Emancipation brought freedom, but not parity. The civil rights movement knocked down Jim Crow, but vestiges remained. Affirmative action created opportunities, but racism persists.
So why shouldn't the great-great grandchildren of those who worked for free and were deprived of education and were kept in bondage not be compensated? ~Kevin Merida~
This [reparations] argument makes sense because of a fundamentally racist point of view.... Put simply, blacks will always be the victims regardless of how much time has gone by, according to this scenario, regardless of how far away from the event one gets, regardless of what's been done to repair the damage. And whites as whites will forever be guilty, even if they individually never committed the slightest crime against anyone. It's guilt by association and in this case the association is skin color. Any way you cut it, that's racism. ~Gregory Koukl~
The Information Review
Reparations are a very complex, very controversial topic. I examined much information regarding slavery, slavery reparations, and race relations in America. I was amazed at how many points of view there were, even between people who were striving to achieve the same goals. Everyone had an opinion, and in many cases, the person's opinion was the only correct one- the only one that had looked at the facts and drawn the correct conclusions. However, when I examined the information as unbiased as was possible, I noticed that many people argued without facts and made judgments without consideration. They attempted to forcefully prove their point, and in doing so, ignored any information contrary to their point of view, despite its validity. Each book and website I looked at approached the debate decidedly from one side or the other, and none gave both sides of the debate equal attention and consideration. This website attempts to present both sides of the reparations debate through the arguments of those more informed than I, with equal recognition given to both sides. After dissecting this evidence, these arguments and these opinions, I began to develop an understanding of the core points of the arguments for and against reparations.
Arguments for Reparations
Many African-Americans feel an underlying sense of racism and oppression in today's society. The 13th Amendment, which bans slavery in the United States, became part of the Constitution in 1865. The Civil Rights battle began to rage 100 years later, in the 1960's. Since then, blacks have made dramatic progress in American society. But not enough.
Many prominent black leaders and orators are forcefully pro-reparations. They demand everything from $24 trillion for a black reparations fund (Jack White) to "total debt relief, the removal of sanctions and increased foreign aid to Black countries" (Robert Westley). Many of them are looking for something or someone to blame, bouncing from the government to corporations to groups of people and even to individuals in the hopes that someone will be able to get them the reparations they feel they need and deserve. The major concern proponents of reparations have regarding slavery and it's aftermath is that they feel the debts never paid to their ancestors have compounded and are preventing them from current success. Johnita Scott Obadele notes that "[black people's] need for capital is obvious to even our most entrenched anti-capitalists. Just as the five million newly freed people needed land, a means of developing the land and money, so also are the needs of their thirty five million descendants."
Another of the arguments concerning reparations involves living African-Americans' mental state. The Black Manifesto attempts to show the relationship between slavery and the African-American community today when it states, "the injury survives in the overrepresentation of poverty, and all the pathologies it spawns, within the African American community. Not least of such pathologies is self-hate, lack of confidence, and lack of self-understanding. Thus, many African Americans must be educated to understand the justification and legitimacy of their own claim to reparations." If these mental states are prevalent in all black communities, where is the evidence of slavery? How could these mental states be remedied by reparations? Some of the arguments I read are biased against whites who are called "the oppressors" of the black "victims". Some of these arguments don't draw a logical conclusion between slavery and the current state of African Americans. But all of the arguments have one crucial thing in common: they all support African-Americans.
Arguments for African-Americans
All of the arguments for reparations contain an underlying need to improve the lives of average African-American citizens. Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard law professor and an adviser to former President Clinton on race relations explains his interpretation of reparations: "My bottom line is the form of reparations that makes sense is an impassioned recommitment to closing the opportunity gap. That's the reparations we are due. Not 40 acres and a mule, but world-class schools for our kids." He calls for an end to the racism, poverty, and lack of opportunity that plague the black community now, not the physical and psychological remnants of a slavery that's long been abolished.
