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Reparations, Round Two


On Wednesday I wrote a brief blog post in which I said that it was racist to oppose reparations for Black people, and that it was also racist to do nothing to actively support them. My point is correct, but was mostly derivative, at least within that context–I was essentially just directing people to an article by Ibram Kendi that more expansively and eloquently made the case.

In any event, a lot of people hated it. I continued to read the comments but stopped replying to them individually, figuring it a better use of my time to just assess the main complaints and offer a concentrated response. So here it is.

The pushback to the driving thesis–“opposing or not supporting reparations is racist”–seemed mainly to fall into three categories. Pithily broken down:

“You saying that me not supporting reparations is racist makes me feel uncomfortable and bad.”

Good. That doesn’t make it incorrect.

There are functionally two ways of existing in a society that is organized around racialized inequality. You either abide the status quo or you oppose it; as Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” A key part of what Kendi has tried to emphasize in his writings on antiracism is that being “nonracist” just isn’t a thing:

[T]here is no such thing as a nonracist, but there is such a thing as an antiracist. Nonracists, historically, are people who defend policies that create racial inequity and express ideas of racial hierarchy. When those policies and ideas are challenged as racist, their response is, “I’m not racist.” An antiracist is someone who deliberately is confessing the racist ideas that have been nurtured within them while trying to be better, trying to be different, and trying to support policies that create equity.

You either commit yourself to trying to be antiracist or you don’t. Whichever you choose is up to you, but you don’t get to be dishonest in how you frame your choice. Saying that reparations are not worth pursuing, or just simply doing nothing about them, is an implicit defense of the policies and systems that have created present-day racial inequalities and made reparations necessary in the first place. What else could it possibly be? That this is somehow difficult for a lot of people to grasp is not so much strange as it is whiteness in action.

“This type of blog post/article/accusation is just going to drive away allies and get Republicans re-elected.”

This is a profoundly uninteresting and intellectually impoverished political thought. Intentionally or not, it’s a dodge of the actual matter at hand, but let me just assure you that me telling you it’s racist to oppose reparations is not going to somehow cause an albino unicorn undecided voter to vote Republican. This is especially the case when a large majority of white Democrats also oppose reparations and when half of the Democratic presidential field either openly opposes reparations (Biden), is openly skeptical about them (Sanders), or is purposefully silent on the issue.

“I support reparations in theory but am confused as to how they’d work in practice.”

Finally. Thank you for being here! This is a perfectly valid place to have landed intellectually, and to be honest, I don’t know that anyone has fully figured this out yet. I sure haven’t. There are, however, numerous smart people who are doing the figuring-out work.

Rather than summarize their labor for you, let me just offer a couple of links.

First, Duke economist Sandy Darity is probably the best-known articulator of what a reparations agenda might look like. In this piece, he and his partner A. Kirsten Mullen lay out that agenda in brief:

A comprehensive reparations program must set as a primary objective the elimination of the racial wealth divide, which is a product of unjust differences in the capacity of blacks and whites to transfer resources across generations. The inequity began with the failure of the U.S. government to provide the formerly enslaved with the 40-acre land grants they had been promised at the close of the Civil War. It was extended by the provision of substantial land grants to newly arrived white immigrants in the late 19th century under the Homestead Acts and sustained by the destruction of black lives and accumulated property through a wave of dozens of massacres and terror campaigns stretching from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Chicago to Detroit between 1870 and 1945. The inequity was further perpetuated by national policies that sanctioned restrictive covenants, redlined predominantly black neighborhoods and gave whites disproportionate access to the benefits of the GI Bill.

Closing the racial wealth gulf will require overcoming the effects of this grim historical trajectory. A program of black reparations should move the share of wealth owned by blacks at least to 12 to 13 percent, corresponding to the black proportion of America’s citizenry. To put it another way, a program of black reparations should raise the average black household’s net worth by $800,000 to put it on par with the average white household.

Setting the size of the reparations fund can begin with a calculation of today’s value of those long-ago promised 40 acres. The most conservative estimate of the total amount of land that should have been allocated to the 4 million freedmen is 40 million acres. The present value of an overall land grant of that size is approximately $1.5 to $2 trillion. If there are about 35 million black Americans who would be eligible for reparations, this minimum (or baseline) estimate would amount to $40,000 to $60,000 per person.

The fund can be mobilized in a variety of ways. It could include opportunities for eligible recipients to apply for awards to support asset-building activities, including homeownership or business development. Some portion of the fund could be devoted to community or institution-based purposes, for example, support for historically black colleges and universities. But an essential component of a reparations program, for both substantive and symbolic reasons, must include a significant direct payout to eligible recipients.

