Rethinking Reparations

The issue of reparations is an elephant in the room of American history. The idea of reparations for slavery has existed since 1865, when General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered that every newly freed slave family be given 40 acres of land. Unsurprisingly, his order was never carried out [1]. Since that time, calls for reparations have been made by many African American activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ta-Nehisi Coates [2, 3, 4]. More recently, 2020 presidential hopefuls, such as Elizabeth Warren, have made reparations a key part of their platforms [5]. I believe that we indeed have a responsibility to pay reparations, and that the most effective way to do so will be to implement policies that reduce wealth inequality for all Americans.

We owe African Americans reparations for much more than just slavery. Slavery left behind a long and despicable legacy of oppression towards Blacks. The extent of this legacy cannot be adequately addressed in a brief article, but I will provide just a few illustrative examples. Former slaves were clearly starting off on a lower rung than the rest of the country, having had their property stolen, their labor exploited, and their cultures suppressed. On top of this, Blacks faced explicit hiring discrimination. Thirty years after the end of the Civil War, W. E. B. DuBois reported to the United States Bureau of Labor that “the jobs open to black men were limited, and jobs for black women were restricted to domestic service and housewifery” [6]. While explicit racial restrictions are no longer legal, hiring discrimination continues to this day, oftentimes relegating Blacks to the most menial and lowest paying jobs; researchers have found that a resume with a black-sounding name at the top is less likely to receive a callback than an identical resume with a white-sounding name [7]. 

There are many other examples of policies or events that have served to benefit White Americans at the expense of Black Americans. In 1921, Whites in Tulsa, Oklahoma, started a race riot and burned to the ground much of the successful African American business district known as “Black Wall Street” [8]. From the 1930s through the 1970s, redlining policies across the country restricted Black families from being approved for mortgages, a major source of intergenerational White wealth, while at the same time segregating Blacks into specific areas [9]. Once segregated, areas with higher concentrations of people of color were neglected, receiving lower amounts of resources for things like schooling [10] and transportation infrastructure [11]. Even the highly disparate rates of stops, searches, and arrests for Black Americans have their roots in slavery, since many modern police forces can trace their roots to the roaming slave patrols that used to catch runaway slaves [12].

We have a moral obligation to all those who have inherited the wrongs of our past (and who continue to suffer both overt and unintended racism), and reparations are an effort to right some of those wrongs. However, there are challenges to implementing an effective reparations policy. Three of the most frequently cited concerns include the questionable effectiveness of lump sum payments as a way of helping the African American community, the difficulty of defining who should pay and receive reparations, and the risk of a “slippery slope” that will lead other groups to feel entitled for reparations. While questioning the effectiveness of lump sum payments seems to me a paternalistic view, it is true that giving Black Americans a one-time payment won’t automatically reverse the effects of systemic racism. Defining the recipients and justifying why other marginalized groups don’t deserve reparations also represent real policy questions to which there is no easy answer. The unfortunate reality is that, no matter how much Black Americans deserve to be compensated for the generations of obstacles that our country has put in their way, actually crafting a policy that puts money back into their hands could prove to be a logistical nightmare. And even if we could write the perfect legislation, I’m not optimistic about our ability to rally enough popular or Congressional support for such a proposal.

Because it will be difficult, both politically and practically, to institute actual cash reparations, I propose that we pursue the next best option — implementation of policies that even the playing field for all Americans. These policies could include providing universal health care, improving public school funding, universal free college, a universal basic income, and partial employee ownership of companies. African Americans would stand to benefit disproportionately from policies that promote the economic stability and mobility that has for so long been denied them. In addition, this solution addresses all three objections that I’ve mentioned above. It allows for the real, structural change that is necessary for us to purge systemic racism from our country. It provides benefits to all Americans, eliminating the need to decide who is entitled to reparations and who is responsible to pay for them. While this solution wouldn’t diminish our obligation as a society to explicitly recognize the wrongs of the past and present, policies that address inequality for all Americans could prove to be the most politically viable way to right the wrongs of our past and promote equity as we move into the future.

Sources:

  1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jamerethnhist.35.2.0061#metadata_info_tab_contents
  2. http://peacemission.info/media/peace-stamps/?pid=91
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/1967/11/12/archives/the-american-negro-a-bill-of-rights-for-the-disadvantaged.html
  4. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
  5. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-warren/senator-elizabeth-warren-backs-reparations-for-black-americans-idUSKCN1QA2WF
  6. https://www.dol.gov/general/aboutdol/history/blackstudiestext
  7. https://www.nber.org/papers/w9873
  8. https://www.history.com/news/black-wall-street-tulsa-race-massacre
  9. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america
  10. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/segregation-school-funding-inequalities-still-punishing-black-latino-students-n837186
  11. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/05/stranded-how-americas-failing-public-transportation-increases-inequality/393419/
  12. https://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/brief-hist
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Helaman Sanchez

HELAMAN SANCHEZ is a senior from Detroit, Michigan. He studies Economics and Political Science, and his passions include economic justice and the history of race. Helaman loves music, so he tries to practice guitar every day and aspires to have a band in his basement one day. He also enjoys reading, hiking with his wife and their Golden Retriever, and listening to podcasts on 2x speed. Proud of his nerdiness, Helaman is exactly the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to analyze his career options. He will work at a social impact consulting firm after graduating and is considering the eventual pursuit of an MBA or MPP.

Latest posts by Helaman Sanchez (see all)

Helaman Sanchez

HELAMAN SANCHEZ is a senior from Detroit, Michigan. He studies Economics and Political Science, and his passions include economic justice and the history of race. Helaman loves music, so he tries to practice guitar every day and aspires to have a band in his basement one day. He also enjoys reading, hiking with his wife and their Golden Retriever, and listening to podcasts on 2x speed. Proud of his nerdiness, Helaman is exactly the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to analyze his career options. He will work at a social impact consulting firm after graduating and is considering the eventual pursuit of an MBA or MPP.

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