Black Reparations: A Misguided Missile Aimed at the Wrong Target
Reparation payments to Blacks are much in the news, and the debate is only now beginning. In Washington, the House Judiciary Committee has approved a leadership-supported bill ― H.R. 40, so named to commemorate the “40 acres and a mule” once promised to liberated slaves ― that would establish a commission to gather views and perhaps make recommendations. New York City has established a Racial Justice Commission replete with reparations advocates to consider the issue. Evanston, Illinois, has just enacted a program to pay its Black residents reparations in the form of housing subsidies.
On campus, reparations is an inviting topic for live classroom and collegewide debate, especially as the pandemic recedes and students physically return to campus after a long siege of mind-numbing Zoom courses. Reparations is a plausible policy idea; a 1988 federal law authorized payments to the formerly interned Japanese-Americans. It has deeply resonant moral overtones, addressing what is widely acknowledged as our most shameful national crime. It connects to any number of topics taught in standard college courses such as history, government, Black studies, economics, ethics, and others. And it is guaranteed to be intensely controversial, galvanizing student activists and attracting large audiences and media attention by bringing eloquent and passionate nationally renowned speakers to campus.
Will these discussions of reparations in classrooms, dormitories, and other campus forums be marked by respectful, reasoned, open-minded, evidence-based exchanges that advance participants’ understanding of the various aspects of the issue? One ardently hopes so, but there are good reasons to worry that these events will degenerate into the kinds of divisive, name-calling, simplistic exchanges that have marred the treatment of so many other issues on campus ― and in the country at large ― in recent years. Precisely because reparations are so morally inflected and definitionally connected to the hot-button issue of American racism past and present, the subject lends itself to harsh jeremiads and accusations, unequivocal judgments of right and wrong, and other features that make cool analyses and nuanced assessments yet another cause for anger and suspicion.
Those who acknowledge the heinous, depraved, centuries-long nature of the crime of slavery but oppose meaningful punishment for it today are easy targets for those who favor palpable retribution in the form of money payments from those who arguably still profit from that crime. Those (like the author) who point to the practical impediments and potential injustices that a reparations scheme would entail are easily depicted as amoral, nit-picking, casuistic hypocrites. Reparations advocates can further twist the moral-historical knife by claiming that many of today’s social ills directly descend from slavery conditions. This claim, while surely true to some extent, still raises its own set of moral, empirical, and practical questions. Some should be readily answerable with the help of historians ― although even there the war over the 1619 Project suggests otherwise. The most important questions, however, are not. Indeed, many are unanswerable, so it is all the more tempting to assert them without fear of refutation.
In the hope that the merits of reparations can be debated rationally, here is this self-styled militant moderate’s take on it.
Race-defined reparations is a bad idea. Americans do subscribe to an ethic of corrective justice, recognizing a moral and legal duty to remedy losses and surrender gains caused by wrongful conduct. This ethical principle, however, would justify reparations only to direct descendants of slaves, not descendants of the many free Blacks (nearly 500,000 in 1860) or the over 10% of Blacks in the U.S. today who are foreign-born. Indeed, with growing intermarriage, even “Black” is hard to define unless we resort to racist schemes like the odious “one-drop rule” of slavery and Jim Crow days. Eight generations after emancipation, today’s Blacks would have to prove their entitlements. To be meaningful, the reparations amount must be substantial ― or risk adding insult to injury. Indeed, many Blacks will argue that any amount is inadequate to expiate the crime of slavery, which is true.
And who should pay for reparations ― descendants of slave owners or all taxpayers? If the latter (most likely as a practical matter), most of the cost would be borne by non-Blacks who had nothing to do with the crime, including descendants of immigrants who weren’t even in the U.S. then and many of whom have suffered their own severe mistreatment here. But also perversely, taxpayers would necessarily include Black descendants of slaves unless they can somehow be identified and exempted ― yet efforts to do so would raise many of the same definitional problems plus some others. All the bureaucratic line-drawing necessary to assure the moral, functional, and political integrity of reparations will raise objections reminiscent of those leveled at antipoverty programs today. In both cases, the techniques and data needed to assure program integrity ― definitions, exclusions, procedures, methodologies, regulations, sanctions, and litigation ― will often seem to bleach the morality out of a redistributive scheme aimed at doing justice.
Speaking of litigation, any Black reparations program ― even a housing subsidies one like Evanston’s ― will be immediately challenged in court as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Although I personally believe that the clause’s framers did indeed envision reparations-type preferences for the newly freed slaves under the Freedmen’s Bureau Acts of 1865 and 1866, the Supreme Court has long taken a different view; it upholds race-specific programs only under narrow (and in my view, dubious) rationales like campus diversity that wouldn’t apply here. Upper-middle-class Evanston hopes to finesse this by calling its new program “housing subsidies,” but to the extent that it limits recipients to Blacks, it will face the same constitutional challenge ― especially in the current Supreme Court.
At a time when Americans are more sharply divided and mutually suspicious than any time in recent memory, reparations just for Blacks would surely exacerbate our sociopolitical divisions by stoking intergroup competition over comparative victimhood. Is slavery the greatest injustice in American history? I think so, but I would not expect Native Americans whose ancestors were systematically exterminated by the U.S. Army to readily concede the point. Were the Chinese coolies of the late 19th century more harshly treated or less deserving of reparations than the Japanese internees in World War II who recently received them? In many states, the ancestors of both groups were legally barred from owning farmland, marrying whites, or entering professions. What about the Irish immigrants forced by ruthless discrimination to live in urban squalor arguably as degraded as some slave quarters? Should we see their relative whiteness as an emblem of privilege that justifies no further recompense for their long sufferings? Even among Blacks, divisions exist over many issues. Black Lives Matter is a compelling slogan and some 85% of Blacks say that they support it, but many Blacks oppose some of its policy goals (e.g., defunding police in crime-ridden Black neighborhoods; or its founders’ emphasis on transgressive sexual practices and skepticism about traditional family structures).
Previous ethnic compensation programs are not comparable. The Japanese internees who received reparations were a relatively small, easily identifiable group (many of whom are still alive) who had been harmed in a specific way by a discrete event limited in time and space. None of the instrumentalist objections discussed above apply to this group: The beneficiaries were the surviving victims themselves, not innumerable, far-flung, anonymous descendants many generations removed from us.
Reparations are more likely to aggravate Black resentment than to assuage it, making reconciliation even harder. The path to greater equality and the American Dream runs through stronger families, safer communities, better education, and decent jobs for all Americans ― not through a government reparations check mailed to an amorphous group. How to define and achieve justice for Blacks and other disadvantaged Americans are questions that desperately need debating in Congress, on campuses, online, in religious congregations, on the streets, and in the countless other venues where Americans struggle to make up our minds. We must hope that these debates are not hijacked by the ideological rabble-rousers and ideologues of left and right in our midst.
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