Are Reparations Still Relevant?


With the 2020 elections approaching, many topics that concern Americans have become a subject of debate between candidates competing for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Among these topics are gun control, healthcare, immigration, climate change, and – within the conversation of how these candidates plan on improving civil rights and race issues in America – the question of reparations. According to the New York Times, civil rights and race received the fifth highest amount of airtime during the Democratic debates, just behind discussions on the economy. It is clearly a pertinent issue for the American people, and the academic realm of research around reparations is expanding. However, although many people decide whether they are for or against reparations based on whether they think African Americans are affected by the products of slavery and institutional racism or not, few understand the depth of the complexities of the issue. These complexities may also be a reason why some candidates choose not to declare a position yet: according to Politico, nine candidates have not yet done so, including New York billionaire Tom Steyer. 

Reparations is a way to make economic amends for the injustices of slavery on African Americans, and the legal, institutional racism that followed it by giving the descendants of slaves a direct payment. There is no question that American wealth was built upon the backs of thousands of African slaves, and so it seems only fair to allow their descendants to have the opportunity to benefit from the wealth which would have never existed without them. Not only do the descendants of slaves not benefit from the wealth, they are consistently being placed at disadvantages due to institutional racism as well as individual racism by people who hold power at all levels, from police officers to the president. 

Although reparations have been coming back into the conversation in the last few decades, the topic was previously thoroughly ignored, beginning with Andrew Johnson’s presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln had attempted an idea similar to reparations after abolishing slavery in 1863 via the 1865 Special Field Orders No.15 commonly known as “Forty acres and a mule”, which would have granted each of the 40,000 freed slaves 40 acres of land and a mule. This policy, however, was not introduced solely with the intention of reparations, but also as an economic incentive, as it would have given freed black people the opportunity to enter the American economy through agriculture. This would have helped the economy with little cost, as they only had to give up 400,000 acres of land and 40,000 mules, which were in excess and unneeded by soldiers after the civil war. Be this as it may, the policy may have helped getting African American families and communities on their feet and able to become members of society if it had not been vetoed by Andrew Johnson the moment he took office. After the failure of this initial attempt, the idea of reparations began to lose its urgency and importance, particularly during the civil rights era where reparations were completely out of the question. 

Today, many voters who are against the idea of reparations believe that they are no longer relevant as slavery was abolished over a century and a half ago. However, this is an invalid argument because the burden that slavery and the institutional racism of the 20th century has consequences that are still very real in the 21st century. President Johnson inhibited reparations when it would have been most appropriate, which immediately put black people at a severe economic and social disadvantage, and so we can not accept the argument that now is too late, or not the right time. One of the most impactful ways that institutional racism still places African Americans at a major disadvantage is through housing and the lasting effects of redlining on wealth in major cities like Chicago. 

Housing discrimination is a product of the ‘Jim Crow Laws’ which enforced racial segregation, making it easy to target black populations as they lived in close communities together within the 20th century. As freed slaves migrated north in search of better jobs and housing, they were met with a surge of backlash and racism by white people afraid of their communities and neighbourhoods being tainted or taken away by their presence. In many cases, aggressive mobs asserted violence and hate against black families by throwing bombs into their windows and attacking them in the streets. For African Americans who had already lived inside neighbourhoods that were not within the redline boundaries, homeowners were forced to sign restrictive covenants to ensure that their houses would not be inherited by family members, thereby limiting the presence of black people in neighbourhoods where they were not welcome. As populations grew, redlining also restricted housing opportunities as they were not allowed to expand beyond the boundaries of the ghetto. The only possible way for African Americans to own a home in Chicago was through a contract disguised as mortgages which were designed to remove the buyers investment if missing or postponing as little as one payment. These mortgages only existed within the redline boundaries, so they only applied to black people, and the conventional mortgage loans would have been available only within white neighbourhoods. Stripping these families of the opportunity to accumulate wealth has added up to an estimated $4 billion taken from black families, according to a study from Duke’s Samuel DuBois Center on Social Equity.

