The complex issue of racial reparations

October 22, 2022 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE:  Reader Daniel sent me this link to a half-hour video of Christopher Hitchens and Glenn Loury on the question of reparations.  Hitchens is in favor of them, Loury opposed. The debate took place in 2001.

One of the big issues in the antiracist debate is the question of reparations, or restorative justice through dispensing money, good, or advantages like mortgage help.  This is motivated by trying to make up for the evils of slavery and the subsequent bad treatment of minorities, especially blacks, by making accommodations, though payments or otherwise, to the descendants of those who still feel the aftereffects of slavery and find their opportunities limited.  And there’s no doubt that the historical legacy of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow racism still lingers on, narrowing the opportunities for many black people.

Perhaps the most eloquent—and certainly the most famous—argument for reparations was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, an essay called “The Case for Reparations” (free read). It’s a must-read for those who want to think about this issue.  Those who haven’t read it often think Coates was calling simply for direct payment to blacks, but that’s not all of what he wanted, although it seems to be part o it.  He did assert that affirmative action wasn’t sufficient. We had to undergo a fundamental transformation of society and of the minds of white people, Coates argued:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

. . . . What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

. . . Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. “The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,” Clyde Ross told me. “It’s because of then.”

And yes, he did think that some kind of monetary payments might be part of the package.

. . . Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

I do think Coates has a point, though I don’t think direct payments are the way to go. The objections are familiar:  Why do I (a Jew whose ancestors came to the U.S. well after slavery) need to balance the ledger? Many white people had nothing to do with oppressing blacks, so why do they need to bear the burden? To that I say, “We all bear a societal responsibility to the marginalized.” After all, I pay taxes for schooling young Americans, though I have no kids. I do so willingly, for that furthers the good of America as a whole.  Others bring up more vexing questions.  Who will get the payments? What about black immigrants to America, or people not descended from slaves? Will those of partial black ancestry get partial payments? Most important, is the direct-payment form of reparations going to solve the problem of inequality? I don’t think so—any more than winning the lottery makes people happy (it often doesn’t).  Surely it would be better to spend the money eliminating the societal barriers that prevent blacks from having equal opportunity to success.  Note, however, that the debate that Coates wants has already started: it’s the discussion about “racial reckoning” we’re having now.

An alternative, one to which I subscribe, is outlined in this article on NPR (which means it’s passed the progressive “sniff test”). Click to read (you can also listen):

The man with the ideas is Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton professor of American Studies at Columbia University and president of the Teagle Foundation. In an interview on the NPR All Things Considered show, Delbanco laid out his program, outlined more fully in the National Endowment for the Humanities’ annual Jefferson Lecture, held just this month.

Here are some excerpts; you can hear the show at the link above:

On why he believes everyone has a responsibility to help with reparations, even though they did not create the system

If we allow ourselves to be thoughtful, I think we all understand this instinctively. I mean, no one should be blamed for the sins of the fathers, as the scripture puts it. And yet we live in a world that has been damaged by history. And we have a responsibility, I think, to do what we can to repair the world.

So it’s a paradoxical problem that on the one hand, the past is past and should have nothing to do with us in the present as individual moral actors. But on the other hand, we live in the world that we’ve inherited, and so do people who’ve been injured by history. So it’s a difficult moral problem. It’s a problem that writers and philosophers have wrestled with for centuries. And we’re never going to arrive at a clean, clear answer to it. But the very fact that we’re talking about it, I think, is a positive sign for where we could go as a society.

You’d have to be blind to not see the effect that slavery and Jim Crow had on today’s black population. What to do about it? Delbanco talks about the damages at length, but I’ll let you read about those and see his solution:

On putting a monetary value on many of these intangible concepts

I don’t think we can. Some people have tried and we’ve seen numbers from the thousands to the millions to the billions and trillions proposed, and different programs for distributing financial benefits to all persons who are regarded as Black, according to some pundits.

Others say, “No, it should be restricted to only those who can prove they had an enslaved ancestor.”

I don’t think that’s the right path to travel on, and I recognize that this is a point of view that will anger and upset many, and that should be part of the discussion. For me, the more sensible and the more plausible — in the sense that something might actually come of it — approach to this is to recognize that many Americans have been injured by history, notably Black Americans who have a good case to make that they’re at the head of that line. But there are many others who can point to disadvantages that were visited on their families or on themselves for reasons of racial prejudice and for other reasons, as well.

