Last year, President Donald Trump led my party, during its lame duck session, in making a bold move on race issues. In late December, less than a month before the Democrats took over the House, the Senate passed, the House approved, and Trump signed the First Step Act, a prison reform bill. This was a startling move for Trump, who styled himself a law-and-order conservative, and who proved willing to enforce laws in ways the Democrats would often criticize. And yet, despite his hyper-conservative track-record, Trump reached out a hand of trust to the black community. Last year, Catherine Toney became the first black woman released from prison under Trump’s new Act. Even Van Jones, former Obama administration czar, admitted that “the conservative movement in this country … is now the leader on this issue of reform.”
Not to be outdone, contenders for the Democratic nomination decided to make waves on race issues, themselves. Candidates Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, all voiced support for a policy of slavery reparations, but they are a bit fuzzy on the details. Most have tried to define Democratic Party boilerplate policies as already reparative in some way. This is hardly leadership. And, a failure of leadership among Democrats creates a unique opportunity for conservatives to remain on the forefront of racial issues.
Getting Republicans—recently the party of Reagan individualism—to entertain the idea of reparations will be difficult, but I do not think it is impossible. I consider myself a “Reagan Republican” and even attended a few Tea Party rallies during Obama’s presidency. The Tea Party movement, which was nominally about taxes, actually had a much broader focus, part of which involved opposition to Barack Obama’s racial views. At Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, in 2012, Tea Party conservatives like me united around a vision of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy that was in direct conflict with our then president’s. In our view, the identity politics of the Democratic Party obscured the most important words Martin Luther King Jr. ever uttered:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I still agree with the Tea Party view of what Martin Luther King’s metaphorical “Promised Land” is supposed to look like. King’s dream was never supposed to be an unreachable Utopia of complete racial harmony, but rather an achievable system of colorblind Justice. However, I have recently begun to doubt my long-held conservative assumption that America has already achieved King’s goal.
My assumption about America was based on my own, personal experience. In every corner of America I visited, racism was a foreign concept. The typical atmosphere on a college campus, for instance, is so intolerant of racism that students and faculty members react harshly to the slightest trace of racial insensitivity. I can attest that this same level of intolerance permeates all the way into the closed-door meetings of Baptist churches in the Deep South. I used to think that the acceptance of this anti-racist atmosphere proved that America was not racist at all. But, now, I refuse to accept the idea that an environment of extreme racial hyper-sensitivity is the kind of promised land Martin Luther King testified about.
Consider the fact that, when New York City was attacked on 9/11, our nation came together, ready for unified national action. Although there were disagreements about what our action should be, America as a whole would not rest until it felt Justice had been done for the three thousand Americans who were killed. Contrast this reaction to America’s complacency on the slavery issue. Thus far, Americans have contented themselves with a gradual removal of overtly racist laws, a smattering of affirmative action programs, and a laissez-faire approach to improved relations among the races—an incredibly conservative course of action. How can we expect black communities to feel fully American when our reaction to the death of three thousand Americans differs so starkly from our reaction to the enslavement of twelve million?
For this reason, I now support slavery reparations. I am not talking about token measures, here, nor am I referring to continuations or expansions of existing affirmative action policy. I’m talking about a real, material sacrifice on the part of the nation as a whole. The goal of the policy would be to atone for a national sin that has troubled the American conscience and made racial reconciliation impossible. As David Brooks pointed out in a recent article on this topic, Republican President Abraham Lincoln understood the Civil War to be a divine punishment for the sin of slavery. At the time, Americans following Republican leadership were willing to sacrifice in order to achieve unity of North and South. I believe it is now time for Americans to sacrifice again for the unity of Black and White.
As a self-described nationalist who has promised to “make America great again,” President Donald Trump is uniquely positioned to press forward with a policy of national repentance. He and Vice President Mike Pence should immediately sit down with black leaders and pastors from across the country and begin discussing what an acceptable reparations policy might look like. Opening up this discussion might not lead to immediate agreement, of course. After all, the cost of reparations is likely to be high, as it should be. But, even if a fully reparative bill remains politically infeasible for the time being, perhaps Trump can convince conservative Americans to at least take a “Second Step.”