Past instances of reparations — American restitution to Japanese Americans for unjust incarceration during World War II and German restitution to victims of the Holocaust, among them — have entailed direct payments to the beneficiaries. Why should reparations for black American descendants of slavery be treated any differently?

Indeed, black reparations should target specifically black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. This targeting can be achieved by utilizing the following two criteria for eligibility for receipt of restitution: 1) an individual must demonstrate that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States, and 2) an individual must demonstrate that for at least 10 years before the enactment of a reparations program or a study commission of the type designated in H.R. 40, whichever comes first, they self-identified as black, Negro, or African American. These criteria embody a lineage/genealogical standard and a self-classification standard. They do not impel skin shade or DNA tests.

These criteria do omit blacks whose families migrated to the United States after slavery ended. The post-slavery immigrants are distinguished from black American descendants of slavery in at least two ways: their families migrated here voluntarily rather than via forced migration and, unlike those persons formerly enslaved in the United States who were promised the 40 acres (or at least 40 million acres of land to all 4 million of the freedmen), more recent black immigrants do not have a claim on the federal government for the unmet promise.

Certainly, black people throughout the diaspora all have legitimate potential claims for reparations, but they not all have a legitimate potential claim on the United States government. So, for example, Jamaican blacks have a claim that should be directed against the United Kingdom, Haitian blacks have a claim that should be directed against France, and Surinamese blacks have a claim that should be directed against the Netherlands. Black American descendants of slavery have a claim that must be directed against the United States.

There are other groups whose grievances may warrant redress from the federal government. But they should make their own unique case, not collapse it into the native black American claim for full citizenship and justice. Indeed, there seems to be an inconsistency between the attitude taken toward other claims for reparations and the black American claim. For example, no one proposed that any other group claim for reparations should ride piggy back on the Japanese American claim for restitution for unjust incarceration during World War II. But, oddly, the claims or possible claims of others somehow are attached to or are invoked as an objection to native black American reparations.

Monetary restitution has been a centerpiece of virtually all other cases of reparations, both at home and abroad. While some commentators are concerned that money is “not enough,” money is precisely what is required to eliminate the most glaring indicator of racial injustice, the racial wealth divide. Respect for black American citizenship will be signaled by monetary compensation. Payment of the debt is, as Charles Henry puts it, “long overdue.” H.R. 40 provides an opportunity to begin the process of fulfilling the long-standing national obligation.

(If you are interested in a more clinical and expansive approach to the question, here is one of Darity’s numerous scholarly articles on this subject.)

Do I find this wholly sufficient? Not really, given the ways that anti-Blackness in this country in the years since 1865 have exposed immigrants of African descent to many though not all of the same predatory, exclusionary, and extractive mechanisms of capitalism as African-Americans. Still, it’s a concrete agenda that at least can serve as a working draft.

As to where the money might come from, in this recent radio debate with reparations opponent Adolph Reed, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes that it must come in part from the federal government, which was complicit in slavery and has been complicit in all sorts of predatory and extractive racialized policies up to the here and now. She also advocates for a second funding source, however, that being the numerous American corporations that originated prior to 1865 and built their billions in partial or wholesale connection to the institution of slavery. (That part of the exchange begins around the 17:30 mark.)

Taylor, who is a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders, also notes in the interview that Sanders is wrong about the “rising tide lifting all boats” theory of a class-based and fully race-neutral approach to economic redress as a substitute for reparations. Taylor is one of the best political thinkers in my orbit and the public domain, and I encourage you to listen to this debate. It basically amounts to her repeatedly making focused and compelling cases for pursuing a reparations agenda, and Adolph Reed complaining that it just seems like it would be too hard to do.

(For the interested, Taylor has elsewhere written about the benefits of a reparations project, less from an immediate material perspective and more in terms of the benefits it would offer to the nation as a whole–namely that it would require the sort of confrontation with history that could better the health of our society.)

Finally, while it does not offer a roadmap to reparations, this piece from historian Andrew Kahrl yesterday is worth a read–especially but not only if you’re still stuck in the “well that was all 150 years ago” falsehood of reparations. Rather than focusing on the proverbial 40 acres and a mule that was promised but never given, Kahrl documents the theft of 11 million acres of land that Black people had and then had stolen through a range of predatory practices–much of it in the past 50 years.

In sum, we can and must continue to explore how to make reparations happen. But to not support reparations is to refuse to confront historic and ongoing racism. And if you refuse to confront historic and ongoing racism, you are abetting racism and thus complicit in it.

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