Real estate is one of the prime ways families can accumulate and inherit wealth. A Harvard paper within the ‘Joint Center for Housing Studies’ states that “over the past 50 years, housing expenditures have accounted for more than one fifth of the nations GDP.” This is why removing the opportunity to invest in housing is so impactful for the accumulation of wealth, which is also a reason why the 2007-08 housing market crash was so devastating on a global level. Predatory housing contracts have contributed to the median white household being ten times wealthier than the median black household, according to the Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

This is only one way in which African Americans are affected by systemic racism over time. Racist housing policies, along with other ways that have caused disparities in wealth, like a higher likelihood to be arrested and have more severe prison sentences and workplace and educational discrimination, accumulate to make it extremely difficult to rise from poverty. With all the odds against them, many descendants of slaves would benefit from reparations in a way that could help start leveling the playing field. However, there are several pressing questions regarding the execution of a reparations plan that do not have concrete answers, and are unlikely to be answered in a way that satisfies everyone involved. 

 

  • Who should be paid? 
    • Should the reparations plan include wealthy descendants of slaves? 
    • 2nd generation Africans who live in African American communities and face discrimination but are not direct descendants? 
    • ‘Lightskin’ descendants of slaves who do not appear black and therefore don’t necessarily face the same day-to-day discrimination?

 

  • Where should the money come from?
    • Should we reallocate taxpayer money, or increase taxes in general? 
    • How can taxpayer money be used when 80% of white American taxpayers oppose reparations?
    • Should black taxpayers also have to pay the portion of taxes that they would eventually receive as reparations?

 

  • How much should they be paid? 
    • How do you place a numerical value on the suffering of so many African Americans as a result of slavery and all of the racism that succeeded it to date?
    • Would the money remove the incentive to work hard in the ‘merit-based’ society Americans value so much? 
    • Would the money increase federal debt to a level that would be detrimental to all Americans in the long-term? 
    • Should the money be given over a period of time, or all at once?

 

Two things are clear: reparations are necessary for both symbolic and financial progress within the context of civil rights and race, and executing them  seems impossibly complex. The questions listed above are the reasons why it is so difficult to implement reparations, and why some candidates are weary of supporting them as a cause and thereby make a promise that seems almost impossible to keep. These are the practical complexities that led Barack Obama to consider reparations as more of a naïve political ideal than a realistic goal, and therefore focused more broadly on anti-poverty programs and an incremental approach to improvement. This approach is similar to 2020 candidate Bernie Sanders, who believes that progress toward racial justice should be incremental and “there are better ways to do that than writing out a check”. Nevertheless, although he opposed reparations in 2016, he decided to sign and co-sponsor candidate Cory Booker’s reparations legislation. 

Booker is one of the strongest supporters of reparations among the 2020 presidential candidates, as he has already introduced a senate bill called “H.R. 40 Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act” which would analyze the impact of slavery on African Americans, as the first step towards addressing some of the questions above. Booker argues that systemic racism “is a cancer on the soul of our country and hurts the whole body politic […] making us all fall far short from being who we say we are when we swear an oath that this will be a nation of liberty and justice for all”, and that these injustices must therefore be urgently addressed. 

Although reparations appears to be an impossible challenge, they should not be immediately dismissed for purely pragmatic reasons. So far, there has not been a real effort to address racial disparities through reparations, as think-tanks and most policy makers have not taken the idea seriously. However, other seemingly radical ideas involving social justice like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All also received similar dismissal before gaining support by the population and activists to push for change. Reparations should be given serious consideration. Although incremental progress toward social justice in general is important, racism in the US needs to be more directly and radically addressed to achieve real change. The first step should be to understand the effects that slavery and institutionalized racism has on wealth, healthcare, job access, housing, education and criminal justice. This can be achieved by supporting Booker’s reparations bill, and giving reparations a chance. According to another 2020 presidential candidate in favour of reparations, Marianne Williamson, “you can’t have the future you want until you’re willing to clean up the past”.