Canned Response: David Brooks, Reparations, and the Kumbaya Column

There was something entirely predictable about New York Times columnist David Brooks’s op-Ed on reparations. Not so much with regard to the subject matter (Brooks indeed has never before written in support of reparations), but rather in the framing of the ‘argument’ itself. And while the dilemma that prompts his column is certainly a worthwhile one to explore—namely, trying to discover why when he looks around and observes the many divides that characterize American life (rich/poor; urban/rural; red/blue), it’s the racial divide more so than any of the others that seems to stare back at Brooks with a grim, implacable quality of permanence—the author’s treatment of black suffering seems ultimately intended to advance his own ideological agenda rather than the cause of justice for American Descendants of Slavery.

The racial divide is hardly the first atrocity to really grip Brooks’s imagination. Nor is it the first for which he appears to gain a vague sense of its singularity. In fact, that circumstance—finding that among a set of horrors seemingly alike in nature, one in particular figures in his mind as uniquely odious—is one that has reliably served Brooks as a prelude to sermonize. Five years ago, after ISIS militants beheaded journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, Brooks also mused over his own intense sense of revulsion: “I’ve been trying to understand why the act of a beheading arouses this strong visceral response,” he wrote, “Why does separating a head with a knife feel different than a shooting, or a bombing?” And so now, like then, Brooks’s latest column, “The Case for Reparations,” finds him confounded by his distinct sense of the awful and trying to again name the “haunting sensation” he experiences as he contemplates how the racial divide in America “doesn’t feel like the other divides.”

But questions like these—why does a beheading feel different than x; why does the racial divide feel different than x—function for Brooks less as genuine appeals to critical thought and would instead seem to operate purely as contrived introspections that allow him to strike an attitude of sober thoughtfulness while being certain of his answer for what he personally believes most afflicts and ails humanity. That scourge, for Brooks, is always an increasing separation from the spiritual.

It is, after all, the ISIS militants’ patent disregard for the body’s “spiritual essence” to which he eventually ascribes his heightened sense of disgust at a beheading. And insofar as we too recognize and are revolted by it—when the “body’s spiritual nature is gratuitously and intentionally insulted”—then that is what differentiates us as higher-order beings than the “zealots [who] hew to a fringe of their faith that holds that the spirit and the body are at war with each other.” And while he haltingly acknowledges there will “probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition” to defeat ISIS, he nonetheless appears to reject it as a solution of any real consequence, maintaining that “ultimately the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam.”

Given Brooks’s insistence on the primacy of cultivating the spiritual as our most potent resource in the face of certain pernicious evils of the world (as much is obvious by a cursory look at some of the titles of his columns over these past years: “Building Spiritual Capital”; “Fighting the Spiritual Void”; “Capitalist Winds Expose the Spiritual Void”; “The Remoralization of the Market”; and “The Body and the Spirit”), one can be fairly certain that the ‘superior version’ of ideology that he has in mind—be it religious, political, or economic—involves nothing so much as an emphasis on the shared nature of our existence not just as material beings but, beyond that, as spiritually connected entities; a recognition of how, as he writes, “every human body has some piece of the eternal.”

It is the failure to relate to one another in this way that Brooks is always eager to diagnose as permanently stunting our development toward righteousness. So it’s no surprise, really, that when Brooks is weighing his sense of the racial divide’s singular quality as compared with other societal fissures, he characteristically offers this as a possible explanation: “One way of capturing it is to say that the other divides are born out of separation and inequality, but the racial divide is born out of sin.”

It’s a curious but—for Brooks—ideologically cohesive distinction. As a conservative, inequality and separation (while present levels are perhaps in his mind no doubt obscene, and while he himself may even argue the need for more fair-minded and moral policy to mitigate their scope) are ultimately matters grounded in the individual’s right to differ. If I am not materially well off, but choose to invest in a certain stock and end up experiencing an impressive percentage of return, am I sinning? If my family has always lived in the suburbs and unfailingly voted Republican, are we a family implicated in sin? Considered in the abstract, no. If, however, a person ceases to be a human to me on the basis of the color of their skin, I inarguably forfeit a defensible position wherein I could be said to not be acting from a place of innate wickedness and clearly violating what Brooks calls the “natural moral order to the universe.”

