Stopping Anti-Reparations Ad Does Not Advance Racial Debate

16 February 2001

By Stentor Danielson

Earlier this month, conservative commentator David Horowitz created quite a stir by placing an advertisement denouncing reparations for slavery in college newspapers across the country. The ad gave 10 reasons why it would be wrong and counterproductive for the United States to pay reparations to the descendants of its slaves.

Protests forced most papers who ran the ad to issue apologies. The Brown Daily Herald drew much media attention when it refused to apologize even after its entire run of papers (distributed on campus for free) was taken and a coalition of students demanded that the paper offer free space for rebuttals and contribute the $725 it earned from the ad to minority projects.

Those who oppose the ad condemned it as unacceptable hate speech. Supporters of the Herald’s decision to run it claimed it was Constitutionally-protected speech. In reality, the ad was neither a hate speech issue nor a free speech issue. What is really at issue here are the type of tactics used to advance an argument. The uproar over Horowitz’s ad demonstrates that silencing the opposition does not win arguments.

Before I go any further, perhaps I should clarify my position on the underlying issue. I disagree with reparations at the same time that I disagree with many of Horowitz’s reasons for opposing reparations. Reparations would ultimately not erase racial inequality. No cash settlement can give poor African-Americans the skills and connections they need to jump immediately to the position they might have held had there never been slavery or racism (because you can’t address the wrongs of slavery without addressing the racism that undergirded and outlived it). No one-time payment can create thousands of jobs in inner cities abandoned by industry. And no fat check will erase the racist attitudes held by some whites that African-Americans have to interact with every day. Indeed, reparations would only strengthen resentment by whites who think, "we’ve given them everything."

However, Horowitz does an exceedingly poor job of arguing his side. He commits the fallacy of assuming that America truly is the meritocracy it claims to be, which leads him to conclude that continuing racial inequality must be due to a personal failure on the part of African-Americans. In a article in which he expands on the reasons that he provides in the ad, he wonders, "if Oprah can do it, why can’t everyone else?" Furthermore, his final two reasons suggest that white actions against racial inequality, such as the abolitionist movement, have already evened the tally.

Poor as his reasoning may be, Horowitz’s ad does not constitute hate speech. He did not write as he did to arouse racism and encourage discriminatory action against African-Americans. Indeed, he makes it clear that his intent is to avoid racial tension and blaming that does not move us toward reconciliation or equality between races.

It may very well be that his plan for doing that would not work. In fact, I am convinced that applying his philosophy to other racial issues will not lead to equality. But Horowitz’s commentary is only hate speech in so far as we say that trying and failing is the same as trying to fail -- that losing a game is the same as throwing the game. Horowitz’s sin is more ignorance of history and sociology than hate.

The writing style is perhaps the clearest indication that Horowitz’s ad should not be considered hate speech. He writes in no more incendiary a manner than many ideological writers from both sides of the political spectrum. If Horowitz’s ad is hate speech, so are many columns written by noted and respected conservative columnists every day, and published without outcry in newspapers across the country. If Horowitz is a hate-monger, so is anyone who questions The Students for Social Justice campaign to rename the Cutten Complex. In fact, opinions supporting the name change ought to be labeled hate speech as well, because of the incendiary rhetoric (justified or not) directed at George Barton Cutten.

At the same time, this is not a free speech issue. Our guarantee of free speech is grounded in the First Amendment, which only prohibits the government from impinging upon free speech. If protesters were to demand a law banning anti-reparations commentaries, or if the administration of a publicly funded school were to ban Horowitz’s ad, then this would be a case of free speech. But private papers, and those representing private universities such as Brown, have discretion to publish what they see fit.

It is, of course, legitimate to question a publication’s standards for accepting material. Many papers decided that it would not be in their best interest to publish Horowitz's advertisement, and were well within their rights to do so.

However, there is a difference between objecting to a person's opinion and wanting that person silenced, which would be the effect of blocking the ad. If The Brown Daily Herald had not done a second press run and had its distribution monitored by law enforcement personnel, the vast majority of students would not have known any more about the ad than that those who organized the removal of the first press run thought it was racist.

But Horowitz's opinions need to be aired, because they are not his alone. A similar discussion occurs from time to time when groups attempting to prove that the Holocaust never happened take out ads in newspapers. But there is a key difference between Holocaust denial and opposition to reparations: the scope of support.

Very few people in our society would deny the reality of the Holocaust. Our culture is filled with images of, references to and evidence for the Holocaust. The opposing opinion is held by only a fringe group. So it is reasonable to ask Holocaust deniers to leave us alone and not get us involved in a non-debate when we have more important matters (such as persistent racial inequality) to attend to.

But reparations are not opposed only by a fringe group. The majority of Americans think that reparations are wrong in principle or simply unfeasible in reality. There are too many people against reparations for those who support them to brush off individuals such as Horowitz as troublemakers. A position held so widely needs to be answered, not concealed.

Stopping opponents of reparations from publishing their views will not change their minds. Indeed, it may strengthen them by making those people feel victimized by a "politically correct" climate. They will fester, feeding on themselves in the absence of real debate.

But if objectionable views can be brought to the forefront, they can be answered and refuted. In the event that the nation ultimately decides in favor of reparations, opponents, even if not convinced, can at least feel they have had their fair chance to have their say, allegations of liberal media bias notwithstanding. But in order to achieve this kind of result, there needs to be a real debate over reparations in particular, as well as the larger issue of white responsibility for achieving racial equality.

At best, protests against Horowitz's ad reinforce stereotypes of restrictive political correctness, racial demagoguery and the rhetoric of guilt and victimhood. Those who insist that Horowitz's ad should not have been published set themselves up as radical leftists who refuse to listen to those who disagree with them. Indeed, strains of that characterization are present in this very commentary, not because I believe (or hope) that is what these people are, but because that is what their actions in this case say. This then taints their ability to speak and get a fair hearing on the underlying issue of reparations. It is easier to dismiss the arguments of a stereotype than of a rational person who disagrees.

Attempts to delegitimize and silence one side of the debate do not advance it. The discussion springing from Horowitz's ad has not been, "should white America pay reparations to the descendants of slaves?" but rather, "should Horowitz's ad have been published?" Even in the 1,400 words I have written here, a measly two paragraphs have been devoted to my opinion on the rightness and usefulness of reparations. This is not the way to foster debate on an important issue. Perhaps when the debate truly begins I will have space in this column to more fully explain my thoughts on reparations.

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