Reparations: Yea, Nay, or Maybe?

Reparations: the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.

The issue of reparations for African-Americans due to the treatment of their ancestors as slaves has been talked about much these past few years. What does it really mean? What could actually be done? Who would decide? What are the pros and cons? Can reason be separated from emotion in such a discussion? And have the specific wrongs done to African-Americans ever been sufficiently allocuted?

This is not new. Indeed, toward the end of the Civil War in 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman made the “40 acres and a mule” promise—to redistribute a huge tract of Atlantic coastline to recently freed black Americans. Abraham Lincoln and Congress approved, and soon 40,000 freedmen in the South had started to plant and build. Yet within months of Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and returned the land to its former owners. 

The question of compensating black Americans for suffering under slavery and other forms of racial injustice has again surfaced; the current effort focuses on a bill introduced in Congress in January 2019 that would commission a study on reparations, a version of legislation first introduced in 1989. Hearings on the 2019 legislation were held in June, and it has been endorsed by several Democratic candidates for president.

Moderate Democrats fear a divisive split among the general electorate. Indeed, African Americans support the idea by a large margin, while whites oppose it—also by a large margin.

The current attempt at legislation has encouraged supporters but has worried moderate Democrats, who fear a divisive split among the general electorate. Indeed, African Americans support the idea by a large margin, while whites oppose it—also by a large margin. This is perhaps to be expected. Especially without knowing how such a plan would work, who would qualify, how much they would receive, who would decide, etc., uncertainty and caution can be expected.  

According to The New York Times (by Patricia Cohen, 05/23/2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/business/economy/reparations-slavery.html), scholars have attempted to create a roadmap. What must be reckoned with includes (1) the economic rationale, (2) who would be paid?, (3) how much would recipients get?, (4) what form would payment take?, and (5) what would the economic impact be? The Times story examines each of these considerations in detail.

If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.

But how we feel about such a proposal will mean a lot. Does it feel fair? Will it stoke or worsen race relations? From civil rights leader Bayard Rustin:

If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.

But Ta-Nehisi Coates, in an influential essay published in The Atlantic in 2014 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/) explained that legalized discrimination and state-sanctioned brutality, murder, dispossession, and disenfranchisement continued long after the war ended. That history profoundly handicapped black Americans’ ability to create and accumulate wealth as well as to gain access to jobs, housing, education, and health care.

So perhaps authorizing a study is the best course of action for now. While that is happening, Americans can assess how they personally feel about such action. Ultimately, though, if it is decided to move ahead with reparations, we must do so, understanding that some will continue to oppose it, no matter what.

Another perspective on reparations is this: affirmative action should be about reparations—not about the supposedly unique perspectives that minorities would offer other students. Writing in The Atlantic (Dec. 27, 2018), Kimberly Reyes says, “I don’t oppose affirmative action—quite the contrary—but I support only certain justifications for it. Affirmative action should be implemented as part of a broader reparations program; the point should be justice, not “diversity.” [https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/12/affirmative-action-about-reparations-not-diversity/578005/]

As a nation, we need to understand and agree upon just what wrongs we are righting, why, and how. This will not be an easy or quick task.  For some it may be painful;; for others unacceptable.  In the best of worlds, the process will be healing.



Categories: Issues, Local, National, wealth inequality

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