab/Muslim world responsible for terrorism committed by some of its members. To no avail. It's either one way or the other.
Genuine, ongoing and lasting improvement for black Americans is achievable only through individual effort, harvesting individual appreciation. The interference by those who continue trading on slavery has already slowed the benefits to all. If an additional blow is now struck through the reparations demand, it may be fatal.
It took millennia to establish individual rights. It took centuries for black people to secure equal participation in that rare blessing. If it is thrown away, there may not be another chance for some time.

Balint Vazsonyi, concert pianist and senior fellow of the Potomac Foundation, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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