Any honest assessment of American history leads to the conclusion that much of the wealth the United States has enjoyed was built upon the stolen labor and property of blacks through slavery and subsequent practices of fraud, violence, and theft in the decades hence.
The acquisition of property and wealth through unjust means is not made just over the passage of time due to the difficulty in meting out recompense to the victims and their would-be heirs.
Moreover, the years of political terrorism and the ever-present threat of violence for even the slightest violation of hierarchical race-based social norms inflicted immeasurable harm on individuals and their families that undoubtedly had profound psychological and economic effects.
The following argument is not about desert.
In June, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a compelling long-form article in the Atlantic making the case for African-American reparations. Instead of making the argument explicitly about slavery, Coates tells the more recent history of American racism through the story a Chicago resident and son of a Mississippi sharecropper who experienced loss and racial victimization.
Coates’s argument ends in favor of reparations, though ambiguously.
His one explicit endorsement was of Rep. John Conyers’ H.R. 40—a bill Conyers introduces every Congress for the government to study the case for African-American reparations. As Coates has lamented in interviews since publication, even discussing the matter in Congress is out of the question today, so any hope of realizing reparations is years away and will likely require a large social movement to make it remotely feasible.
Although I’m sympathetic to Coates’s argument, the predictable costs and consequences of African-American reparations far outweigh any likely benefits.
Simply put, the political movement necessary to make reparative payments to American blacks—either to slave descendants and/or those who suffered under Jim Crow—would be better spent on other reforms with greater impact and lessen the damage caused by unintended consequences of any reparative effort.
Reparations could, in fact, make matters worse.
In the first place, cash reparations in the form of a single windfall payment could be disastrous for some. Whether the payment is modest—say, $10,000 per black adult—or much larger, the potential for waste, fraud, and victimization is extraordinarily high.
Look no further than the world of professional athletics: as record breaking contracts continue to get headlines in sports media, more former athletes than not are flat broke two to five years after retirement. Rock stars, lottery winners, and other instant entrants into the so-called One Percent—irrespective of class and race—mismanage their money and find themselves broke in a short amount of time. Many of the most disadvantaged black folks could be busted after a temporary boom, and still without the jobs or skills that could lead to greater long-term prosperity. It’s not enough to wonder whether moving heaven and earth to get a payment would be “worth it.” Rather, advocates should consider whether or not such a payment by itself could ultimately do more harm to the intended beneficiaries.
Reparations as smaller annuity or monthly payments presumably would be less likely to create the windfall problems, though certainly poor investment decisions—such as trading rights to those payments in exchange for a lump sum from a third party—would likely occur.
However, payments such as these may, without change to older law, disrupt public assistance outlays or perhaps housing for the neediest black Americans. Such payments would unlikely be enough to live on by themselves, thus trading welfare for reparation payments is unlikely to substantively improve life for those whose life could be most improved by additional income.
American racism manifests itself in different ways, and to different negative effects.
On one hand, interpersonal racism may prevent a callback because of a “black” name on the top of a resume, a rejected a bank loan for a small business despite good credit, or a hostile interaction with a police officer. On the other, systemic effects perpetuate poverty—ghettoization, concentrated poverty and unemployment, and the myriad factors that drive violence in those areas.
While reparations are about injustice and atonement, any program aimed at black America ought to look to ameliorate the problems currently faced by black folks—particularly the most marginalized. That means, inter alia, fixing a system in which blacks have a harder time finding work and continue to live in fear of the police. There is a very real danger that any reparative program would disproportionately benefit those of us who, while not far removed from slavery, have made it to the middle class (or higher) while further marginalizing those who have suffered the most over the years.
To wit, if the widespread socio-political mobilization Coates has supported in subsequent interviews is to be most effective in combating today’s societal ills, it would best be aimed not at remuneration for black folks, but for correcting the ills that currently afflict them. Indeed, if the solution to cyclical poverty were simply a matter of an infusion of cash, the government should just give $100,000 to every person under a certain income level and destroy (or, at least, reset) the social safety net regardless of race or history.
