Become a Patron! 


David Boyle

excerpted from:  Unsavory White Omissions: A Review of Uncivil Wars , 105 West Virginia Law Review 655 (Spring 2003) (165 Footnotes Omitted) Book Review: Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery. By David Horowitz. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. Pp. 147. $21.95.

"Some might regard this book as an act of literary masochism. In the spring of 2001, I attempted to place an ad in college newspapers opposing the idea of paying reparations for slavery . . . (b)ut when my ad appeared on college campuses, the reactions were volcanic and the attacks on me were savage." With this opening passage of Uncivil Wars, author David Horowitz has taken the obvious trouble to position himself as a martyr; whether he is truly a martyr or not is another question. Uncivil Wars relates the story, from the point of view of Horowitz, of his placing in campusnewspapers an advertisement opposing payment of reparations, whether by the United States government or by anyone else, to African Americans for the slavery that their ancestors endured in this country and in the colonies which existed before the Declaration of Independencein 1776. The title of the book refers to the rancor and debate which surrounded the publication of the advertisement, including massive public criticism of Horowitz, and actions such as those of university students who destroyed, en masse, copies of the newspapers containing the advertisement. In an ironic fashion which counterposes "uncivil" to "civil," the title also refers to the American Civil War which led to the freeing of the slaves--though the war did not lead to the restitution which could or should have been theirs, or their descendants,' for the slaves' hundreds of years of unpaid or badly paid labor.

Perhaps the most significant contribution that Horowitz makes in Uncivil Wars is his demonstration that the arguments supporting reparations are not above challenge. He makes some case that reparations may be unnecessary, racially divisive, burdensome on modern taxpayers who never held slaves in the first place, and altogether inappropriate. Furthermore, Horowitz adds to the discussion of "race-and-law" or, "law-and-race," as one might - drawing on the term "law-and-economics" - term that field of legal academic inquiry which meshes the legal and the racial and includes such subfields as Critical Race Theory. The meaning of the American Constitution - including its clausethat slaves were considered each to be 3/5 of a human being - and of other legal documents or aspects of the law is discussed extensively in Horowitz's book, especially as such meaning relates to race. However, Horowitz's analysis is both insensitive towards its topic of reparations (and to African Americans), and unfairly selective in its understanding or presentation of history. Horowitz ignores or discounts, when discussing race, slavery, and reparations, the unsavory omissions of whites, including himself, in the field of justice towards African Americans. His failure fully to deal with or take account of such omissions creates the unintentional irony that in Uncivil Wars, he himself is promulgating conflicts, or even "wars" of a sort, of an arguably less-than-polite nature. Horowitz's "uncivil" take on the issue of reparations taints his analysis and his image, as will be seen below.

Part I of this review summarizes Uncivil Wars, and includes a discussion of First Amendment issues relating to the book and to Horowitz's campaign against reparations. Part II analyzes the tendency of Horowitz in the book to focus on his own supposed victimization at the expense of more accurately discussing either his efforts to fight reparations to African Americans, or the victimization of African Americans over the centuries under the regimes of slavery, segregation, and racism in the United States of America. Part III catalogs and investigates the various ways in which Horowitzwrites and acts in uncivil or abusive ways when discussing his campaign against reparations. Part IV goes beyond the issue of Horowitz's media campaign, in order to explore his arguments against reparations, and then presents counterarguments to his contentions. Finally, Part V suggests that reparations could be a sound alternative to things possibly worse than financial expense, such as social division or unrest caused by the lack of reparations. Part V also offers some parting comments on the role of Horowitz himself in the debate over reparations.

Since there is less law concerning, or directly apposite to, reparations for slavery than about other racially related topics, e.g., affirmative action (a program which actually exists, unlike reparations for slavery, and therefore has a body of statute and case law, including challenges to affirmative action), much of this book review will comment on policy, moral, or other issues rather than employ strictly legal analysis. However, the law will be referred to if possible, especially after the initial summary of the book; although Uncivil Wars does not present a "casebook" on reparations, despite the promises of the book's dust jacket to that effect, this review will try in some wise to compensate for that lacuna, in exposition both legal and non-legal.

. . .

Calling on the genius of James Baldwin one last time, one will note that his book ends with the quote that gave it its name, a quote from an old African- American hymn: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!" This apocalyptic scenario, bringing to mind the Biblical Book of Revelation and the end of the world, is what Baldwin suggests will happen if African Americans do not boldly rise to the demands and dynamics of their history and stand up for their dignity and their civil rights. Better, perhaps, that there be a "fine" next time America carefully considers race relations, that is, that there be a fair and adequate "taxation" of all the wealth of America, and the unearned wealth of whites in particular, stolenfrom the slaves and their descendants over the centuries, and that that "fine," that justly "punitive" (or is it really so "punitive"?) sum be returned to African Americans--better that there be a "fine," which would be fair and remedial, than that there be a "fire," which could hurt or even potentially destroy many people, not only in America but elsewhere as well. Horowitz suggests that paying reparations will bring on a disaster. But if justice is denied to African Americans, it is possible that such failure, such insult, could itself bring on disaster or exacerbate current problems of racial tension, poverty, and discrimination.

In conclusion, while David Horowitz raises some provocative and interesting questions in his book, the omissions, or easily avoidable mistakes, in Uncivil Wars are unsavory, just as the omissions of decency by whites, and the injustices, whether deliberate or reckless, of whites toward blacks in America, have been unsavory for centuries now, from Jamestown to the present. Horowitz repeatedly offers relatively valid commentary, whether on the American Civil War, or welfare programs, or slavery on the African continent, but then omits showing either a truly fair range of counterarguments to his assertions, or the wide extent of possible outcomes to the scenarios he describes. His omissions greatly lower the value of his observations, as do his omissions of mannerliness and of coolness and fair- mindedness of appraisal.

Although this review questions the extent and nature of Horowitz's focus on his own unpleasant experiences instead of on those of others, no attempt is made here to belittle any real pain or discomfort Horowitz himself has suffered throughout his advertisement campaign, or earlier in his life as an activist, even if some of his pain came from people whom he goaded or belittled, and who attempted to defend themselves or reacted aggressively to his advertisement. Still, Uncivil Wars, true to its name, literally adds insult to injury, and while some might consider it disrespectful to Horowitz to say that any eventual reparations to African Americans should be larger because of what Horowitz has said in his advertisements and in his book, it would be inaccurate for a review of his work to omit his part in distorting the debate over reparations, and in distorting his own role in that debate.

. B.A. 1989 Yale College; J.D. 2002, University of Michigan Law School.