Reparations considered: What's it take to set it right?

Most people never change their minds. Blame ego for this, probably. Reversing your opinion is an act of humility. It suggests that, previously, you were wrong. Wrong? Nobody wants to be wrong! We'd rather be consistent. Changing your mind takes effort, too. It almost hurts.

So we cling to our beliefs. To make this easier, we limit our intake of information to stuff we agree with. Whatever might rock the boat is screened out. Thus keeping up with the news becomes more an act of comfort, like eating ice cream, than an intellectual exercise.

I try not to be that way. Not being an especially smart person, I've developed a bag of tricks to make myself seem brainier than I really am. One of those tricks is to ask, if only occasionally, "Am I wrong here?'' It's an enormously helpful tool. I can't tell you how many times it has saved me: in arguments with my wife, in discussions at work.

And it helps when I'm trying to make sense of the pulsing chaos of the world. For instance, when the idea of reparations to black Americans for slavery in this country was recently raised– again– I prepared myself to return to the ramparts to defend patriotism and historical truth.

Demanding reparations for slavery seemed to paint black Americans, inaccurately, as victims, while their middle class was actually growing year by year. It was unpatriotic–a slap at all those abolitionists and Union soldiers. A slap at Harriet Beecher Stowe.

My thinking went like this: History is a rough place, filled with bad things, and to try to cash in on your misfortune now is extortion, the same lunging after a sliver of pie that Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and Operation PUSH is famous for. Blacks were taking their inspiration from Jews, ironically enough, using the Jews' unseemly success at prying a few billion dollars out of the Germans as reparation for the 20th century Holocaust as an excuse to try to right this dusty 19th century wrong... an impossible task that would only lead to further dissension and fragmentation. Next, Mexico would demand Texas back and, having caved in on the slavery issue, we'd end up forced to pay them off.

That was my thinking. I had it all worked out, down to the pithy ending, and had flopped my fingers on the keyboard and started to write, when an objection occurred to me that I just couldn't bat away.

What about the big black slums in every city in America? Chicago? What about Detroit? What about South Central L.A.? What about the entrenched poverty and pervasive dysfunction which, despite gains, is such a problem for black America? What created that, and why is it still here?

Remember, all manner of national and ethnic groups were once dirt poor in this nation. Irish immigrants were penniless and despised. The Jews, no strangers to hate, sold rags on Maxwell Street. You could pass it off to skin color. Those Colleens and Cohens could melt into society in a way black people couldn't. But now we are seeing groups of other ethnicities– Asians, Hispanics– arrive in this country and scramble up the ladder in a way that black Americans haven't. Why?

What is it about black people? If you believe, as all rational people do, that everyone is the same at the start, human beings, equal in their potentials and abilities, that we all have the same capacity to grow, live, learn, love, then where did this mass of black poverty and generation-to-generation dysfunction come from?

At first it seemed ludicrous to me to write it off to slavery. That ended 140 years ago. A long time. But slavery really didn't end with the Civil War. In the South, it continued with an additional century of repression that, if not actual chattel slavery, was very close. In the North, it continued as 100 years of bigotry and segregation.

Could the 200 years of institutional slavery (unlike reparationists, who don't help their cause by exaggerating, I trace slavery, not back to 1492, but to the 1600s, when slaves actually appeared) plus 100 years of repression that have not ended to this day, somehow have a role in the widespread poverty we barely recognize, never mind deal with?

Well, to quote young people: duh.

This does not mean I believe the United States should cut a check.

Frankly, I'm not sure what the nation should do. Apology isn't it. Apologies are symbolic and don't help people. But I do know– now– that we need to commence a process that begins with the thought: How did this group of Americans, who happen to be black and poor, get to this position in life? And what can their country, the United States, do to make sure that the promise of America is as true for them as it is for others? What can be done now that hasn't been done?

I am beginning to suspect that it is the people demanding the issue of slavery be addressed who are the patriotic ones, the ones who believe in the grandeur of the United States and the sweep of history.

History is what brought us to today. I have no trouble believing one reason I'm a bookish kind of guy is my great-grandfather studied the Talmud. So why is it so hard to accept that one reason, perhaps the main reason, a certain segment of America is poor and dysfunctional is its great-great-grandparents were separated in chains on a slaver's dock?

And to accept that idea– and really, what other explanation is there?– is to be on the road to believing that the same nation that fractured a group of citizens at one point in history can, 150 years later, do more to set matters right.

Neil Steinberg writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, where this essay originally appeared.