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Can we talk about reparations?

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The formal definition of reparations is “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” Perhaps the most famous historical example of reparations were those levied upon defeated Germany after World War I. In today’s U.S., the issue of reparations has arisen in conjunction with proposals to pay Black Americans in order to compensate them for the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow.

Even when I was young, some Black scholars and politicians were talking about reparations, but the idea went nowhere until recently, what with Black Lives Matter and related incidents. The matter really picked up steam on April 13, when the House Judiciary Committee approved, on a 25-17 partisan vote, legislation to create “a commission to examine slavery…in the United States from 1619 to the present” and to “recommend ways to educate Americans about its findings and appropriate remedies, including how the government would offer a formal apology and what form of compensation should be awarded.” The bill now goes to the full House of Representatives, where it may well pass, although its chances of surviving the U.S. Senate, I think, are slim. Either way, the issue of reparations is going to be front-and-center in American politics and in the news for some time to come.

A strong majority of Americans opposes paying reparations to Black people, with 63% saying the government should not. If you break those figures down, you arrive at some of the bedrock fissures in American life today. More than 80% of Black people themselves favor reparations, while three-quarters of White people oppose it. A slight majority of Latinx Americans are opposed, while opposition among Republicans is predictably the highest of all: 93% are against reparations. Significantly, so are 67% of independents.

When I think about reparations, it’s in intellectual terms. I ask what their justification is, since no living Black American has ever been a slave, and no living White American has ever been a slaveholder. This raises the question of whether or not there should be a statute of limitations on such things. As a Jew, I could, I suppose, make the argument that Egypt owes reparations to all living Jews for having enslaved our ancestors 3,500 years ago. Such a suggestion would be widely ridiculed. But U.S. slavery ended only 156 years ago, in 1865. Perhaps that is within the statute of limitations?

Then there are the questions of what form reparations would take, and who would get them, and how. I always imagined that reparations would mean sending Black people a check, the way the government sent most of us stimulus checks during the pandemic. A friend of mine, a Black activist here in Oakland, has a different idea. He proposes a 30-year tax holiday for Black Americans: no state or federal income taxes, and no tuition for higher education. I have a problem with that. Oprah Winfrey, Steph Curry and Kanye West are super-wealthy Blacks. Do they really need to be exempt from taxes? Besides, how would you determine who’s “Black”? If I claim I’m one-eighth Black on my mother’s side, will the government then have to give me a DNA test? Do we really want government to literally get into our bodies?

A further concern about reparations is that such a law would have to guarantee some form of measurement to see if it was really working. For instance, in my friend’s 30-year tax scheme, perhaps a commission could examine its effects every, say, three years, to see if the expenditure was worth continuing. And it’s not apparent that investing all that money into the Black community would necessarily have the desired effect. The Cato Institute estimates that since Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 declaration of a “war on poverty” that chiefly targeted Black Americans, this country has spent more than $23 trillion (with a “t”) on efforts to fight poverty. No one would doubt that because of that, and other factors, a thriving Black middle class now exists. But Black people still experience poverty at a rate nearly three times that of White people, which suggests that monetary spending by government can be only part of the solution. What the other parts are, is something we can have a conversation about, but conversations limited to the issue of reparations are unable to consider these other factors.

A final concern of mine about reparations is the resentment it would provoke among the 63% of all Americans opposed to them. One of the causes of World War II, the most destructive event in human history, was the resentment felt by the German people at the reparations imposed upon them by the Versailles Treaty (as well as other aspects of the Treaty they felt were unjust). Regardless of whether the German people were right or wrong to feel such resentment, they did; and the result was the war, with the accompanying deaths of 75 million people and the virtual destruction of Europe. That was a high price to pay, even if you agree that Germany did start World War I and was morally and legally obligated to pay reparations. With our own country standing on the brink of who knows what—red states vs. blue states, brother against brother, everyone armed to the teeth—can the U.S. really withstand the imposition of reparations when so many people are so passionately opposed?

Still, I do support the House Judiciary Committee’s recommendation to create a commission to study slavery and its impact. Such commissions can only do good: we had one after JFK’s assassination and again after Sept. 11, and they contributed to the historical understanding in invaluable ways (which is why I also support a commission to examine the Jan. 6, 2021 Insurrection, something Republicans oppose because their leader instigated it). It would be a good thing to remind Americans that slavery did exist, that it took a horrible toll, that in fact America’s founding rested upon slavery: the Constitution’s infamous “Three-fifths compromise” declared that only 60% of slaves could be counted in apportioning the House of Representatives. It would also be a good thing to explain Jim Crow to the American people, who possess an innate sense of fairness, when they’re given the opportunity to think about such things.

But reparations? At this point, it’s going to take a lot more ‘splainin’ to get me to agree.

  1. Jack saunders says:

    Convincing arguments. If we owe Black people money, what do we owe women? Just 100 years ago, they were bound to do as their husbands decided — clearly actionable in a class action suit today.68N4

  2. Steve, I broadly agree with the above. Cash payments (in one or another form) are both impractical and, frankly, the easy way out. I think that greatest reparations would require much harder work from the nation as a whole. Yes, the commission is a good idea for the reasons you say – drawing attention and establishing a strong historic record. But the really meaningful, effective steps would be resolving current inequities in matters of justice and other areas.

  3. Easier said than done. Even if there is widespread agreement on the “inequities,” “resolving” them is another thing. There is no consensus on how to do it. It’s for politics, and politics alone, to figure out.

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