What we need to do, and I take my cue here from a great person, from the past, that is Dr. King, and from a young scholar, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, who teaches at Georgetown University, who speaks of reparations not as a process of payback, or settling scores, or getting even, but as what Professor Táíwò calls, “A construction project,” a future-oriented reconstruction of our society to make it a fairer place. To ensure that the kinds of depredations that Black people and many others have had to deal with over the decades and centuries will be mitigated in the future.

And you can imagine the sorts of policies that someone who takes this point of view would have in mind, providing wraparound services for schoolchildren of the sort that affluent families take for granted. Providing better access to quality health care to try to close those shocking gaps in infant mortality, maternal deaths and childhood, and many others in childbirth. And many other measures on which Black Americans still lag behind, providing better educational opportunities beyond those early years.

And that’s my solution, too.  Although some people may object that it smacks of paternalism, it really doesn’t—not if your program is aimed at creating more opportunities for those at the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale. Those are disproportionately members of minorities, of course, but by aiming at those who lack both well being and access to the pipeline to well being, you’re helping all of those who are deprived of opportunity. And those are often descendants of slaves.

This, of course, takes will and money. I’ve already said that I’d be more than willing to pay a substantial part of my savings, or accept a rise in taxes on those who are better off to help all Americans achieve equal opportunity. In the end, this is the only way that reparations can work. It may not involve handing out checks, but it’s the pecuniary equivalent, and has the advantage that these structural changes will be in perpetuity, and devolve on everyone, so it can’t be criticized as a simple form of affirmative action. Remember that, if you’re a determinist (or even if you’re not), you can see that low societal well being is not the “fault” of the affected individuals in that they could have risen in America had they chosen otherwise, and many people don’t even know the opportunities, or have the environments, that could help them.


The Jefferson Lecture will eventually online; here’s Delbanco giving a preview:

h/t: Williams

58 thoughts on “The complex issue of racial reparations

  1. How will reparations be made for Africans having enslaved our ancestors to build the pyramids? Or are people only talking about one-sided reparations?

    Yep, there is a lot wrong with the question I am asking – just as there is a lot wrong with the initial question. Humans have been abusing and oppressing each other for as long as humans have been around. I think I would distinguish between acts of private oppression and acts of government oppression (Which governments held slaves and which humans held slaves?). I would argue that individual guilt, like criminal charges, is not generational, while government guilt, like sovereign debt, could be passed down. To make matters more interesting, given that the United States are a federation, where each state has its own laws on slavery, each state will have to have its own reparations discussion. Were the only slave-owners in the state of Washington members of various Native American tribes?

    So, about those Egyptians…

    1. Well said.

      I will renounce any reparations due me from the Shawnee nation. A war party of Shawnee from Ohio raided south-west Virginia and kidnapped my 4th great-grandfather and his sister. They sold them into slavery and they eventually wound up in Canada where they escaped with the help of French fur traders. Their parents (my 5th great-grandparents) were not so lucky – the entire remaining family of eight was wiped out in a raid two years later. My 5th great-grandmother was taken along for entertainment on the return trip to Ohio. She was repeatedly tortured then burned at the stake. It’s history and I don’t feel it personally or blame it on Indians in general or descendants of the original Shawnee.

  2. Debate over reparations will lead to more polarization and ill feeling. There will be a lot of virtue signaling. There will be politicians currying favor with the woke. There will be politicians currying favor with red America. Nothing will be accomplished and many things will be made worse. Another blow for group rights will be struck and the ideal of treating everyone as an individual will fade further.

  3. Article 1 of the state of Vermont Constitution, enacted in July, 1793, states the following: “…no person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person as a servant, slave or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person’s own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”

    Should citizens of Vermont, or the descendants of Vermonters, therefore be absolved for the payment of reparations for slavery, a practice which Vermont prohibited 60 years before the United States did? Conversely, should not citizens of African states, and their
    descendants, be charged for the reparations, inasmuch as most of the victims of the
    Atlantic slave trade were enslaved in Africa and sold to European traders by the rulers of African states?

    Both of these questions underline ambiguities which are inherent in the reparations project. Alternatively, it can be described as a form of tikkun olam or repairing of the world. This is better, but not without ambiguities too, such as the priority problem. There are, after all, plenty of things in need of repair.

