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.

Comments (3)

Huey R's picture

Huey R

Sunday, June 30, 2019 -- 2:39 PM

Perhaps we should start with

Perhaps we should start with changing the Pledge of Allegiance to remove "with liberty and justice for all." It isn't and has never been.

Todd's picture


Thursday, July 4, 2019 -- 7:37 AM

There is a danger of

There is a danger of promoting a type of "moral licensing" though reparations. Briefly, having reparations, it would provide the appearance that things are fixed with regard to racism towards blacks in this country, and provide "license" to ignore the systemic problem. How do we move collectively to undo the damage of internalized racism, undo the great lie that daily haunts people who are oppressed as to their relative unworth? As one who has experience with internalized hatred because of my sexual orientation, I can only imagine the intensity for one who is black and can never hide the way I could. I would gladly apportion money for reparations, but I suspect it would not be effective. What is needed are clear paths out of poverty that targets children who are beginning to hate themselves because of race, or any other socially stigmatized trait. At the risk of sounding trite, we need to teach empathy, and ways of giving of ourselves to others in addition to giving money.

jmarsh66's picture


Thursday, July 4, 2019 -- 11:52 PM

First, because of the nature

First, because of the nature of the words I am about to write, I want to make it clear I am in full agreement that post European invasion of North and South America yielded multiple casualties on the local indigenous peoples as well as the African slaves kidnapped from their homelands and forced into servitude by the early colonists of the 'New World.' That these horrific crimes are now considered a current moral philosophical argument worthy of monetary atonement is laughable and I dare to say had these crimes been perpetrated on Europeans their descendant's conversations would likely demand consequences much more severe.

Being a white man of European ancestry, I recognize and acknowledge the evil acts by my kind throughout history. Having said that, this bad behavior is not unique to my kind. In fact, it is in reality a fact that similar acts of violence and genocide are pervasive throughout the entire human family. We collectively as a species, are hard coded such that every human demographic self reflects itself to be superior to every other human demographic and subsequently privileged to enjoy and even justify the fruits of that superiority.

While we have the capacity to understand that these tribal instincts may have at one time granted us survival in the hard game of natural selection, they now, if left unchecked, lead us toward our own mass extinction. Can mind overcome nature? Time will tell.

In the mean time, no human demographic inherently yearns for equality but instead yearns for domination. As stated in the 1960's "The Revolution will not be Publicized!" The national narrative has predominantly turned into a state where no person of color can do bad while no white male can do good. While there may be an argument for accepting the pendulum of karma, I hope our collective intellect can overcome the fate more likely given our inherent instincts.