The idea that the United States should pay reparations to African Americans, which for many years was considered extremist, has suddenly gone mainstream. A host of Democratic Presidential candidates and even Republican commentator David Brooks are now advocating for it.
The fact that a national discussion on reparations is now taking place is itself interesting. For two centuries, African American organizations or, in the past 25 years, a few Black members of Congress have issued calls for reparations without sparking much notice outside the black community. Now, HR 40 (as the bill to study reparations is called) has 35 co-sponsors. It has become a requirement for Democratic Presidential candidates to stake out a position on this issue. There can be little doubt that the reason for this is the growing recognition of societal racism by a majority of Americans, as well as the growing influence of progressives within the Democratic Party.
Those who support reparations have made a compelling case about the history of state-sponsored and private racism in the United States. The role of enslaved people in the creation of the national wealth is now better understood. The perversion of democracy, both in the slave and Jim Crow eras, is now well established. Many scholars have shown that the current housing and school segregation, often treated by courts as just a “fact of life” (de facto segregation) actually resulted from continuous purposeful action by government, banks and millions of whites throughout the second half of the 20th Century. Still others have detailed the ways banks foisted sub-prime mortgages on African Americans and Latinx homebuyers in the 2000s, paving the way for a massive stripping of Black and Latinx wealth after the 2008 financial crisis. Based on the historical record, it is undeniable that African Americans (and, in other specific ways, Latinx, Native Americans and Asian Americans) have been systematically and intentionally denied access to the opportunities afforded white Americans throughout American history , resulting in the well-known statistics of the present: the black poverty rate is three time that of whites, and the black/white wealth gap is 12-1.
The case for reparations, however, cannot solely be based on proving that African Americans and other people of color have been systematically denied the opportunities given to whites and have been subject to the government and capitalists stealing whatever wealth they had accumulated. Having established this grim reality, we have to address the other side of the question: what is the purpose of reparations?
To some, the purpose of reparations is to level the playing field between blacks and whites by redistributing wealth, education, housing and other social resources, “balancing the scales” as Elizabeth Warren puts it. If African Americans are given, say, preferential admission to selective colleges, or easier access to bank loans and investment capital, then they are closer to equal opportunity. For many years, the principle demand for reparations was for a cash payment sufficient to enable a Black family descended from enslaved people to invest in buying a home or starting a business. (An updated version of the original 40 acres and a mule promised by the Freedman’s Bureau in 1867). In this version, if African Americans are given enough capital to participate in the market economy then America has repaid its debt.
Giving Black people greater opportunity to participate in the existing society will not achieve social justice.
But will giving Black people greater opportunity to participate in the existing society achieve social justice? I don’t think so. If the social order remains wedded to racism, these efforts will be to little purpose. We already know that when Black people achieve their family’s hard-won dream of graduating from college, they earn less than white high school graduates. We already know that when people of color were able to finally scrape together the funds to buy a house, fully half of Black (and 65% of Latinx) homeowners (as compared to 15% of whites) lost their homes in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown. “Balancing the economic scales” with one-time interventions simply won’t end systemic white privilege. Far more is needed than that!
If we are to be serious about reparations, we need to do more than give people a stake in a system rigged against them. Reparations must make those who are dehumanized and exploited feel that this country has actually made a significant step away from America’s embrace of white supremacy and towards being a society that truly values all people. At its core, the importance of reparations is that it gives the United States as a whole the opportunity to understand the enormity of the harm that has been done in its name to individuals, families, whole communities, to the economy and to democracy itself. In this sense, the most significant goal of reparations is to create a situation in which whites feel the need to issue a sincere apology for the damage done to benefit them, a spiritual change of heart towards people of color. Of course, an apology without efforts to improve the material well-being of those harmed is not a sincere one. But what makes reparations impactful is the extent to which they compel a re-thinking of the relationships between people, a real recognition that black lives matter as much as white lives.
We don’t have to look far for an example of successful reparations. In the 1980s, Japanese Americans succeeded in their long campaign to convince the country that Franklin Roosevelt’s EO 9066 (which in 1942 ordered 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps in the U.S.) was mistaken and racist. In 1988, President Reagan issued a formal apology that included reparation payments of $20,000 for each survivor. The payments were nominal given that internees had been forced to sell many billions of dollars of property to whites at 1/10th their value. But the Presidential apology, coupled with a Congressional apology and a Supreme Court decision restoring internees’ voting rights, was real. The significance of this apology was underscored shortly after 9/11/2001, when right wing extremists advocated the internment of Muslim Americans. But America had indeed turned a corner on mass internment of U.S. citizens because of the apology. This nation was no longer the America of 1942. The proposal to round up Muslims was dead on arrival.
To be meaningful, reparations for African Americans must be transformative of the United States as a whole. That is, reparations must be driven by a sincere acknowledgement of the history of white supremacy both past and present, and a real desire to get beyond its long and deadly grip on this nation’s economy, politics and culture. While the primary purpose of reparations must be to make whole those harmed, whatever is done to provide African Americans with opportunity will be short-lived unless it is closely coupled to efforts to come to terms with who America has been, who we are, and who we want to be. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his influential 2014 Atlantic article, “We must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.”
Here, then, is the crux of the matter: the demand for reparations for African Americans addresses one particular group’s grievances against America, but in so doing it allows us to look at our history and future in a new way. Again, we are brought face to face with the powerful insight of intersectionality: there is no fatal contradiction between the interests a specific group and the needs of all people. By centering and addressing the needs of one group, we get closer to be a nation that can embrace everyone’s needs and interests.
Predictably, many—including Bernie Sanders– have pushed back against the demand for reparations, calling instead for universal programs like improving public education that don’t single out any “special interest group.” Sanders misses the point. If we are serious about creating a society committed to everyone’s well-being, we must start by first addressing the needs of those who have been singled out for unequal treatment throughout America’s history. To do so does not detract from the needs of others; to the contrary, acknowledging the nation’s responsibility to remedy the wrongs done to Black people makes it far likelier that everyone else will also be included. Sanders’ argument is similar to those who upon hearing the slogan “Black Lives Matter” push back by saying “No, everyone’s life matters.” The problem with this position is that we know that white lives now matter far too much, and black lives far too little. Until we say black lives matter, we can never say everyone’s life matters.
Coates puts it this way:
What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”
This is the most effective argument for reparations. Yes, Black people are owed for what was taken from them. But if they are to mean anything, reparations must be based on the argument that such an apology and payment will provide everyone in this nation—indeed, in the world—with a powerful opportunity to step away from this country’s history of racism and enter into a new age in which everyone’s humanity is valued.
Once again, we see the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea that social justice is the creation of the beloved community. We cannot settle for the idea that equal opportunity is social justice (Elizabeth Warren) or that equality is social justice (Bernie Sanders). Let us insist on a far more radical proposition: that social justice exists when we people acknowledge one another’s humanity, and desire to live as a beloved community. Reparations to African Americans can be an important step towards that end.