  4. I could see being in favor of reparations with 3 caveats (and since this is all probably in the realm of fantasy I might as well add my fantasy too):
    1. Whatever program is enacted is solely for ADOS (American descendants of slavery)—not Samoans, Hmong or Hondurans etc, or for nonbinary children, just for the people who experienced the specific wrong.
    2. The enactment of this program brings down the curtain on America’s neurotic-obsessive racial classification of everything and everyone. No more affirmative action, no more Holy DEI, no more CRT for children.
    3. It is paid for by a windfall tax on American billionaires, since if the idea is to help those most harmed by America, it should be paid for by those most blessed by America.
    But I have to confess to being mostly skeptical about all this talk of school funding and programs, health clinics etc. It’s been 50 years now and after multiple well-intentioned billions spent, there is still the intractable problem of Black poverty, violence, and antisocial behavior.
    I don’t think any amount of funding can take the place of a strong family with strong values and discipline rooted in strong communites, and I don’t think anyone knows what could possibly turn people raised in Thug Life (I’m referring here to what was tatted across Tupac’s belly, not smearing black people as thugs) into devotees of the life of the mind dedicated to scholastic achievement.

    1. The fantasy is a good one, but runs contrary to politics. There is no counterparty to credibly agree to such a one-off grand bargain. On the contrary, handing out life-changing money based on ethnic grievance once would bring forth a whole generation of political entrepreneurs looking for the next big hit.

      In fact, this is the default state of most multicultural democracies. The goal of power is to grab resourced for your tribe. The miracle of 20th C America is that it largely avoided this trap. It’s not obvious that 21st C America will repeat the trick.

      I also agree there’s a mismatch between the observed problems motivating this (“Thug Life”, for short) and the proposed solution (money).

      While it’s true that African-Americans are earn slightly less than other Americans, they are (from memory) significantly wealthier than French people, probably 2-3 times as wealthy as Poles. About as wealthy as Americans of French descent I believe, and significantly less wealthy than say Egyptian-Americans & Pakistani-Americans. It’s very very difficult for me to believe that the causality is from slightly less money to “thug life”. Conversely, it doesn’t take much “thug life” by others on your street to halve your home’s value.

      1. “the default state of most multicultural democracies. The goal of power is to grab resources for your tribe”
        I’m a NYer so this ‘every tribe gets a slice of the pie’ political philosophy that seems to have overtaken America rings familiar. Back in the day (and maybe still, I’m not sure) nothing could be done until the Irish, Italians, Hispanics, Jews, Blacks etc all got their share and this made politics into horse-trading bw tribes and nothing could move forward until every tribe was appeased.
        Also as a NYer, I did grow up with people from all over the world, and could see that certain groups took school very seriously (mostly Jews and East Indians) while other groups it didn’t seem like their parents were involved at all.
        As I still keep in touch with many of the kids I grew up with (way back in the 1970s), I can see that there really is no substitute for a home and culture firmly grounded in discipline and scholastics and I don’t really see how any govt program or team of sociologists armed w new theories could ever match this.

          1. Judaism is a religion. Many of us – including atheists like me – have no problem being considered ethnically Jewish.

            1. So I assume you believe there’s such a thing as ethnically Christian, ethnically Muslim, ethnically Hindu, ethnically Buddhist, etc.?

              1. You are probably a Russian bot aiming to cause turmoil. At any rate, the weirdness of your comments is giving the rest of us a chuckle.

              2. Zed, I don’t know why you keep arguing that, but you’re mostly wrong. There is some gray area, but that would undermine every single established ethnicity and race – and I don’t disagree. The Wikipedia page ‘Ethnic groups in Europe’ might be of interest to you.

                The Wikipedia link to “Who is a Jew” is much more informative than your link to “Jews”. There is a lengthy discussion both inside and outside various Jewish communities as to who considers whom to be Jewish. It is extremely complex and should not be written off out-of-hand. There are a lot of shades of gray. How much Jewish descent do you need? (The simple answer of ‘matrilineal’ doesn’t cover it). What does it mean to be culturally Jewish without being ethnically or /i>religiously Jewish? I personally wonder what to consider a non-Jew who converts to Messianic Judaism. Please watch the Seinfeld episode “The Yada Yada”.

                Oddly enough, the “Who is a Jew” question comes back to what we would call today ‘identitarianism’ and cultural affinity. Mch of that also applies to many other cultural-religious groups: are North Koreans a separate people from South Koreans? Are Montanans a separate people from Albertans? I won’t even start on the Taiwanese. The whole question eventually becomes arbitrary – and political.

                Many Muslims claim that one can be ethnically Muslim, in the sense that if your father is Muslim, you have a hereditary obligation to be Muslim (even if you have a Jewish mother – which is one of the many reasons why the ‘matrilineal’ definition above is insufficient.)

