What’s the Best Way to Give Reparations?
In2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a historic essay in The Atlanticmaking, as the headline of the piece suggests, the case for reparations. Coates was clear in his conviction that reparations have not been paid to African Americans because of a function of the country’s lingering racism — a bigotry that was often masked in claims of impracticality. “Broach the topic of reparations today,” Coates wrote, “and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay?”
Coates’ piece, which went on to win the George Polk Award for commentary, acted as a cultural catalyst, spurring rigorous debate around the subject. That discussion has finally crossed over into the mainstream political realm. Earlier this month, Senator Cory Booker, one of the Democratic party’s presidential hopefuls, introduced a companion bill to H.R. 40 on the Senate floor that calls for a commission to research and create reparation proposals. The legislation has earned the support of most other Democratic candidates in the 2020 field. Meanwhile, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro have all voiced their outright support for reparations. (That’s not to say reparations are a widely accepted proposition: According to a 2018 poll from the left-leaning Data for Progress, just 26% of Americans supported some form of compensation for the descendants of slaves.)
An actual reparations program is still a long way off. Even if Democrats were to win the White House, hold the House, and take back the Senate in 2020, Booker’s bill proposes only a study on the topic; an actual program would require further, no doubt highly controversial, legislation. But pretend for a moment that Booker’s bill passes and reparations become a subject of government-sanctioned study: What could — and should — such a program look like?
Before we can evaluate potential models for reparations, we need to establish the goals of such a policy. William “Sandy” Darity, a professor of Public Policy at Duke University and one of the foremost experts on reparations, argues that a comprehensive reparations program must include three elements: acknowledgement, restitution, and closure.
“The commission must establish an accurate memory of the pattern of racial injustice dating from slavery,” Darity says. “The historical effects have had a cumulative consequence, and that really needs to be part of our national understanding.”
For many reparations advocates, direct financial compensation still needs to be central to any package.
Given that so many modern companies have benefited financially from the country’s ugly racial history, any sort of national reckoning should extend to the private sector as well. “In the legal world, we talk about unjust enrichment: to what degree was your current level of wealth unjustly gained,” says Mehrsa Bardaran, a law professor at the University of Georgia and the author of The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. “Now, companies can hide behind the argument that it was legal at the time, but we can still measure, for example, how much Coke made from convict leasing, or how much SunTrust made from mortgages that were redlined.”
The researchers I spoke with all agree that an effective reparations program must target the economic disparity that is perhaps the most representative of the collective damage inflicted upon black Americans: the racial wealth gap.
“The racial wealth gap is an easy way to quantify the economic cost because it factors in employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and a lack of access to labor protections — all of those things that target our pocketbooks,” says Angela Hanks, the director of the Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive nongovernmental organization. “If you’re trying to get to a dollar amount, it’s the best metric.”
Inthe past, reparations have usually taken the form of government-issued payments to marginalized communities. In 1988, for example, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which providedfinancial compensation and a formal apology to Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II. In 2013, the state of North Carolina established a reparations fund for victims of its forced sterilization program.
But policy experts believe that, in this case, a direct financial payout can’t be the sole solution; any sort of program needs to be multifaceted in its approach. “The damage was done on all fronts, so you’ve got to tackle housing, you have to build wealth in these communities,” says Bardaran. “Look at the New Deal as an example: It restructured the economy on all fronts.”
To that end, an influential paper, published in 2005, might offer a path forward. In their research, political scientists Darity and Daria Frank proposed offering reparations through a trust fund for asset-building ventures such as homes and businesses, in-kind reparations in the form of scholarships, health insurance, or financial vouchers. Other promising ideas have sprung up since then. Just this month, a report released by the Institute for Policy Studies includes a number of proposals meant to close the racial wealth gap. Among them: guaranteed employment, an increase to the minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, and baby bonds (that is, savings accounts issued to all newborns that would accrue tens of thousands of dollars).
Yet, for many reparations advocates, direct financial compensation still needs to be central to any package.
“What is there about the recognition of a justice claim among black Americans that leads people to complain about what folks will do with the money?”
Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive grassroots organizing network, argues that reparations proposals that don’t include direct financial compensation are both paternalistic and misunderstand the concept of restitution in the American legal system.
“Their ability to decide how they want to invest in their lives and be repaid for this harm shouldn’t rest in a body that doesn’t represent their community,” she says.
Still, direct payments are likely to be particularly controversial: Even politicians who have expressed support for reparations have dodged or declined to give details about whether their support extends to direct financial compensation. It’s not a stretch to suggest that that hesitation is, in some cases, a direct result of racist thinking — namely, that black Americans, unlike, say, Japanese Americans, can’t be trusted to spend their restitution wisely. “What is there about the recognition of a justice claim among black Americans that leads people to complain about what folks will do with the money when they don’t complain it about in other cases of reparations?” Darity asks. “Nobody asked the Japanese Americans what they were going to do with their $20,000.”
A sizable body of research, however, demonstrates that, for black Americans, a career, an education, even a decent income, is no guarantee of wealth. A 2018 report found that the median net worth of black households with a college degree ($70,219) was less than the median net worth of white households in which the head of household had not even completed high school ($82,968). Black Americans also face higher unemployment rates at every education level.
“What I’ve learned from studying this is that, with education and job training, there’s not a silver bullet or an equalizer,” says Hanks, the workforce policy expert. “There are benefits to training and higher education, but these things don’t close income gaps. They don’t close employment gaps, and they don’t close the wealth gap.”
Whatever the case may be, one thing’s for sure: We’ll never know if we don’t try.
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