David Brooks endorsed reparations. David Brooks—incurious, complacent, softly inflexible David Brooks—published an opinion column in the New York Times arguing that the United States is built on a deep moral fracture, that injustice against black people defines this country’s past and present, and that there is no future without a proper reckoning. Racism, David Brooks (David Brooks!) wrote, is:
the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.
It is always and obviously easy to make fun of David Brooks. It was, for instance, easy to point out that for his headline he used, as a dramatic gesture, “The Case for Reparations”—that is, exactly the headline Ta-Nehisi Coates used in the Atlantic in 2014, creating the spectacle of a white writer taking it upon himself to say exactly what a black writer had already long since said. Maybe just listen to the black writer in the first place! But that is a story older than Coates, older than the classic James Baldwin essays that echoed through Brooks’ thoughts on racism as our nation’s deforming principle, older than W.E.B. Du Bois writing the basic history of Reconstruction nearly a century before the white academy would concede that he had it right.
Nor was it entirely reassuring, in a column that meant to face squarely up to the foundational failings of this country, to see the Native American experience awkwardly shoved into a parenthetical:
[W]e can appreciate the truth that while there have been many types of discrimination in our history, the African-American (and the Native American) experiences are unique and different. Theirs are not immigrant experiences but involve a moral injury that simply isn’t there for other groups.
Still, it didn’t have to be to Brooks’ moral or intellectual credit that he finally got there. The point was that he’d arrived at all. Had it been a bolder writer, the experience of reading it would have been nowhere near as giddy. If David Brooks supports reparations, is supporting reparations…a safe position, now?
One striking feature of Brooks’ argument was the way it avoided or skipped over the core of Coates’ original argument. Brooks chose to write about the legacy of slavery and discrimination chiefly as violation of “moral order” and a “sin”; that is true, but Coates’ case for reparations was built around material facts. His Atlantic essay sought to demonstrate that white supremacy had not created an abstract moral debt but had caused tangible, quantifiable, ongoing monetary damages. It’s easier to wave off the guilt of long-dead slaveholders than to acknowledge that most Americans living today were born into economic surroundings created by redlining.
That economic argument has always been there. Brooks quoted Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Brooks described this as a statement from “a time when the concept of sin was more prominent in the culture,” and proceeded to unpack its meaning in terms of sin. But Lincoln specifically brought up “the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.” It was gladdening to see Brooks face the enormity of American history. It will be even better when he moves on to calculating how much that history has cost.