              1. Not at all. The only thing you have to do to be an atheist is not have a belief in any god.

          1. Judaism isn’t only a religion. It’s a civilization that includes religious Jews, but also atheist, agnostic and secular Jews. Harvard Hebrew Philosophy Professor and Orthodox Rabbi Shaye Cohen said, “An atheist Jew such as Richard Feynman is just as Jewish as me.”

            1. There’s no such thing as an atheist Jew. I’m aware a lot of individuals indulge & even peddle that absurd belief.

    2. >”It is paid for by a windfall tax on American billionaires, . . .”

      Well, that makes it easy for you, doesn’t it.
      And that’s the trouble with any reparation scheme, including the ones going on now: the non-taxpayers avoid the whole shot. Now, people who earn so little that they don’t pay taxes shouldn’t be expected to dig into what little they have to pay into the reparation scheme. But they shouldn’t be allowed to say, “Sure, why not?” without having any skin in the game at all. Otherwise you’ll get more support for a scheme to soak the rich — hell, why not eat the rich? — from the lumpen proletariat than the scheme deserves. Maybe people who live in poor non-taxpaying neighbourhoods should do without fire protection for a year as their tithe. Feel the love.

      Or, alternatively, only the billionaires who will pay your windfall tax should get to vote on the proposal.

        1. But democratic input is the whole problem, don’t you see? 1000 Pauls will cheerfully gang up to rob one Peter to pay Alice, if the Pauls think they could thus ingratiate their way into Alice’s heart. Or at least her bed.

          But the rest of your post reassures me that you agree that the best response is “Just say No.”

  5. For most of this essay, I kept thinking, yes, chattel slavery extracted a terrible human toll on generations with consequences for the present, but with reparations for historical wrongs, the devil is in the detail and in practice good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes. Then I came to the last two paragraphs, and if I read them correctly, the recommended “reparations” appear to be programs and structural changes that are designed to help the disadvantaged, who tend disproportionately to be racial or ethnic minorities. At the feel-good level, that is hard to disagree with. Walk around any major U.S. city or drive through poor rural areas. However, in the realm of actual practice, and after more than a half century of ambitious social programs (urban renewal, Great Society, AFDC, etc.), let me urge some reflection. What distinguishes families and groups that do succeed, despite the fact that those families and groups have suffered disadvantages and discrimination? I believe it is functioning families and communities. Fostering those is difficult and essential.

  6. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.

    That is just sophistry. Every person experiences life differently, even during world historical events, like the Depression and World War Two. To claim that we are all equally guilty is just a way of avoiding having to actually prove responsibility. It’s what terrorists do to justify bombing schools. To say that all blacks today are injured by slavery and Jim Crow is, in itself, racist. People are only injured by the events of their own lives. My great-great-grandfather was injured by his experiences of battle in the Union Army and the death of his brother in the Civil War (so his granddaughter, my grandmother, explained to me). His son might have been. I am not. If we were to accept that all blacks are today injured by their history, then who today is not injured by some calamity in their ancestors’ past?

    As a nation we expended an enormous amount of lives and treasure in ending slavery (I am not saying the US fought the Civil War to end slavery, but that was the principal outcome), and since the 1960s we have spent uncounted billions, if not trillions, on social programs directed towards the disadvantaged. Apparently, these have all been for nought, according to the promoters of reparations. What reason is there to think that any further government action would produce better results? If we want to help black people (which sounds terribly condescending), then we should stop hurting them by treating them as damaged and giving them special treatment.

  7. ‘Reparations’ is a complex issue. Ironically many, if not most, ‘black’ Americans count slave owners and ‘supervisors’ among their ancestors. Much more than more recent arrivals in the US. Slave women always were easy prey.
    I think ‘reparations’ should be disconnected from race and history, but should focus on the downtrodden now (which generally has a racial and historical connotations, of course).
    I fully agree it should start with healthcare and early schooling, but that might not be sufficient. The ‘downtrodden’ have a culture that promotes poverty and ‘downtroddeness’ . That is just a reality.
    I think that a clean and low crime environment maybe just as important. How does one change a culture? I’m sure it must be feasible, and wanted by most, but I would not know how to do that. However, recognising the problem would be a first step.

    1. ‘Reparations’ is a complex issue. Ironically many, if not most, ‘black’ Americans count slave owners and ‘supervisors’ among their ancestors.

