A Change of Heart on Reparations

David Brooks’ conversion isn’t perfect, but he offers a glimpse at the future of racial reconciliation.

Brooks stands near a stage, holding a coffee cup.
Author and columnist David Brooks speaks at the NAMM Fly-In for Music Education at the Newseum on May 23, 2017, in Washington. Kris Connor/Getty Images for NAMM

Earlier this month, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece describing his epiphany that race is a divide that is still “central to the American experience” and—more surprisingly—declaring a change of heart on reparations for descendants of slavery in America. At the end of 2014, Brooks had acknowledged the propulsive impact of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations” in bringing the idea further into mainstream conversation. But, despite his seemingly deep understanding of the article’s point, Brooks summarized reparations as “basically a big apology” and disagreed on its more practical implications: who gets the benefits, how, and who pays.

His conversion is a sign of hope in the effort to unify America’s polarized political environment, which seems only more strained now than in 2014, and it complements the growing importance of reparations policy for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Brooks has realized that the pervasive and morally corrupting impacts of slavery and racial discrimination continue to this day, a fact many of us become aware of, often uncomfortably, at a much earlier age. To Brooks’ credit, many others either fail—or refuse—to ever recognize this reality. And yet, because other white intellectuals did not take as long to recognize it, it’s worth taking a closer look at the ways Brooks’ particular conversion, as notable as it is, also falls short.

One concern is that Brooks, considered a centrist by many, only came to truly comprehend the profound impact of race as a divide in America by embarking on a pilgrimage for a few years. While Brooks may have had the luxury and motivation to seek these truths and find them, it is doubtful that many Americans who have yet to come to this understanding can—or even want to—do the same.

He also failed to explain exactly how encounters like his chat with an irate older black woman in South Carolina made things click for him, other than the simple fact that genuine exposure to people different from you can help you realize the legitimacy of others’ experiences. This only further illustrates the problem with racially homogeneous communities in America created by both explicit and covert modes of segregation. How are we supposed to understand and identify our commonalities if we are unable, or refuse, to interact?

Second, Brooks’ emphasis on slavery as the reason for reparations glosses over the significant discrimination and segregation that black Americans have experienced since the Civil War, particularly racism in housing policy and employment. Slavery is of vital importance, but to make this atrocity the central injustice permits others to trot out the sham defense that very few whites owned slaves, or the fact that some black people owned slaves. Black codes, Jim Crow laws, and the assortment of other discriminations after the 13th Amendment were devastating injustices, and all need to remain a part of the reparations dialogue. Richard Rothstein, among others, has shown that policies from as recently as the late 1960s have set black Americans back financially—providing much larger and more immediate justifications for reparations than just racial slavery.

Then, there is the way Brooks highlights a canard he apparently bought into back in 2014, his “practical objection” to reparations because of “poor whites who have nothing of what you would call privilege.” Brooks never clarifies whether he has since changed his mind about this belief, but it is a common misconception. Equating privilege with economic status misses the point. If the privilege of being white were sanitized by the condition of being poor, there really wouldn’t be much sense in calling it white privilege. Privilege is often imperceptible to those who have it, and that’s why the viewpoints of those without the privilege are especially valuable. It’s dangerous for Brooks to even raise his earlier objection without addressing its fallacy.

As scholar Nahum Chandler has pointed out, if being white has often historically been considered the “normal” or the “average” viewpoint, wouldn’t, at least initially, understanding any nonwhite views be inherently about recognizing any possible commonalities? Not everyone is willing to. It’s those opposing equality who look for opportunities to argue for the inferiority of another group. Black people are just as intelligent, just as capable, and equally as flawed as white people; race doesn’t determine these potentials.

What we need is for those who oppose reparations to recognize that the point of hearing the voices of minorities is not to incite conflict or deepen divisions between white and black Americans. Brooks concludes his column with his belief that we must “consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives.” That’s a vague way of putting it, but with a minor clarification, I generally agree. If Brooks is treading around the territory of race-neutral approaches, I would remind him of the damage those can cause. Black and other minority narratives are often suppressed or dismissed. As evidence, take the entrenched idea that black Americans don’t work as hard as they could. If Americans holding that view saw for themselves the black experience of work—how blacks have multiple-job-holder rates on par with whites, for example—and truly considered and believed that narrative, “welfare queen” stereotypes would not be so widespread. When those opposed to reparations recognize, as Brooks has, that truly considering these voices is good for the entire country, they can find common ground with others in our different aspirations for progress in this country. Placed in that context, Brooks’ closing statement on the importance of considering a reparations policy resonates more clearly.

But Brooks does nail a critical idea when he writes that considering reparations is a “gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life.” His understanding here is similar to, but clearly more developed than, his earlier position that reparations are just a big apology. This is where I feel the need to applaud David Brooks. The recognition and serious consideration of minority voices in America isn’t just for the sake of those minorities but for the sake of America itself.

If it would make debating reparations more palatable, we can use Rothstein’s preferred term: “remedies.” In Rothstein’s vision for addressing injustices, government policies such as targeted home-buying subsidies could make black Americans whole after the constitutional violations that segregated the nation in the first place. So, as with reparations, the point is to continue in the common effort to amend our current and past failures.

While Brooks’ article is encouraging evidence of the growing understanding of black disenfranchisement, it also inadvertently demonstrates the ever-expanding room for miscommunication and demonstrates how the views of minorities must always be considered in order to have a diverse and equal country. Brooks’ change of heart may have been possible simply because he is politically centrist, but I think the more important factor is his open-mindedness. Humans have a tendency to interpret new information in ways that only confirm their original beliefs. Brooks’ authentic desire to understand has left him open to differing opinions and experiences, expanding his understanding. It’s here that Brooks’ example is indispensable.