The VPR’s guide to the reparations debate

Friday, September 6, 2019
VPR The Vassar Political Review

The VPR’s guide to the reparations debate


Most people, on both sides of the reparations debate, believed it would never happen. It would cost too much for any real politician to be on board, they thought. However, most of the top-tier Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have expressed some level of support for reparations to African-American descendants of slavery in America. Even more surprising, the sentiment has almost become a litmus test to secure the Democratic black vote. Every candidate who has appeared at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, The Root, and The Breakfast Club has been asked whether they would support reparations. While some candidates, have spoken about the need to “look into reparations,” others have made detailed policy proposals about cash payments to black Americans. 

The wide array of proposals has made it clear that, as popular as the idea has become, there is still wide disagreement about what “reparations” even means. And even though most Democratic candidates say they would support the program in principle, it’s still unknown how hard reality will hit.

What are reparations?

After the end of the American Civil War, discussion of reparations began with the 1865 Special Field Orders No. 15, also known as “40 acres and a mule.” The order would have confiscated 400,000 acres of land along the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to be distributed in areas of no more than 40 acres to formerly enslaved families living in the area. The understanding was that ending slavery was not enough; that the wounds of slavery, like any other crime, needed to be healed by the hands of justice, and that a lifetime of disenfranchisement could only be corrected by the restoration of opportunities lost. The order, however, was reversed by President Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination and never reinstituted.

Despite Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s (D-MI) introduction of H.R. 40 (aka. The Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act) at every Congress since 1989, the US government has not seriously considered the idea of reparations since. H.R. 40 would “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”

However, the idea has never left the national conversation. Randall Robinson’s 2001 best-seller The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks helped to bring the issue of reparations back to national attention, enlivening debates throughout the media. However, the conversation could never overcome the clear obstacle of cost. In 1993, a Harper’s magazine article “put the reparations total at $97 trillion, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, ‘compounded at 6% interest through 1993.’” More recent estimates–from $6.4 trillion to $14 trillion–although smaller, are still daunting. Invariably, the conversation soon died out.

However, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ popular 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” found a way to overcome the obstacle of cost. Coates recentered reparations around the second half of H.R. 40’s purpose: to remedy “de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans” such as redlining and exclusionary government programs that have helped create a huge racial wealth gap. The subsequent rise of Black Lives Matter in 2016, including reparations in its policy platform, gave the issue even more momentum. 

The newfound popularity of reparations is surprising, especially because of how much it breaks from any serious Democratic platforms of the past. However, many of the candidates who expressed support for reparations, to the dismay of many, seem to care more about passing the litmus test rather than about substantive policy. Others have introduced substantive but race-blind wealth-focused policies, such as “baby bonds,” proposed by Duke economist William Darity and economist Darrick Hamilton at The New School, that many–including Darity and Hamilton themselves–believe do not actually constitute reparations per se. 

What are “baby bonds”?

Darity has called baby bonds “an anti-inequality measure designed to address the wealth gap.” As he described it, 

“This program would create public trust funds for all newborn infants that they could access when they reach eighteen. It’s simply universalizing the model that wealthy families already use–giving kids a trust that they can access at a certain age. The amount of the trust would be graduated based on the wealth position of the parents. And this would be a universal program–meaning that every child, regardless of how wealthy their parents are, would receive something–but those kids whose parents have less wealth would have greater amounts in their trusts.”

For example, Bill Gates’ child would get $50 in their trust, while a child born to parents who rent their home and have only $100 in their bank account would get $50,000 in their trust. The amount would be based on the wealth–and not income–position of the parents. This is because Hamilton and Darity’s work has shown that a family’s income can put them in the middle class without them actually ever building very much wealth. Darity has estimated the total cost of the policy from $60 to $100 billion per year but says that because the trusts don’t pay out until the child turns 18, it will actually cost the government less per year.

There are, of course, logistical obstacles baby bonds would face: families in need would surely take the money from the child when the trust pays out and use it for more immediate needs or for the child’s higher education rather than saving it for inheritance. And legal loopholes would likely arise that allow families to pull the money out of the trust earlier. At that point, baby bonds become child subsidies–which can’t possibly build the wealth Hamilton and Darity were hoping for–and then the question becomes, why not just increase child subsidies?

However, Booker is the only candidate so far to propose baby bonds. 


Read the full article here .