      I’m hearing more Americans of African descent not counting the slaveholders in their ancestry. I’m hearing some people say things like “I am a descendant of enslavement” or somesuch, in order to rhetorically prune any white branches off of their family trees. In many cases, coupling was involuntary; in still others, there were various unspoken social pressures, as in all relationships between entities of unequal social standing (unequal relationships are not just limited to humans). Relationships of unequal standing exist all throughout primate culture – and probably other animals as well.

      I don’t agree with a person’s decision to blind himself to some of his ancestry. A person today who is a child of rape should not deny the relevance of his missing parent’s family tree when examining genetics for medical reasons (i.e. family medical history), no matter how personally traumatic such research might be.

      1. Exactly, genes can’t lie. Maybe they don’t ‘count’, but they still do have.
        I see a clear parallel with one sex identifying as the other.

  8. Coates says this:

    “Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

    Of course, Coates is correct. Regardless of whether cash would be involved in reparations, white America would need to reconcile its image of the country with the actual facts of history. Unfortunately, a significant segment of white American is going in the opposite direction, in one of history’s great ironies, fostered by the Republican Party. This is why there has been such a virulent reaction to the 1619 Project. It has nothing to do with facts it may gotten wrong. Republicans of the MAGA variety couldn’t care less about the facts and have no desire to learn them. Their mantra is the fairytale version of American history that Coates knows has been so destructive to black people and the nation as a whole. The famous picture of an insurrectionist carrying the Confederate battle flag through the Capitol on January 6th is emblematic of this. I will not once again present the fairy tale version of American history so embraced by the MAGA Republicans except to say that for them slavery and race are minor themes and black people should shut up and be grateful they are allowed to stay in a country that should rightfully be a white person’s republic.

    Delbanco calls for “a future-oriented reconstruction of our society to make it a fairer place. To ensure that the kinds of depredations that Black people and many others have had to deal with over the decades and centuries will be mitigated in the future,” a noble wish that has no likely prospect of success in the immediate future. The Republican Party will fight such actions tooth-and-nail under the guise of promoting individual freedom or resisting the woke.

    Thus, any form of reparations, will be resisted by the Republican Party. As the masters of political messaging, it will make the word “reparations” toxic to white Americans and Latinos as well if has not already done so. We will hear endless stories of white people indignant at the prospect of paying reparations by noting that their ancestors had nothing to do with slavery or blacks in Africa owned slaves. Those on the Left, particularly the Democratic Party, inept at political messaging, will be like a person hit by a tsunami. Race based reparations as a coherent national policy is doomed to failure regardless of what one thinks of its merits. The only hope is that sometime in a different political environment, economic policies will be passed on the basis of social class that will help large numbers of blacks as well as other disadvantaged people. On the educational level, dedicated educators must resist the attempt to restore Lost Cause ideology in the classroom, which is the goal of MAGA Republicans. All this means is that racial wounding, not healing, is in the immediate future.

      1. The 1619 Project has been discussed many times on this site. I am not going to repeat the arguments once again except to say that despite the contention of some that the non-role slavery played in the coming of the American Revolution is a “fact,” but rather like almost all historical events is a subject of intense debate among scholars. For example, see this.

        More importantly, for the purposes of discussing this post, my contention is regardless of what the 1619 Project may have gotten right or wrong, the MAGA Republicans have made the term toxic, just as it has done to the term “reparations.” For the vast majority of MAGA Republicans whose bowels loosen at just the mention of it, couldn’t care less whether slavery was or was not one of the causes of the Revolution. The Pavlovian reaction is because somehow (they would have difficulty in articulating a coherent reason) it conjures up in the mind evil wokeness. The 1619 Project despite its failings (I would not use it in the classroom) served as a counterbalance to the Lost Cause ideology and its corollaries, rising from the grave: slavery wasn’t so bad, slaves were treated kindly and Christianized, the Civil War was caused by anything but slavery, white people are trying to retain their heritage, and white people living today have no obligation to right past wrongs since racism today is a myth. In other words, the right-wing propaganda machine, truly a wonder to behold (the Left can’t hold a candle to it), found the 1619 Project the perfect foil to advance its agenda.

        1. You and I agree on the toxicity of MAGA Republicans, but the “toxicity” of the 1619 Project has nothing to with MAGA influence in my case. It stands on it’s own as shoddy, ideologically biased history despite what Waldstreicher writes. It has been swallowed up by too many – glad to hear you don’t use it in the classroom.

          Concerning shoddy history, why is it that I routinely hear about slavery and Jim Crowe grievances, but not the Reconstruction era? While Reconstruction wasn’t as bad as slavery, it was worse than Jim Crowe and filled with shameful horrors.

