AFRICANGLOBE – Ta-Nehisi Coates made the case that America owes reparations to its Black community. But he purposely left out the details of what a reparations program might look like. We will now make a proposal, for your consideration.
Coates’ May essay in The Atlantic, a masterful blend of emotion and fact, focused on the hardest part of the reparations debate: convincing Americans that some sort of reparations are just, plausible, and necessary. That debate clearly is not won. But we want to leave that aside for a moment. Coates made the case better than we would, and besides, that god damn argument is a neverending nightmare. What we would like to do is to take a moment to think about the second, and equally important, part of the reparations issue: the substance of the reparations. If the United States did decide to have some sort of program of reparations focused on righting the wrongs of the past, what might that program look like?
First, though, let’s briefly examine the evidence of the damage that has been caused by America’s legacy of slavery, White supremacy and terrorism, and systematic discrimination against Black people. It is not necessary to restate that history. Let’s just focus on where it has gotten us today. On wealth, from The Atlantic:
The Pew Research Center estimates that White households are worth roughly 20 times as much as Black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of Whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of Blacks do.
And on income, as well:
The income gap between Black and White households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, studied children born from 1955 through 1970 and found that 4 percent of Whites and 62 percent of Blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed.
The latest census figures show that in 2013, the median Black household earned just under $35,000, while the median White household earned more than $58,000. The Black unemployment rate has been twice as high as the White unemployment rate for the past 50 years. These are not random economic fluctuations. When you enslave people, steal their labor, and then oppress them for countless generations afterwards, the economic effects persist.
When considering what sort of reparations are appropriate, it is important to keep in mind that the institution of slavery did not just set back Black people—it also greatly enriched White people. It is not just that when slavery ended, Black people were starting from farther behind—White people were starting from farther ahead, having reaped enormous profits for hundreds of years by stealing the fruits of Black people’s labor. If the public refuses to calculate the cost of slavery on human lives and souls, at least calculate this: money was stolen. Lots of it! Broadly speaking, White Americans today have benefited from a great infusion of wealth that slavery provided to their ancestors, and Black Americans have lost out on that wealth to at least the same degree (if not more, given the opportunity cost of all the wealth-building activities that slaves never got the chance to undertake).
Just how much of White America’s historic wealth was derived directly from the exploitation of Black people? In the 1820s, a full one-fifth of America’s wealth consisted of slaves. In the South, the effect was magnified. “In the seven cotton states, one-third of all White income was derived from slavery,” Coates writes. “By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports.” By 1860, just before the Civil war, “slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.”
As America was literally being built on the backs of Black labor, Black America was in effect going backwards, wealth-wise. The wealth that should have been theirs was taken by White people, and invested, and used to build other wealth-accruing assets and businesses. Even if Black people had been granted full legal and social equality at the end of the Civil War, they would have been starting out from a distinctly disadvantaged economic position. At that time, reparations probably would have seemed like a pretty common sense measure: “You stole our freedom and our labor from us for hundreds of years. Now we’re free. Pay us back.” Throw in another 100 years of legal discrimination and plenty of violence and implicit socioeconomic discrimination after that, and you’d think that reparations would seem like an even more common sense measure today.
Time, however, allows White America to elide individual responsibility for slavery’s repercussions. “I didn’t own slaves,” after all. (Repeat as needed, White Americans). Anyone looking at history in good faith, though, will acknowledge that collectively many White Americans have greatly benefited from the fortunes big and small built on slavery; and collectively many Black Americans are still lagging behind economically today as a result of past injustices that directly benefited many of their fellow citizens. It is possible to acknowledge this, and to acknowledge that direct “blame” is not a useful concept in this discussion, given the passage of time. Yes! It is possible! This issue is not about “blaming White people for slavery.” (Repeat as needed, White Americans). It is about trying to in some way make right a historic wrong that is still causing pain to people today.
So what do we do? Just write a check to every Black U.S. citizen? That approach, while direct, has obvious flaws: What about Black people who are already economically well off? What about poor White people—what do they get? And does cutting a check to a distant descendent of a slave really do anything meaningful to correct a flawed society? Also, is that even constitutional?
Any system of reparations that might have a glimmer of a chance of one day (a long time from now) becoming reality are going to need to be a lot more nuanced. Here is one reality about them: they cannot only go to Black people. It’s just a political—and probably legal—impossibility. There are too many White voters. Christ, even something as innocuous as food stamps is still, in 2014, a racist dog whistle mired in controversy; imagine the reaction to cutting strictly race-based checks. It will never happen. The only form that reparations could plausibly ever take is a huge, nationwide program designed to address the modern-day effects of slavery and discrimination—most importantly, poverty—without putting in place strict racial boundaries. [/sociallocker]