Reparations for slavery?

The problem I have with the idea of reparations for slavery is the underlying assumption that the problems of black Americans are mainly due not to injustice in the present, but to things that happened in the past.

We face the historical consequences of more than 200 years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow enforced at gunpoint. But all of us, except a few kings and aristocrats, are descendants of poor oppressed people. What’s more relevant is the fact that a law-abiding black person has less chance of getting a job than a convicted white felon right out of prison.

Take as an example three young girls in the same class in an inner city school. One is the descendant of black slaves; another is the daughter of black immigrants from Jamaica or Nigeria; the third is a white girl whose ancestors did, in fact, own slaves. Is there any reason why any of these girls is more or less entitled to a good education and the chance for a good job than any of the others?  To say “yes” is to set them against each other, and lessen the chance of changing the system.

The same thing is true of hate crimes legislation.  The underlying assumption is that the problem is the lack of extra punishment for crimes of hate, whereas the real problem is that people who commit crimes against hated minorities may not get any punishment at all.

Like most human beings, I tend to think that any advantages of the group to which I belong are part of the nature of things.  I will reluctantly give up advantages in the name of equal justice for all.  I will not agree that some group other than my group deserves special treatment, no matter what historic injustices they’ve served.

If you really did want to make reparations for African-Americans for the effects of slavery, the best way to do it would not be through a token payment of money, such as the government of West Germany made to the government of Israel. It would be to assure that the children of African-American families had the opportunity to get good educations, and then good jobs that would reward work and ability.

And the only way to do that would be to provide a good school system and a high-wage full-employment economy for everyone.

None of this is mean to deny the reality of racial discrimination against black people.

In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each was 23 years old, a local college student, bright and articulate. They looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience. From June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job site called “Jobnet,” applying for the same entry-level jobs as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers. There was one obvious difference in each pair: one man was a former criminal and the other was not.

If this sounds like an experiment, that’s because it was. Watching the explosive growth of the criminal justice system, fueled largely by ill-conceived “tough on crime” policies, sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they’d done their time—a process all but ignored by politicians and the judicial system.

So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs. Then she recorded who got callbacks and who didn’t. She soon discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off in employer responses—not entirely surprising. But when Pager started separating out black applicants from white ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality and jobs to the core.

Pager’s white applicant without a criminal record had a 34% callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17% for her white applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black applicants were 14% and 5%. And yes, you read that right: in Pager’s experiment, white job applicants with a criminal history got more callbacks than black applicants without one. “I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some with race,” Pager says. “I certainly was not expecting that result, and it was quite a surprise.”

Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple’s sprawling market for entry-level jobs—once again, with one applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record. (As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who posed as the ex-con.) The results? Again Pager’s African-American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for ex-criminals: a drop off of 9 percentage points for whites, but 15 percentage points for blacks. “Employers already reluctant to hire blacks,” Pager wrote, “appear particularly wary of blacks with known criminal histories.

Other research has supported her findings. A 2001-2002 field experiment by academics from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, uncovered a sizeable gap in employer callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) versus black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal). They also found that the benefits of a better resume were 30% greater for whites than blacks.

via Mother Jones. [Added 7/7/11]

Click on this for the survey establishing that white felons are more likely to get jobs than law-abiding blacks.

Click on this for a study showing what having a typical “black” name will do to your employment chances.
Click on this for another study of racial discrimination in employment.

It is important to know about these studies because so many white people not only believe that there is no anti-black discrimination any more, but that, because of affirmative action, it is we white people who are the real victims.

Click on this and this for studies of racial discrimination in mortgage lending.

Click on this and scroll down for more investigations of racial discrimination using testers.

To repeat: The effects of what happened in the past affect the present, and I’m not going to lose any sleep if some African-American or Hispanic person here and there gets something they’re not strictly entitled to. But the problem we need to focus on is what is happening in the present, and the solution is equal justice for all.

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