The United States brutally enslaved African Americans for its first hundred or so years of existence.
The Case For (and Against) Reparations
09 February 2017
This week we're thinking about whether black people today are owed reparations for the racial injustices of the past. There was clearly a time for reparations. Back in 1865, after the civil war, 40 acres and a mule for every former slave would have been a just outcome. But of course that never happened. Instead of reparations and restorative justice, black people were subjected to new forms of oppression: sharecropping, Jim Crow segregation, separate but equal schooling, housing discrimination -- not to mention lynchings and worse. If blacks weren’t paid reparations back then, why would we expect it to happen now?
Well, Germany paid reparations to the Jews, and even America paid reparations to the interned Japanese. Of course, Germany paid the actual survivors of the holocaust, not Jews in general. And it was the same with America and the Japanese. Reparations are easier to justify when they can be paid to assignable victims who have been done assignable harm by assignable wrong-doers. That’s not really our situation today.
Does that man there’s no case for reparations? Well, maybe for people like my dad. He was born the son of a dirt poor sharecropper, in the darkest days of Jim Crow segregation. He confronted virulent institutional racism at every turn on a daily basis. But what about inner city blacks, who are consigned to failing schools, regularly brutalized by cops, vastly over-represented in our prison? What they deserve are good schools, an end to police brutality, and a more equitable criminal justice system, not reparations.
Aren't those are all part and parcel of the same thing? Some might say that reparations are (mostly) beside the point. Everyone should e in favor of social justice -- improved education, healthcare, fair housing policies, a good social safety net. We should all want these things for ALL people, regardless of race.
But framing the issue in terms of reparation can be a way of acknowledging society’s special debt to black people -- that is, white people's debt to black people. Of course, try convincing today’s white people of that. I bet many of them would dismiss the demand for reparations as special pleading. They’d say it’s part of a culture of victimhood in search of handouts. If that’s right, the reparations framing doesn’t resolve racial tensions, it makes them worse.
Of course I would argue that whites who think that are just wrong. A call for reparations isn’t a call for handouts. It’s a call for restorative justice -- just like it was after the civil war when the wounds of slavery were still very fresh. Our racial wounds are clearly still not healed.
But healing and restorative justice, powerful as they can be, are inherently backward looking. Even though we ay never get right with the future until we first get right with the past, many people want only forward-looking solutions. After all, what does "getting right with the past" even mean in our context? No white person alive today was the perpetrator of slavery. No black person alive today was a slave. Even Jim Crow ended decades ago.
So it will probably take a good deal of work to convince Americans, especially white Americans, that until we take collective responsibility for the wrongs of the past, we’ll never heal, we’ll be forever tainted by the racial sins of our forbears. No one said it would be easy, but the conversation has to start somewhere. And we hope this episode is part of that conversation.