Notes on Reparations

I am not ready to make anything like a full or complete statement on reparations. So these are merely some leads and tentative notes.

Rashawn Ray and Andre M. Perry have out a report, “Why we need reparations for Black Americans.” Here is the basic argument: “Today, the average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family. . . . Making the American Dream an equitable reality demands the same U.S. government that denied wealth to Blacks restore that deferred wealth through reparations to their descendants in the form of individual cash payments in the amount that will close the Black-white racial wealth divide. . . . In 1860, over $3 billion was the value assigned to the physical bodies of enslaved Black Americans to be used as free labor and production. This was more money than was invested in factories and railroads combined. In 1861, the value placed on cotton produced by enslaved Blacks was $250 million. Slavery enriched white slave owners and their descendants, and it fueled the country‚Äôs economy while suppressing wealth building for the enslaved. The United States has yet to compensate descendants of enslaved Black Americans for their labor.”

But obviously, a century and a half after slavery, it is no trivial task to identify the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave holders. What fraction of today’s U.S. Black population descended from slaves? What fraction of today’s U.S. non-Black population descended from slave holders? Surely the first number is a lot higher than the second. So, if we’re talking about reparations specifically for slavery, let’s be honest about what the proposal means: taking wealth by force from people who mostly did not descend from slave holders and giving that wealth to people who likely, but not necessarily, descended from slaves. (Alternately, the money could go only to people who can prove descendancy from slaves, which would undoubtedly leave out many who are so descended but who cannot now prove it.)

Built into the proposal is the presumption, which is almost certainly false or mostly false, that current levels of wealth disparities result from the lingering effects of slavery.

Now, we can talk about more-specific reparations based on other harms. For example, government at federal and state levels has locked up countless individuals, disproportionately minorities, for actions that violated no one’s rights (most importantly, drug offenses). Government has created a horrifically violent black market in illegal drugs that has devastated some minority neighborhoods. Government has literally forced minority parents to send their children to schools that in many cases are terrible. Reparations for these sorts of harms seem a lot more workable.

Of course Black people in America suffered many severe injustices between the era of slavery and the modern era, including long-lasting reigns of terror by white racists against Black individuals and communities. The Atlantic reports, “A war waged by deed of title has dispossessed 98 percent of black agricultural landowners in America.” It’s unclear to me how much of this was due to people voluntarily selling their lands, but as the article makes clear, at least some of it was due to violence, including mass-murder of Black farmers.

The upshot is that this is a complicated matter, and, I fear, lots of people for and against reparations are prone to oversimplifying the matter.

June 22 Update: HBO’s Watchmen envisions reparations for a specific, horrific attack, the Tulsa riots and mass-murders of 1921, during which white mobs attacked “Black Wall Street,” for immediate victims and direct descendants. Government actively abetted this assault. Obviously this does not suffer from some of the problems of other reparations plans.

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