Can We Still Afford the Slavery Tax?

August 11, 2011

After the ructions of the 1960s the USA erected a vast system of support and preferences for black citizens. The height of human felicity in the later 20th century was to be a smart and energetic black American. Colleges, employers, and lenders would beat a path to your door in order to meet their race quotas. When I was researching for a math book a few years ago an academic in that discipline told me that prestige universities’ math departments “fight like cats” over the scant supply of black math Ph.D.s.

For the less stellar there was plenty of government make-work on offer. This has especially been the case at the federal level. In 2007, the latest year for which I can find figures, black Americans were massively overrepresented in the federal workforce—by more than 800 percent in CSOS (Court Services and Offender Services).

Two entire generations of Americans have now grown up among these favors, preferences, and welfare-support discrepancies for black people. They are rationalized among non-blacks, though not without some resentment, as a “Slavery Tax”—as fair recompense for past injustices.

Following the black riots of the 1960s, non-blacks have seen these concessions as an implicit contract or treaty—as non-black America saying to black America: “We’ll give you this stuff if you promise not to break our windows.”

Yet fifty years on, we are still looking at these colossal, apparently intractable, gaps. And the Slavery Tax is expensive—$31 billion in state and federal expenditures in 2008 just for TANF. If black Americans, at 13 percent of the population, consumed TANF funds at the same rate as white Americans, the TANF bill would be less than $14 billion, a savings of $17 billion. A lot of money: not much to show for it.

If you think these numbers are not worth bothering about—mere billions in a sea of trillions—this is just one modest slice of the Slavery Tax I’m talking about. The massive government make-work programs, with all their salaries and benefits, must be far more, though beyond my ability to compute. And if we are talking about pruning the US Postal Service, with 2010 revenues of $67 billion, why not talk about TANF?

Can the Slavery Tax be maintained in an age of austerity? An age in which, moreover, increasing numbers of non-black Americans will feel justified in asking why, after so many decades of favors, concessions, preferences, and support, so many black Americans are still so desperately far behind?

Yet if the Slavery Tax is curtailed or abolished, what will be the consequences? Will it be taken as an abrogation of that implicit treaty, to be responded to with much breaking of glass?

The Slavery Tax was imposed in the robust USA of the 1960s and 1970s, when our country was a mighty engine of prosperity and our governments were swilling in cash. There was some complaining; but heck, we could afford it. We could afford anything!

Now we’re sailing under different skies. Can we still afford the Slavery Tax? If we can’t, how much wider will those gaps get?

And how much glass will be broken? Those riots in London this week:

[British government] cutbacks in the number of police officers have also been blamed for the riots.…In the 12 months to the end of March 2011, the number of officers fell by 4,625 to 139,110.

Right: In times of austerity, police forces take a hit, too.

I grumble a lot about why, in these straitened times, our government doesn’t repatriate the tens of thousands of US soldiers garrisoning Germany, Japan, Korea, etc. When I thus grumbled out loud in the presence of a very cynical friend the other day, my friend remarked: “Perhaps the administration doesn’t want all those armed, trained personnel on US soil.”

He really is very cynical.


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