And so it’s in this respect that, for Brooks, the racial divide is categorically different: because white America presumed it had a right to differ itself qua humans from African-Americans. It is coherent only as a pure corruption of the heart, and Brooks feels as such that there is no option for healing that rent in our nation’s soul but in a spiritual return that confers a full sense of humanity and collective belonging upon black America. But the case for being seen as equally human is not the same as the case for being made equally American. And insofar as Brooks understands himself to be making the ‘case’ for reparations—or that his is a persuasive and compelling exposition of the singular plight endured by black America—he is woefully deluded. In a post-What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap world, it feels at minimum irresponsible if not altogether inimical to justice to have any contribution to the discourse of reparations out there that studiously avoids confronting the basic fact of how whatever chance a person has today of attaining an even remotely normal life in America is tied directly to which side of the legacy they were on after it was decided that white America would have material gains originated and sustained for it over the course of generations, while black America would be made to suffer material losses in equal measure over that same period of time. The entire landscape of American life—economic, political, civic—is in the fullest sense a pure and abiding expression of that. And what seems to completely elude Brooks’s awareness of what gives the racial divide a “dimension of depth,” or why that divide seems, as Brooks also writes, “more central to the American experience” than the others, is precisely because those other divisions—rich/poor; urban/rural; red/blue—are all in essence extensions of the deliberate separation of people into categories Black and White which served as the foundational basis for the economic ambitions of the United States. To point out the intensity of that divide relative to the others is like remarking on how the root of a tree seems to have more depth than its branches.

Which is why for all of his ostensibly deep ruminating, Brooks evinces no real desire for bringing to light the actual material implications of the racial divide. Either that, or he is just a phenomenally ill-equipped thinker when it comes to the function of race in America across centuries. Because if he were in fact committed to revealing deeper truths about what makes it unique in its essential and original evil, the assessment of the racial divide simply would not just point to how one side morally transgressed when it denied the other its humanity; it would necessarily aim to carry that thought to a further point of completeness and approach the divide between black and white America in the most genuinely reparative-oriented manner: by talking in clear and explicit terms about how that moral rupture was the flint and steel to spark American free enterprise, serving to place one group at a distinct advantage to reap the benefits of that system, and feeding its failure directly back into the other group and then letting (and oftentimes managing at the federal level) the logic of consolidation over generations ensure the enduring and fixed nature of that advantage and injustice. Then and only then does the terrifying salience of the racial divide really begin to take shape.

More than enmity between black and white America which in many ways has at least superficially abated, it is the ever-widening chasm of access to opportunity that best describes their relation. It is the material outcome of the legacy of discriminatory government policies and a private sphere absolutely rife with hostilities toward black people. And in the cause to provide redress for that condition, spirituality can only be one of several available means, but not an end in itself. That latter possibility is what it seems like Brooks is ultimately arguing for. His is always an anatomy of society in the midst of spiritual crises. And in the case of the racial divide, actual reparations is, for Brooks, basically an afterthought. This much is apparent in his appeal to one particular passage in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on the same subject which conveniently supports Brooks’s notion that an ideal of justice will come from our looking inward: “Coates’s essay seems right now,” Brooks writes, “especially this part: ‘And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” It’s a telling selection, and one which ultimately allows him to shift the focus off what would actually be required to make black America whole; a reassuring but wholly fallacious message to himself and his readers that the racial divide is most appropriately and purely served by a redistribution of our compassion and not of what’s in Uncle Sam’s pockets.

In the end, the question that animates Brooks’s column has already been pretty well unpacked and answered, especially as of late. Read Darity. Listen to Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore. Listen to a sermon by the Reverend Doctor Kevin Cosby where he takes spirituality out of the realm of the ethereal and makes the justice demands of the gospel materially relevant to the black community. The information that can help acquaint a person with the distinct nature of the racial divide and the data informing the justice claim of American Descendants of Slavery all the way up to the present day is out there. And if, like Brooks, you are afforded access to a platform like the New York Times to step up to the plate on behalf of black America and that justice claim, it’s really not that hard to keep your eye on the ball and take the fucking swing. Don’t get up there and daydream about how nice it would be if the game wasn’t rigged against certain players. Or that in the American context those seemingly benign instances of inequality and separation can be thought of as in some sense not sprung from and bound up in the sin of the racial divide.1 In so doing, a person appears as either incapable of really advancing the mission, or an opportunist who is co-opting the issue for their own purposes. And given the imprecision of Brooks’s analysis, the non-specificity of justice, and his well-worn spiritual agenda, it’s not exactly a stretch to attribute some rather dubious motives to his sudden concern over healing the racial divide. It’s like that old adage: “Give a small boy a hammer and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” Give David Brooks a column and he will find that everything he encounters needs spiritualism. And if he’s really so concerned about why some things ‘feel’ particularly more morally detestable than others, he need look no further than considering what it means to pen a column that takes the singular issue of reparations, empties it of its material dimension, and uses it as a carrier argument for the need to recognize our cosmic interconnectedness.

1. To use the earlier example: how to account for white Americans participating in the stock market at such higher levels than black Americans with similar education and income?