But I sincerely doubt the problems attendant to cyclical poverty would be solved by such an infusion and thus I find reparations an inadequate approach to dealing with American racism, let alone the related but broader problem of poverty.
This, I think, is where I depart most sharply from Coates. One of the problems with any top-down social program is the unintended consequences on the margins. Whether intentionally or not, policies with the best intentions may exacerbate some of the very problems they mean to address.
Take, for example, the recent proposed minimum wage increase. The proposal, according to the CBO, would raise many wages not only for minimum wage earners, but many already making above the minimum who would likely see a pay raise. However, this benefit for several millions comes at the estimated permanent job loss of 500,000 positions.
The ethical question arises: is it acceptable to use government to benefit the many at the cost of the few?
A short thought experiment is in order.
If you said that those few were the very rich and could absorb the extraction of wealth to pay for the wage increase, most people would probably say the cost would be worth it—libertarians notwithstanding. But, if you said that those few were black and Hispanic and a majority of the beneficiaries were white, many less people would sign off because it would seem racist in nature. And, if those blacks and Hispanics happen to be among the most vulnerable and poorest workers in the workforce, even fewer people may support it because it seems unfair to benefit the already better-off on the expense of the poorest workers.
Yet, a layman’s glance at trends during economic downturns would suggest that any increase in unemployment will likely affect Hispanics and blacks more acutely. Furthermore, it is logical that permanent job loss is likely to affect those at the most expendable rung of employment hierarchy: the least skilled and experienced workers. Thus the consequence of a higher minimum wage may inflict harm on many of our most marginalized citizens, many of whom are racial and ethnic minorities.
Certainly, in the less rigid racial hierarchy in which we live today, blacks and Hispanics would be among those benefitting from the increase—but that doesn’t necessarily mitigate the disproportionate impact on people of color who consequently would be put out of a job.
Reasonable people may disagree whether this is acceptable trade-off for this and other programs. But the broader problem remains: if you have an entrenched subpopulation that already suffers more absent intervention and may suffer further with intervention, should they face further entrenchment as a marginal population? Is it fair to further widen the inequality gap for the betterment of the already (somewhat) better-off because of sheer numbers?
Unlike cash reparations that would presumably apply equally (or progressively) across economic strata, non-cash reparations, such as government-assisted or fully paid college education, would be dependent on preparedness for college and a desire to go. In the abstract, I’m rather fond of this idea because of college’s role in developing personal tools toward long-term wealth and self-betterment. But such a program is less likely to aid adults and the undereducated, thereby disadvantaging the already disadvantaged. If reparations are to help those that continue to be hindered by centuries of law, practice, and policies, would it serve justice to primarily help those who have already overcome many of these policies at the expense—or, at least, lost opportunity—of those who haven’t?
Aid to the poor and disadvantaged should be a separate policy goal than racial reparations.
Again—this isn’t about desert. I fully agree with Coates that the policies of both the United States and its people have significantly contributed to the disproportionate poverty and incarceration of American blacks—to a degree we may never fully know. But directly tying aid and policy to sins of the past is unlikely to be helpful in remedying the core problems of mass incarceration, ghettoization, and cyclical poverty which devastate black communities all over the country. Moreover, whites and others in poverty who have also been disadvantaged by government or social policy are no more morally blameworthy than blacks, though they may have arrived in those situations through different means.
I don’t mean to say that Coates argued for black-specific reparations because it is of greatest utility or because blacks are, above and beyond everyone else, more deserving of it. He made an argument for African-American reparations based in history, but not to the exclusion of any other groups and their plights in this country. However, this is precisely why anti-poverty programs should be entirely separate from the national reckoning of the treatment and abuse of American blacks over time.
I agree with Coates—and for this reason, and more below, I tepidly support H.R. 40—that the United States needs to come to terms with what this nation has done and continues to do to its black citizens. While our collective national history and the disproportionate misfortune of many blacks in society are undeniably related, the solutions for remedy and increasing the opportunities for people need not be one in the same. Indeed, explicitly tying remedies to race-based programs may hinder progress.
