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There are certain times when windows open, allowing previously marginal ideas to flourish and the unthinkable to become possible. Gay marriage started out in the early ’90s as the pipe dream of a few cranky law professors; soon, it is going to be the law of the land throughout the country. The movement to have the US pay out reparations for slavery is in its early stages; it’s easy enough for us to write it off now, but expect this to be pushed with some urgency over the next 10 to 20 years. The reason is that this is one social movement that comes with a time limit.
The window for reparations is slowly closing because of demographic changes in this country. Any such scheme will depend on rich, white Baby Boomers who are receptive to appeals based on guilt. As those people die off over the next 20 years, they will be replaced by two main groups.
The first is white Gen Xers, who will be a less-than-optimal target for extraction. Productive people about my age (38) will be squeezed for as much tax revenue as possible as we move into our peak earning years — and our peak earning years will not be nearly as productive as our Boomer parents’ were. They came of age when America was still on an upward trajectory.
The other reason we won’t be a good target for an appeal for reparations is that none of us has any firsthand memories of the fire hoses, the dogs, the National Guard, and all those images that fed the narrative of black subjugation for our parents. Yes, we have had all that drilled into us in school, but the effect has been more to inoculate us against guilt than anything. If you’re under 45, have you ever seen black people treated with anything worse than just rudenness or dismissiveness? Especially by the government? Unless you’re a public defender, probably not.
The second group that Black America will have to contend with is Hispanics, particularly those who immigrated over the last 30 years or so. Their incomes, and thus their usefulness as a source of money, will lag white America for some decades to come. More and more, though, these people will be moving into leadership and decision-making positions in our society, essentially leapfrogging the African-Americans. They are not equipped with the same guilt receptors that white Baby Boomers have. They didn’t even have slave-holding ancestors. Those who have money will have have clawed their way up against the odds in this country and will be less likely to hand it over. Those who don’t have money are likewise nursing their own set of grievances against the fading gringo majority.
I think the best term we can apply to the next 50 years in American public life is “The Great Squabble.” African-Americans are a small and vulnerable minority, who will not fare well as scarcity becomes the rule and identity politics hardens in this country. They really have only one shot at getting reparations — and it has to start now. I suspect we are going to be hearing more and more about this.