Self-invention has always been an American ideal. We're supposed to enjoy opportunities to make our own fortunes and control our own fates, in this world and the next. The Calvinism of seventeenth-century colonials proved less quintessentially American than did the notion that you can choose to be born again in Christ. This is not a culture inclined to embrace ideas of predestination, spiritual or financial. In the mythic, utterly egalitarian America--the democratic America Tocqueville described--we create our own futures, unburdened by our familial pasts. That is the American dream and a primary ideological obstacle to winning reparations for slavery.
Demands for reparations challenge the vision of an American meritocracy. African Americans have not enjoyed equal opportunities for self-invention, advocates of reparations insist: Tenacious economic discrimination, widespread denials of voting rights, and oppressive brutalities (like lynching) followed the abolition of slavery and made sure that the descendants of slaves would be burdened by their history, not freed from it.
I don't dispute the truth of this assertion; the persistence of discrimination throughout the twentieth century is a primary justification for affirmative action, which I have always supported, a little unhappily. Race-conscious hiring, promotion, and admission policies are not entirely equitable, but they are necessary and, on balance, less inequitable than race-blind policies. Still I don't regard affirmative action as compensation for the past; I regard it as insurance for the future. I don't support affirmative action programs because I believe that white women and racial minorities have somehow earned the right to preferential treatment, by inadvertently inheriting discrimination. I support affirmative action because I can't figure out a better way to achieve equality.
So I hesitate to endorse recent demands for slavery reparations, although they have been thoughtfully presented. Opening a new conversation about reparations, activists and intellectuals, like Randall Robinson and Charles Ogletree, have stressed that they are not asking for direct cash payments to African Americans; reparations may take the form of compensatory social and economic programs. (In a recent article in The Nation, Robinson called for "public initiatives, not personal checks.") They have not accused those Americans whose ancestors were not enslaved of collaborating in the perpetuation of racism. "No one holds any living person responsible for slavery" or its legacies, Robinson stressed. They have made an appeal to our collective conscience, not issued an indictment of collective guilt.
Still, it's hard to imagine how this appeal might be implemented more than 100 years after abolition, without encouraging a belief in inherited guilt. Reparation demands do rest on the conviction that the nation owes a debt to its black citizens. This view implicitly implicates all citizens who constitute the nation, except the victims of slavery. First-, second-, or third-generation Americans whose families were busy being persecuted in some other country when slavery was abolished here may be particularly resistant to the demand that they contribute to reparations, but even if you don't believe in inherited guilt, it's difficult to make a case against the descendants of slaveholders.
How will we identify the beneficiaries of reparations? Will they be limited to people of African ancestry? Will they include those Americans of African descent whose ancestors participated in the slave trade? Will they include all those Americans of mixed race descended from slaves and slaveholders? If reparations are intended to atone for racism, will they extend to all self-identified people of color, like Hispanics, Native Americans, or Pacific Islanders? Will the drive for reparations provoke a close examination of our ancestry to determine racial purity and entitlement to compensation? …