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Jewish World Review April 10, 2001/ 17 Nissan, 5761

Charles Krauthammer

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How to solve the reparations problem -- DAVID HOROWITZ, former bomb-thrower of the left and now bomb-thrower of the right, has created a tidy scandal over the question of reparations for African Americans. His full-page ad in several college dailies savaging the idea provoked a predictable outraged reaction. Keepers of political correctness, finding his reasoning "offensive" and eschewing rebuttal, have either bullied the college editors into apologies (University of California at Berkeley) or simply confiscated all copies of the paper (Brown University) in a comically self-declared act of "civil disobedience."

Horowitz's gambit very cleverly exposed the intolerance of the academic left. The unintended consequence, however, was to resurrect the idea of reparations.

It has hardly been at the top, or the middle, of the national agenda. The fury over the ad has given those of us who have long advocated reparations an excuse to restate our case. The case is this:

The American people owe a special debt to black Americans. The key word here is special. That debt does not apply to any of the other groups -- women, Hispanics, now gays, etc. -- that have been grasping for the prestige and special benefits of victimhood. The African American case is unique: There is nothing to compare with centuries of state-sponsored slavery followed by a century of state-sponsored discrimination.

Collective responsibility does not, however, mean collective guilt. This generation of Americans bears no guilt for either slavery or Jim Crow. But as Americans who benefit from the fruits of America's past, we have an obligation to pay some of its debts. No 18-year-old, for example, has incurred a penny of our $3.4 trillion national debt. Nonetheless, he will spend a lifetime helping to pay it off, because even when guiltless we remain collectively responsible for our nation's past.

How to address that responsibility? Thirty-five years ago, under Lyndon Johnson, we made a fateful decision: to redress the debt owed black Americans by means of a new regime of racial preferences, a k a affirmative action.

That experiment has now run its course.

First, affirmative action has been corrupted by other groups claiming similar status and privileges. To accommodate the various claimants to victimhood, affirmative action has been inflated and transformed into "diversity." Every corner of society must now be sprinkled with the correct number of blacks, women, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians -- the list grows and grows. It has become an absurdity. By what logic does the son of a newly arrived Salvadoran immigrant have a greater claim to a place in a university than, say, the son of a white Vietnam veteran? Yet under "diversity," he does.

Second, affirmative action -- even when limited to blacks -- has terrible costs. It frontally violates the principle of equal treatment and thus inevitably creates, in a society founded on the ideal of equality under law, new and bitter racial divisions. More important is the damage it does to African Americans. Affirmative action patronizes, implying that blacks cannot make it on their own. And it stigmatizes, discrediting the very real achievements of African Americans because no one can then really be sure whether an individual African American made it on his own or on a quota.

Is there a way out of this cul-de-sac? A way to recognize the debt of the past without poisoning the present and future? There is. Reparations.

A lump sum compensation does not, of course, make full amends. Nothing can. No one, for example, would pretend that postwar German reparations for the Holocaust made amends. But they were nonetheless extremely important. They gave both symbol and substance to atonement.

In the American case, one can make both a symbolic gesture and a real one by giving, say, every African American family a substantial sum in the tens of thousands. For example, $50,000 per family of four would cost about $440 billion -- a considerable sum but manageable. (It amounts to about one-thirteenth of the projected 10-year surplus.) Expensive, yes. But far less expensive than the corrosive, corrupt and corrupting alternative of affirmative action.

Reparations should become the cornerstone of a Grand Compromise. The endless partial payment of affirmative action -- with all its destructiveness -- is ended. Yet the debt of the past is neither denied nor ignored. In one grand gesture, an acknowledgment is made not of collective guilt but of collective responsibility. Reparations are paid. We then end the affirmative action experiment that has been disastrous both for African Americans and for America as a whole. And we return to the original vision of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement: colorblindness.

I doubt that anyone on either side of this debate is prepared to accept this deal. But I defy anyone to present one that more cleanly -- and fairly -- cuts the Gordian knot.

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