While politics is not zero-sum, political capital is not something that can just be summoned and spent infinitely on myriad issues at will. Any movement must have priorities, and while I—third familial generation born free from the bonds of slavery—would surely benefit from an infusion of cash, there are those suffering under the legacies of racism for whom such an influx would benefit, but not suffice to ameliorate their plight.
And, given that a majority of white Americans now believe that anti-white bias is of larger societal concern than anti-black bias, insufficient help to African Americans likely would not be followed-up with more help.
I would argue that reparative payments would effectively signal that ‘The Debt’ America owed to its black citizens will have been paid and any further complaints or need of assistance will be met with contempt and rejected. Such a debt is moral in nature and thus should not be reduced to a financial sum to be haggled over. That amount will never be enough, and without systemic change, any payment may be detrimental to societal changes we need.
Take police misconduct. Historical, anecdotal, and statistical evidence strongly suggest that blacks, particularly poor blacks, have and continue to disproportionately suffer from police brutality and aggressive (and often, illegal) tactics. In recent years, primarily through the drug war, these behaviors—once primarily limited to inner cities and black neighborhoods—have bled into white enclaves and onto college campuses.
Given the statistical correlation between first contact with the court system and future socio-economic outcomes, particularly among people of color, a serious rethink of our current law enforcement regimes—from laws to funding to procedures governing police contact with the general public—is among the most pressing issues facing young black men in America today. To me, this is of far more pressing importance to American blacks than whether Coates and I each receive a check from the government for the past disadvantages inflicted upon our families.
This isn’t about “white backlash”—it’s coalition building. Everyone should benefit from criminal justice reform. All people in poverty should benefit from economic reform. All children should benefit from education reform.
And to help black Americans, we need all of these changes, desperately. Starting out a movement from the position of African-American reparations, however, simultaneously and unnecessarily limits potential allies while focusing effort and political capital in favor of a very unpopular idea that can’t, by itself, alleviate the problems we face.
In a world in which we could have both, I may be more inclined to support reparations, but the political will to even debate this would be best spent elsewhere.
That said, the explicit suggestion in Coates’s piece—passing and funding Rep. Conyers’ proposal to study reparations—is much more appealing than the reparations themselves for two reasons.
First, a comprehensive review of the history of American racism would be an invaluable historical and anthropological resource. Coates has said that one of the common responses he has received about his article, primarily from white people, was “I had no idea. I had no idea.” The shallowness of the average American’s understanding of the nation’s history is one of the more shameful aspects of our education system. That dearth of knowledge contributes to continued prejudice and racism on the individual level and implicitly supports the status quo of de facto segregation in housing, education, and wealth on a national scale. (Whether the government would be the best benefactor and organizer of this information is another question, but tax dollars have gone to much less worthy studies.)
Second, such a large-scale undertaking could find or describe some practices and customs that we use today and how they have been passed down from the slave or Jim Crow eras despite their facially race-neutral appearances. Our penal system, red lining, felon disfranchisement, and other aspects of our self-governance, some perhaps not yet widely understood, may enlighten today’s scholars and policymakers about continuing oppressive practices that can be remedied today. From this perspective—a broad historical analysis rather than a justification for future payouts—may make the bill an easier sell, in time.
Until then, we must rely on historians and authors to bring the lesser-known, long-ignored stories of the past to the fore so we may educate ourselves as to how we got here. Coates is absolutely right to say that we, as a nation, must own up to the crimes of the past and learn about the pervasive flaws in our national character. Particularly, we must learn how those flaws affected both the powerful and the powerless over time.
We must focus our energies and political capital on reforming our systems to better respect the rights and dignities of our citizens, especially those who continue to live on the margins of society today. Policies that further us from them, relegating them to more years of cyclical poverty and political invisibility, cannot be considered progress.
Like Coates, I look back at our nation’s history with outrage and look around our black communities today with an inescapable feeling of unfairness and lost opportunity. He and I simply see different paths to remedying the effects of the crimes of the past.
But I would venture that we both want the same thing: that coming generations of black boys and girls may not feel that same persistent unfairness as they look around their own circumstances and toward their own futures.
Coates isn’t wrong that America owes black people more than it has given. I just don’t think a check is going to cover it.