          1. When you talk about the horrors of Reconstruction, I trust that you are referring to the emergence of terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, which took the federal government to suppress, at least temporarily. If so, the era does deserve much public attention.

            As you probably know, for many decades the dominant historical narrative (accepted in both the North and South) was that Reconstruction (1865-1877) was characterized by the good white folk of the South being tyrannized by scalawags and carpetbaggers with state governments run by ignorant recently freed slaves. With the failure of Reconstruction, white government and dominance was redeemed, which was a good thing millions of Americans were taught. Of course, this viewpoint, an offshoot of the Lost Cause ideology, has been thoroughly debunked by historians starting in the late 1950s, although I wonder how much of this scholarship has seeped down to the masses.

  9. It’s interesting that Delbanco describes the problem as “many Americans have been injured by history.” This is an important move in that it allows him to attach blame to “history” and to argue that reparations are owed by the country as a whole. This cuts right through the problem of determining who needs to pay. It’s not just those whose ancestors were directly responsible for slavery. Rather, since our history is to blame, it’s the country as a whole, presumably, taxpayers, who should bear the burden. This means that people whose ancestors came to the U.S. after the periods of slavery and Jim Crow would also contribute to the repair.

    Attaching responsibility for “history” to the country as a whole does less to cut through the other problem, namely, whether blacks or other aggrieved minorities who came to the U.S. after slavery and Jim Crow would also be entitled to reparations. But this issue is addressed by the *sorts* of reparations that Delbanco seems to advocate, namely, policies that create “more opportunities for those at the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale.” Policies such as those will also benefit those who came to the U.S. more recently, but they would not get any special benefit, for policies favoring equal opportunities would benefit everyone. After all, offering programs that benefit those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic scale surely benefit everyone in the form of less dependency, less crime, less poverty, more tax revenue, and an overall more just society.

    So, my take is that Delbanco offers a very practical way to look at the problem as one in which all Americans share in the solution. I also note that Delbanco does not call for equality of *outcomes.* He calls for equal *opportunities,* a position with which I agree. With true equal opportunity in place, just outcomes will follow.

  10. All assumptions and proposals are false with regard to historical events. History is important to learn and remember but it gives us no clue or reason to think up how we can be redeemed from past mistakes. There is no such thing as redemption. But there are good reasons to formulate and implement just, humane and compassionate means of treating everyone who is alive today. This is called social justice and it is its own
    justification. We need to help those in need. Period. That’s why we have social welfare programs, unemployment insurance, social security, worker safety, and laws against
    polluting the environment or exploiting workers or allowing businesses to break laws. It’s why we have international laws. It’s why we have the means of improving our laws and society and the quality of human (and nonhuman) life. Stop the social engineering. Stop the intimidation and guilt trips and displays of power. Stop this anti white nonsense. Look at what needs fixing TODAY and fix it. Try to avoid making similar mistakes that allowed failure. We are not the keepers of our distant relatives’ mistakes. We didnt commit these crimes. We dont send innocent people to jail or death. We are not responsible for slavery in the US anymore than we are for ancient Roman slaves.
    But we ARE responsible for false history, false accusations and misguided moral
    judgements. Our biggest task is to speak the truth, regardless of consequences, rather than allowing neo communist ideologues and black racists to force their loyalty oaths down our throats and rewrite history.

  11. … providing wraparound services for schoolchildren of the sort that affluent families take for granted.

    Agreed, I’m in favour of extra support for kids from families with low socioeconomic status.

    But that alone will not solve any problem and will not lead to equal outcomes between groups. We can see that by comparing outcomes for Asian-American kids of low socioeconomic status (of which there are plenty) with outcomes for African-American kids of the same socioeconomic status. That comparison shows a huge gulf.

    One factor (not the only one) is that low-socioeconomic-status Asian-Amerian families usually take the attitude that success at school and on exams is the route to self-betterment. African-American families tend (as a generalisation that is, of course, unfair on many such families) take the attitude that trying hard at school is “acting white” and that being “authentically black” means rejecting all of the attitudes that lead to Asian-American kids having decent outcomes, regardless of a low-socioeconomic starting point.

  12. I’ve no d*g in this fight, but in the US as in the UK, I believe that the most equitable course of action is to take action to remove the barriers faced in employment, education, etc. by ALL of the most disadvantaged in society regardless of race.