The truth is that Africans in America have a horrendous past. Slavery was, and is, one of the world's greatest injustices. Nothing can ever recover the lives needlessly lost or return a people to their pride or their homeland; nothing will ever fully make up for slavery. Cedric Muhammed, though he draws dramatic conclusions from the reparations debate, admits that "nothing can be done by any government on this earth to restore the health, heart, mind and souls of Blacks that were damaged and destroyed as the direct result of slavery. The best that can be sought from external powers is justice, under the law, and a measure of equity." Nothing can be done to repair the consequences of slavery. Therefore, demands for slavery reparations seem to disguise a much greater need-- the need of African-Americans to be recognized as being equal and worthy.
African-Americans need and deserve equal opportunities. The question should be, then, how can we help these people now? Not how could we have helped their ancestors? Because 40 acres and a mule will not redress slavery's wrongs. Nor will $24 trillion given to a people with no effective or legitimate way to use such a massive amount of money. Cedric Muhammed proposes "an apology from the United States government, income, payroll and capital gains-tax exemption for Blacks, for a period of time, monetary payments in the form of cash and gold" in addition to other demands. These proposals are more a fight for the promotion of the black race than an attempt to redress any wrongs done hundreds of years ago. Which is a noble cause in itself. But equal rights and equal opportunities for African-Americans cannot be effectively initiated by promoting the Black race and blaming the Caucasian race for atrocities committed over a century before any of us was born. This segregates the races, pitting one against the other unnecessarily at a time when we should be trying to eliminate the "us vs. them" mentality of racism. Which poses the question: why is skin color a relevant factor for reparations?
Not all white people are responsible for slavery. Not all black people were slaves.
Slave owners, slave traders, and all institutions, businesses and governments that supported slavery were morally wrong to do so. However, slavery has been legally abolished in the United States of America for more than a century. The descendants of slaves are now all free men and women. They may not be living a life of luxury and indulgence. They may find it difficult to improve their situation. But the fact remains that they are free to do so. Leaders of both races need to focus on how to improve the situation of poor blacks in America- not through reparations, but by education, opportunities, and hard work. The spirit of a people is not going to be restored through a government handout. Neither are reparations going to ameliorate the problems of black Americans.
Nothing can be done to repair the wrongs of slavery. No matter how much time goes by, slavery will always be a ghost in America's past, spooking anyone who looks back. Now America needs to look forward to a tomorrow where slavery doesn't exist, where blacks and whites are equal, and where racism isn't a factor. We need to make that happen. I believe reparations to be inconsistent with that goal. I don't see them as healing old wounds, but as opening new ones in a new generation of Americans. Perhaps the most America can do for it's people is to apologize for slavery, promise it will not ever happen again, and then concentrate on working towards a better tomorrow. This will not satisfy everyone. But nothing will.
With “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic sets slavery aside to focus on the long plunder of the 20th century, in which whites used coercion, violence, and government to exclude blacks from the bounty of American prosperity. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s was vital, but it wasn’t a panacea, and the problems of today—from the racial wealth gap to the crumbling ghettos of the Midwest—stem from the racist policies of our recent past. Or, as Coates puts it, “White supremacy is … a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”
Jamelle Bouie is Slate’s chief political correspondent.
This is more than rhetoric. Black families paid taxes and black soldiers fought for democracy in Europe and the Pacific, but—from low-interest home loans to money for education—they were barred from the benefits of the G.I. Bill. Indeed, the same federal dollars that built the suburbs were used to keep blacks out of them. It was the federal government that “pioneered the practice of redlining,” writes Coates, “selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant—a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites. Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods.” At the same time, “legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated.”
The case for reparations, in short, is straightforward. As a matter of public policy, America stole wealth from black people, denied them a shot at prosperity, and deprived them of equal citizenship.
And that’s just the 20th century. If you go beyond that—to include all stolen income from the revolution to secession—the balance falls deep into the red. In 1860, translated to today’s terms, slaves represented a staggering $10 trillion in wealth, an incredible sum. If you include compound interest—to represent the compounding plunder of the next century—you are left with an implausibly large amount of money.
