One Way to Make Reparations Work

Thursday, March 14, 2019
Bloomberg

The issue of reparations for African Americans is, of course, full of more moral and historical issues than one column, even by someone with much greater understanding and deeper knowledge than me, could ever resolve. But since the proposal is now being taken seriously, it’s worth thinking about the economics of how it could and should work.

The idea of compensating the descendants of American slaves is an old one. More recently, writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates have argued persuasively that systematic oppression after the end of slavery -- segregation, housing discrimination and violence -- deserve reparations as well. Democratic presidential candidates such as Julian Castro, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have endorsed the idea in principle, though the specifics are still hazy. Even conservative columnist David Brooks has joined the pro-reparations chorus.

Doubtless opponents of reparations will marshal their own arguments. They will ask, for example, why Americans whose ancestors played no direct role in slavery or Jim Crow -- especially Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans and others whose own ancestors suffered systematic persecution -- should be required to pay.

Such points can’t be dismissed, but I find the arguments in favor of reparations persuasive. General William T. Sherman, who liberated much of the American South, never delivered on his promise to give former slaves Southern land confiscated during the Civil War; reparations would, in a way, be a delayed fulfillment of that pledge.  No less important, it would provide an opportunity to publicly make amends for many decades of segregation and other racist policy, demonstrating to black Americans that the country is on their side, and to all Americans that their country is a moral one.

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