    Some of the most disadvantaged kids in the UK are white British boys in neglected areas; Bangladeshi girls in London do well academically, but badly in the Midlands; the problem is often about family and community values, not race. The children of, say, impoverished Indian immigrants do better in school than equally poor native white British children; there is a huge disparity between East African and West African children’s educational outcomes, etc., etc.

    Helping everyone at the bottom of society is less divisive and more equitable than targeting remedial action by skin colour, surely? If the majority of those receiving assistance are black or minority families, so be it. At least the criteria will be perceived as being fair and objective?

  13. I have to say that reader commentary on this post is particularly excellent!

    As to my own view, I am not wedded to any position, but I have to say I share the intuitions of folks like Coleman Hughes, J Mcwhorter, Glenn Loury (and others) that reparations, especially monetary, doesn’t seem like the route to making things better.

  14. Unfortunately, a significant segment of white American is going in the opposite direction, in one of history’s great ironies, fostered by the Republican Party. This is why there has been such a virulent reaction to the 1619 Project. It has nothing to do with facts it may gotten wrong.

    The virulent reaction is due to the inaccuracy of claims like “the American Revolution was fought to maintain slavery.” That reaction came from liberals, Democrats, and Black Americans as well as those operating under racist attitudes.

    I’m all for knowing and understanding the unpleasant facts of our history. But I also insist America was indeed the great democratizer of history.

    From that bright spark which first illumed these lands
    See Europe kindling, as the blaze expands

    – Philip Freneau 1790

    1. Did our host mention Judaism? I can only see the statement, Why do I (a Jew whose ancestors came to the U.S. well after slavery) need to balance the ledger?

      Jewish relates both to religion and ethnicity, with Wikipedia saying:

      Jewish ethnicity, nationhood, and religion are strongly interrelated, as Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people, although its observance varies from strict to none.

  15. Being black/colored in the US is a social category, not a biological category, as I am sure that Jerry would agree. So how ‘black’ do you have to be to receive these reparations talked about? Remember that under Jim Crow ‘one drop’ of black blood made you black. And what if you are clearly partially black but not a descendant of slaves, like President Obama, whose father was Kenyan? But wait, he would be eligible, as his ‘white’ mother also had slave ancestry. So he would be eligible to receive reparations because of his ‘white’ ancestry but not his ‘black’. But he rose to the highest position of any American, so why does he need any reparations? The whole thing is a can of worms best left alone.

  16. “You’d have to be blind to not see the effect that slavery and Jim Crow had on today’s black population.”

    Slavery, sure. If not for slavery, the US Black population would primarily consist of the descendants of those who purposefully immigrated here.
    I am not so sure that one can blame the differences between Black and other populations on Jim Crow, especially in places where such laws were not common.

    It all rests on assumptions about what those populations would look like today, if not for past injustices. I suppose we could use as examples other countries with 10 to 20% Black populations where slavery and JC were not present, and where distinct social and economic stratification have not manifested.

    Reparations are not going to solve the problems they mean to solve. I don’t really think anyone really believes that they will.
    What talk of reparations does is buy on credit the votes of people who believe they might get a windfall, and to stir up those who believe such things are unjust.
    Of course some people stand to make a lot of money off of it, as people often do when government contracts are up for distribution.
    I personally believe the issue is promoted primarily as a means to foment conflict between the races here.

    I don’t think the issue is really that complex, unless we try to quantify all the past injustice of previous generations to determine the debt or benefit every particular individual receives, by assigning values to an ancestor who was or owned slaves, fought or died in the civil war, or other factors. Perhaps those descended from tribes whose economies were based on capturing and selling slaves might receive a large share of blame, offset somewhat by their distant ancestor’s change of fortune that resulted in their becoming enslaved.
    We are supposed to be a country where one is not punished for something they did not do, were not consulted about, and happened before they were born, while others are compensated for hardships they did not endure.

  17. I’m not sure I’ve any idea which solution or approach is best, but one of the voices I don’t think I’ve heard from on this topic is that of the psychologists, therapists, and child development specialists.

    If there is to be this extended conversation on past and current injustice with its pervasive sense of victimization and guilt, a “revolution of the American consciousness” surrounding the significance of the role of race in American history and citizenship — how will it eventually effect the mindset of the average black child (or black children in different situations?) Will it help heal an inherited sense of hopelessness and inspire them towards achievement and reconciliation? Or would it foster an attitude of resentment and a tendency to focus on fixing blame? Are we looking at increasing their sense of having common ground with children of different races, or are we fragmenting their belief that they share anything in common? More — or fewer — interracial friendships? Maybe all of this … or something else. I don’t know.

