The state of California made news last week when its reparations task force voted to limit any future reparations programs to the descendants of free and enslaved black people who were in the United States in the 19th century. The move was controversial because some people wanted all black people, regardless of lineage, to be included.
Eligibility is one of many contentious issues tied up in the push for reparations. What makes the debate so difficult is the reality that emotion acts as the primary driver of any discussion, even among people who are in favor of monetary compensation.
The push for reparations is not new. Rep. John Conyers first introduced the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act in 1989 and reintroduced it in subsequent congressional sessions over the next 30 years until his retirement.
Others have made the argument in the broader culture, including lawyer and activist Randall Robinson’s book "The Debt" in 2001 and the 2014 essay in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “The Case for Reparations.”
The issue picked up steam in the 2020 Democratic primary, and now a bill to study reparations – building on the work of Rep. Conyers – is stalled in the House.
The public conversation around reparations today includes proposals for everything from direct cash payments to free college tuition, land, business grants, and tax exemption. It also rests on lineage distinctions between American descendants of slavery (ADOS) and black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa who came to America in the latter part of the 20th century.
Black Americans who support reparations feel they should be able to collect the recompense their ancestors were owed for the hundreds of years of labor that were uncompensated through legalized slavery. They would also argue that even after the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, efforts to grant freedmen full citizenship rights were consistently blocked, whether by the premature termination of the Freedmen’s Bureau or the enactment of Jim Crow laws that made segregation the norm through public policy and social custom.
They can also point to the fact that slave owners in the nation’s capital were provided with reparations under the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. The net effect of these decisions was the legal prioritization of white Americans and disadvantage of black Americans that, having accrued over centuries, has led to disparities in social and economic outcomes from wealth to incarceration.
Those who oppose reparations generally agree that the United States has a bloody and ugly racial history. Their arguments would be that much has been done to remedy the sins of the past, from the establishment of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to the enactment of civil rights legislation, starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and culminating with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Their other argument is that neither slave owners nor the enslaved are currently living, which undermines the legal and ethical justifications for reparations, and it is unfair to ask American citizens today who have no family connection to slavery to pay for the sins of the past.
Both sides make compelling arguments, but moving the debate forward requires honest answers to rarely asked questions.
People who support reparations based on continued wealth disparities and the impact of government policy should be prepared to answer whether they would support financial remedies that are concentrated on black Americans who are currently living in poverty or black senior citizens who lived through the Jim Crow era. Would reparations supporters sign off on payments of $50,000 to ten million poor and elderly black people instead of $15,000 to 32 million black people, including CEOs, doctors, and lawyers?
The financial eligibility issue leads another important question: Is the inevitable disruption of social cohesion in the future worth the cost of paying for the sins of the past? Anyone who denies the possibility of backlash to programs that prioritize the needs of middle-class black Americans over all other groups, especially the poor, is either in a state of self-delusion or has no understanding of human nature. Disputes about who is entitled to money and land after the death of a parent have been causing family discord for centuries, even when legally binding documentation is in place.
People don’t always express their frustrations publicly, but that doesn’t mean the Guatemalan woman who cleans the homes black families in leafy black suburbs won’t ask herself why people who send their children to expensive private schools need more resources from the government. The same goes for the Vietnamese nail technician who spends hours doing mani-pedis for black women who make three times her wages.
Even the guiltiest white liberal may start singing a different tune when they see the federal treasury providing checks to their black manager who spends his days running the marketing division and his nights tweeting about the oppression he experiences in corporate America.
Reparations proponents may be tempted to wave these concerns away as distractions, but there is a big difference between the philosophical debates about the ethics of compensation and the political realism of getting 90% of the population to support legal and financial programs specifically targeted at 10% of the population.
Those who oppose reparations have their own set of questions to answer.
One is whether they would support a Truth and Reconciliation Commission similar to the one created by South Africa after the fall of apartheid that did a full accounting of the implementation and impact of racist laws and social customs but promised no financial compensation.
Would the types of people who think any honest, public discussion of historical racism is unnecessary in 2022 be willing to have public testimony on family separation during slavery, Reconstruction-era racial violence, land theft, convict leasing, debt peonage, redlining, blockbusting, restrictive covenants, and all the other ways in which the government either enacted policies that treated black people as second-class citizens or protected private actors who did the same?
These are just a few of the questions that would need to be addressed, but the central question is this: Would a reparations grand bargain be enough to satisfy what advocates believe is owed to the descendants of freedmen?
The reparations debate is framed as a debt the country owes its black citizens, but paying a debt is different from opening a line of credit. Once the former is paid, the debtor is released from financial obligation to the debtee.
The ultimate question for both sides is whether reparations are worth pursuing if it means that debt is stamped “paid in full” and future claims of America’s inherently racist nature would go ignored.
The impact of that reality would be put to the test when LGBTQIA+ activists piggyback on the efforts of black Americans to push for their own compensation program. They would undoubtedly use similar arguments about the wealth that could have accrued to individuals if not for laws that banned same-sex marriage up until the 2015 Obergefell decision.
Part of what reparations advocates want is exclusive resource allocations, which is why a national proposal to provide universal basic income would not suffice.
I don’t expect any of these questions to persuade the most entrenched actors on either side of the debate. I do, however, hope that everyone else would take a few seconds to consider them.
There is no doubt that race is still one of the central realities of American life and will likely continue to be so in perpetuity. Even Will Smith’s slap at the Oscars was framed through the prism of America’s racial history.
The question is what is the best way to move forward in a country that looks drastically different in 2022 than it did in 1822. America in 2022 is a large, diverse nation with people who have different ethnic backgrounds, religious traditions, political priorities, and economic interests.
Any major reparations package would have to involve our normal democratic processes and would require coalition-building to withstand opposition. We must all answer whether it is more important to provide compensation for the injuries of previous generations or to pass on a functioning republic our descendants will want to inhabit.