In December, Boston’s City Council voted to craft a plan to pay reparations for slavery and its aftermath. The vote was unanimous, and the councilor who authored the resolution called it “the start of a long-awaited yet necessary conversation” about racial reparations.
The start? America’s “conversation” about paying reparations for the harm caused by slavery has been underway for decades.
In 1969, the radical civil rights activist James Forman caused a stir when he issued a “Black Manifesto” — first at a prominent economic conference in Detroit, then from the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church — calling for $500 million in reparations. In 2000, Randall Robinson made an even bigger splash with “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” a bestselling book advocating financial compensation for the descendants of enslaved people. The New York Times reported the following year that “the call for reparations has taken on substantial force,” with support from leading Black organizations and respected US newspapers. The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates drew enormous attention with a 2014 article in The Atlantic headlined “The Case for Reparations.” He was invited to expand on his ideas at a congressional hearing on reparations in 2019 — by which point the 2020 presidential primary season was underway and leading Democratic candidates, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and then-Senator Kamala Harris of California, were telling voters of their support for reparations.
Present-day advocates of reparations cite redlining and other 20th-century harms. But the heart of the argument has always been that Black Americans should be repaid for the 240 years that their forebears were enslaved in this land. That’s far from a new idea. But it is also far from a sound idea.
The problems with reparations are both practical and ethical.
To everything there is a season, as sages from Ecclesiastes to the Byrds have observed, and the time for slavery reparations was when those who suffered enslavement could still be compensated. It is tragic that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1865 order to distribute 40-acre plots of land to the formerly enslaved was never implemented across the South. The collapse of Reconstruction a decade later in the face of massive Southern resistance is one of the bitterest calamities of American history. But no white American living today bears any responsibility for the cruelties of that era. No Black American living today suffered those cruelties.
For exactly that reason, the great civil rights leader Bayard Rustin — the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a close adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. — rejected calls for reparations as “ridiculous.” He regarded Forman’s demand for $500 million as demeaning. “If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money,” Rustin said, “but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.”
Reparations are equitable only when they provide redress to victims who suffered unjustly. In 1988, for example, the US government paid reparations to more than 26,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. In the 1970s, the federal government agreed to pay $10 million to the surviving patients of the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study, who were deliberately denied proper medical treatment by doctors working for the US Public Health Service. But there is nothing equitable about paying reparations in the 21st century for wrongs committed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims,” the contemporary Black writer and scholar Coleman Hughes told a congressional committee. “So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent.”
Rarely do those who campaign for reparations acknowledge that for more than half a century, the country has made a concerted effort to provide Black Americans what amounts to reparations for historical mistreatment. Much of the War on Poverty was designed to improve the status of those who had been discriminated against for so long because of their race. President Lyndon Johnson didn’t use the word “reparations,” but in a major address at Howard University in 1965, he explicitly cast the government’s vast new role in providing housing, health care, nutrition, and welfare benefits as a conscientious effort to address the heritage of African slavery and the century of widespread oppression and segregation that followed.
“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair,” declared Johnson. “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”
To date the War on Poverty has spent $25 trillion (not including Medicare), and whether those outlays ultimately helped or hurt Black Americans has been widely debated. But there is no disputing that they were intended, to a significant degree, to redress the harms caused by the racist policies of the past — to give Black people “the same chance as every other American,” as LBJ put it. That’s even truer of affirmative action in all its varieties — the decades of racial preferences by federal, state, and local governments, the minority set-asides, the de facto racial quotas in hiring and contracting.
In short, there has been for years in America a considerable, well-funded attempt to make amends for the legacy of slavery and segregation. Those today who wish to argue that an outstanding debt is owed to Black America have an obligation to account for all that has been done, in good faith and at great expense, to pay down that debt.
That isn’t what they are doing. As the reparations bandwagon gathers speed, the demands being made are growing increasingly extreme. In San Francisco, a commission tasked with drafting a reparations plan came up with one that would obligate the city to make a $5 million lump-sum payment to every eligible Black resident. In addition, the 60-page plan calls for a cornucopia of other financial benefits, including a guaranteed annual income of $97,000 for life, plus a “comprehensive debt forgiveness program that clears all educational, personal, credit card, [and] payday loans.”
To implement such a scheme would obviously bankrupt San Francisco many times over. And yet there are city officials who insist it doesn’t go far enough. All this in a city (and state) where slavery never existed.
As the clamor for racial reparations grows more aggressive, will it lead to healing and closure and reconciliation? More likely, it will further inflame our already antagonistic public discourse and further widen our angry social divisions. Moreover, as John Murawski notes in a shrewd essay for RealClear Investigations, it will spur efforts to enact reparations for a host of other aggrieved claimants: “The causes include gay reparations, climate reparations, colonial reparations, university reparations — and Roman Catholic Church reparations for officially sanctioning colonization, slavery, and genocide in the New World.” To Duke University economist William Darity, a reparations supporter who advises the California Reparations Task Force, such a development would be all to the good. “I would encourage the people who are concerned about these histories of injustice to do the work and make the case,” he told Murawski. The scale of potential claims, he said, “could be immense.”
When all is said and done, the reparations movement is grounded in a belief in collective racial entitlement and collective racial guilt. No belief could be more repugnant to America’s ideals — however imperfectly realized — of tolerance, individual equality, and the right of each of us to be judged on our own merits, not by our bloodline or skin color or ancestry. Perhaps reparations promoters mean no harm. What they are seeking would prove harmful indeed.