Wisely, Coates doesn’t try to build a proposal for reparations. At most, he endorses a bill—HR 40—that would authorize a government study of reparations. Instead, his goal is to demonstrate the recent origins of racial inequality, the role of the federal government, the role of private actors, and the extent to which the nation—as a whole—is implicated. Even if your Irish immigrant grandparents never owned slaves, or even lived around black people, they still reaped the fruits of state-sanctioned—and state-directed—theft, through cheap loans, cheap education, and an unequal playing field.
If anything, what Coates wants is truth and reconciliation for white supremacy—a national reckoning with our history. As he writes, “More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”
Still, even if “no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America,” there’s still value in imagining a concrete scheme for reparations, if only to have a sense of the bills we owe. And so, how would we accomplish the task? Would you attempt a massive transfer of wealth? Or would you try to compensate black communities with targeted policies?
As a matter of public policy, America stole wealth from black people, denied them prosperity, and deprived them of equal citizenship.
The “wealth option,” accomplished by cash payments, is what we tend to think when we hear “reparations.” In this scenario, the federal government would mail checks to individuals, either in a lump sum or spread out over time. There are a few, immediate concerns with this notion. First, who is eligible? Given the pervasiveness of anti-black prejudice, should it go to all black Americans—who, regardless of origin, deal with the burden of white supremacy—or should it go to the descendants of slaves, who share a unique disadvantage? And how do we determine lineage? Through self-reporting? Through a comprehensive census of black Americans? Genealogical records for slaves are so scarce that any method of selection will come with the risk of fraud, since for most, we can’t confirm with absolute certainty that a given person is a descendant of slaves.
And even if we could agree on recipients, how much should individuals receive? A uniform sum or an amount based on your heritage, i.e., the more enslaved ancestors you have, the bigger your payment?
Even with all of those questions, however, there’s a lot to recommend when it comes to cash benefits. For starters, it empowers individuals, families, and communities. They know what they need, and we should trust them to figure out their own interests over the long term. Yes, a cash scheme could never be fully fair, but that’s not the point; what we want is to heal injury and balance accounts, and on that score, it could work.
On the other end is the policy approach. Instead of cash, the federal government would implement an agenda to tackle racial inequality at its roots. This agenda would focus on major areas of concern: housing, criminal justice, education, and income inequality. As for the policies themselves, they don’t require a ton of imagination. To break the ghettos and reduce the hyper-segregation of black life, the federal government would aggressively enforce the Fair Housing Act, with attacks on housing and lending discrimination, and punishment for communities that exclude low-income residents with exclusionary zoning.
What’s more, it would provide vouchers for those who want to move, subsidized mortgages for those who want to own, and huge investments in transportation infrastructure, to break urban and rural isolation and connect low-income blacks to jobs in wealthier, whiter areas.
On the education front, state governments could end education budgets based on local property taxes—which disadvantage poor communities and disproportionately hurt blacks—and the federal government could invest in school reconstruction, modernization, and vouchers—for parents who want their children in private schools—in addition to higher education subsidies for black Americans. These “in-kind” benefits have the virtue of freeing up disposable income, thus acting as de facto cash payments.
It almost goes without saying that this move for policy reparations would include an end to the war on drugs, an end to mass incarceration, and a national re-evaluation of police procedures to reduce racial profiling. And, looking forward, it could include progressive “baby bonds”—federally managed investment accounts with modest annual growth rates. At $60 billion a year, according to one proposal, this would help ameliorate wealth inequality for future generations.
There are more policies along these lines, no doubt. The advantage, for most of these, is that they are both universal and hugely beneficial to black Americans.
Of course, however you designed a reparations scheme, it would be incredibly unpopular. Between our racialized disdain for the “undeserving” and general distaste for intrusive government, nothing on this scale could get off the ground. Even if it could, there’s an excellent chance the courts would kill it.
And ultimately, as Coates writes, the money isn’t important. What’s critical is that we reckon with our national crimes against black Americans, to say nothing of Native Americans and other minority groups. We must wrestle with our history, lest we ignore the “certain sins of the future”—or worse—the sins of our present.