Wednesday, August 06, 2008

McCain and Obama Make Reparations a Campaign Taboo

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his Republican rival John McCain don’t agree on much. But there’s one thing that they not only agree on, but have made a campaign taboo, and that’s reparations. Obama flatly opposes it, and has repeated his opposition to it every time he’s asked the question about compensation for slavery. McCain doesn’t even bother taking a public position on reparations. In fact, it’s such a foregone conclusion that he would oppose it no one has even bothered to ask him about it on the campaign trail.

The candidates sprint from the issue like the plague for reasons that make good political sense. They both read the opinion polls. A CNN/USA Today poll taken after blacks filed two well-publicized reparations lawsuits in 2002 found that seventy-five percent of Americans said that corporations should not pay reparations for slavery, and a whopping ninety percent said the government should not pay reparations. Informal public opinion surveys show that whites, non-blacks, and many blacks still think that reparations is a bad idea. National Urban League officials won’t even discuss reparations. For them the issue is simply too racially charged and polarizing. The NAACP doesn’t oppose reparations, but it’s an issue that NAACP officials rarely broach in any of their public pronouncements. The few times it comes up they give the politically safe answer that Obama gave when asked about it and that’s that the government should do more to create jobs and educational opportunities for the black poor.

Still, reparations advocates have grabbed at every argument in the book to dent the wall of public resistance to reparations. They insist that black billionaires, corporate presidents, superstar athletes and entertainers won’t et a dime of reparations money, that it will go to programs to aid the black poor, that it won’t guilt trip all whites, and that Japanese-Americans and Holocaust survivors have gotten reparations for the atrocities against them. These arguments fall on deaf ears. The reparations movement just can’t remove the public imprint that it is a movement exclusively of, by, and for blacks.

Despite countless speeches pleading for racial brotherhood and interracial cooperation by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, that same tag was imprinted on the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. It took national shock and revulsion over Southern mobs beating, maiming, and killing white civil rights workers, and the massive presence of thousands of white students in Southern backwater towns before the civil rights movement gained widespread public and especially political acceptance as an authentic movement to change laws and public policy that would benefit labor, women, minorities, and even whites.

The reparations movement does not possess the inherent racial egalitarianism of the civil rights movement. It is ensnared by its racial isolationism. The focus is solely to compensate the descendants of black slaves for the wrong of slavery, and whipsaw whites for present-day racism. Most whites almost certainly applaud the fight to improve failing inner city public schools, health care, provide better housing and health care, and to battle drugs and the near pandemic scourge HIV/AIDS affliction among blacks. But they also believe that these are social ills that slam other minorities, the poor, and marginally employed working class whites nearly as hard. Reparations advocates make no mention of this.

As a consequence, reparations comes off as a hustle and scam to most whites that will flush their hard earned tax dollars down a black hole with nothing in return for them. In a time of soaring budget deficits, corporate meltdowns, the stock downslide, and the looming peril of massive layoffs that batter middle-class workers, reparations seems more than ever a frivolous issue that is politically divisive and racially polarizing.

That’s the last thing Obama needs during the campaign. He’s walking on the most fragile racial egg shells, and even the faintest hint that he has made race an issue in his campaign would do mortal damage to his election chances. He got a frightening glimpse of that when McCain jumped all over him for his off hand comment that he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on dollar bills. Unfortunately, any mention of reparations instantly smacks of race.

Despite the colossal resistance to reparations, Obama has made, and McCain if he so chose, could make the argument that it’s in the interest of government and business to pump more funds into specific projects such as AIDS/HIV education and prevention, remedial education, job skills and training, drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation, computer access and literacy training programs. They will boost the black poor, not gut public revenues. This will not finger all whites as culpable for slavery.

Obama won’t do that, and McCain can’t do that. And even though the reparations question will from time to time continue to crop up, count on the candidates to keep it a campaign taboo.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).