With another Juneteenth in the books the “reparations” conversation has been revived for a brief moment before the news cycle overtakes it again.
CNN’s Don Lemon had Dr. Cornell West and Dr. John McWhorter on his show to discuss the idea. It was actually a cordial and fascinating discussion. West hit upon the typical talking points from his side of the reparations fence, admonishing Americans for not truly coming to terms with the historical oppression of minority groups. He even entreated Lemon and McWhorter to not just limit the discussion to Black Americans.
We cannot talk about Black suffering in such a way that it downplays the suffering of indigenous peoples.
McWhorter, one of America’s premier linguists and a regular contributor to The Atlantic responded to West’s point by saying he agreed with concept of some kind of reparations in accordance with our national shame but he also believed the debt had already been paid to some extent.
He then went on to explain that while he may agree with West in theory and might be willing to further explore the idea, he worries that reparations would not end the discussion, but rather open the door to a never-ending parade of compensations and complaints.
I’ve been saying for 20 years now that reparations have already happened…
I could get behind this idea that we would have to have what I would internally call new reparations and I would apply my pen and my voice to it I might surprise a lot of people. I could try to get behind this. One must change…one must be open…but…I really do think that the people who are arguing for this need to consider what it would feel like to admit – not that things are perfect – but that America had turned a corner and as brother West said that we have come to terms. When are we ever going to come to terms? As a Black person I would like to feel whole. If this isn’t going to be constructive then we shouldn’t do it. But I’m afraid that a lot of black people in the United States would be uncomfortable with the idea that something really significant had been done because I think a lot of us feel that being victims is the only way that we are legitimate and that’s because of what happened for 400 years, I understand…but it worries me. Let’s do reparations and allow that it mattered…and be whole. Or, let’s just not do it.
McWhorter is a centrist (and has a really great podcast on language if you’re into that kind of thing) and by no means a defender of right-wing politics. He has an academic but common-sense approach to many of the issues of our day and a graciousness that makes it a pleasure to watch him interact with fellow academics like Cornell West, who can tend to veer off into “elitist” territory quite quickly. A full special on this subject with Cornell and McWhorter could end up being loads of fun for those of us who are so boring we think of this kind of stuff as “fun”.