    Children — and adults — learn what they live. I’d like to see some before-and-after studies on the mental well-being and self-perception of young black people after anti-racism programs. Whether it’s primarily positive or primarily negative might give us some insight into the value of the larger political and social policies concerning race reparations.

    1. ‘…- interracial friendships?” I note that both ‘black’ SC Justices have white partners (as does the ‘hispanic’ one). No, I don’t think that is really relevant, just a trivial observation.

      1. I was wondering if black children/students who become involved with an increased focus on historical racial guilt & reparations are more likely to befriend white students, less likely, or makes no difference. I can imagine any of those scenarios.

        1. Yes Sastra, that is a very pertinent question indeed, and it has no answer (yet). It might very well turn out to be counterproductive.

  18. I wonder if these policies and structural changes are more effective, just, and cheaper that a universal basic income. One advantage of UBI is that some of its effects are immediate.

  19. Some years ago, I found this article on the topic of reparations to be informative…

    The author looks at “wealth survey data to see what reparations might look like in aggregate. When you start doing that, however, you run immediately into an odd problem created by the way that wealth is generally distributed throughout society.

    Because wealth is distributed very unevenly within every racial group, any race-specific wealth transfer regime will either 1) open up massive racial wealth disparities going in the opposite direction of current disparities or 2) provide the vast majority of its benefits to the upper class.

    The only way to avoid one of those two unsavory outcomes is to ensure any wealth transfer regime tackles both class and race inequality at the same time, as discussed below.”

  20. My opinion as a non-American: the idea of reparations 150 years after the end of slavery is a mess. No one who suffered or benefited back then is still alive. The ancestors of many of the people whose taxes would pay for reparations were not even in the States when slavery ended, and when they arrived, they were often dirt poor and discriminated against themselves.
    Now, there’s no doubt that many black communities are dysfunctional, and people who grow up there don’t have a fair chance of living the American Dream. There are also many native American, hispanic and white communities with profound problems. How’s this for a suggestion: institute a system of support for troubled communities, that tries to figure out what specifically is going wrong (unemployment, crime, drugs, health issues, lack of education, you name it) and to find effective remedies, regardless of skin color and ancient grudges?

  21. The difficulty with reparations schemes pointed out is that the payers get nothing in return from the payee, which is bad business. The point of paying a settlement in a lawsuit is to get the other side to shut up and go away forever. Reparations for slavery with no quid pro quo in a signed settlement release would just, by showing weakness, prompt the recipients to come back for another bite in a few years. All the young kids born after the reparation was paid would soon be growing up and asking, “Where’s mine?”

    So as a foreigner who cares nil that some Americans (including Native tribes) once owned African slaves, I have an idea. Reparations, yes. But the condition of the reparation payment would be that the recipient must renounce American citizenship and return with his/her family permanently to the land of his/her ancestors in Africa. After all, if being brought to America as a slave was such a grave injustice, then turning back the clock to before the ancestor boarded the slave ship seems only fair. U.S. dollars carefully managed would go far in modern-day Liberia or Guinea or Sierra Leone. The scheme would be contingent on the modern-day African countries accepting their new citizens but a million-dollar indemnity ought to grease many impediments. An essential feature would stipulate that U.S. residents who turned down the offer would forfeit all future race-based grievance programs forever.

    Since very few descendants of slaves would actually take up Uncle Sam’s offer, the program would end up not costing very much after all and the dismantling of the grievance industry would save trillions of dollars.

    1. I agree. I think it is high time for the US government and civil society to stop accepting blame and resorting to concessions every time when some group of self-appointed representatives of black Americans comes to complain and demand things.

  22. Any of the arguments for reparations in this more general sense (“wraparound services for schoolchildren … better access to quality health care … better educational opportunities”) are indistinguishable from arguments for the thing the US lacks that every other developed country has — a serious welfare state. Finally getting one would provide exactly the sort of help, support and assistance needed, not only to black Americans, but to any who met the economic criteria for assistance, and in many cases (education, healthcare) to all by simple virtue of being citizens, thus cutting through and ending the imponderable and invidious questions of who deserves what based on race.

  23. Since the US abolished slavery, a lot of ethnic groups worldwide endured far worse than anything free African American experienced. Industrial warfare, starvation, and genocide have been common experiences even among Western Europeans in the 20th century. Blacks never had to live under a Communist government, but even compared to most non-Communist countries they have been very affluent.

    So overall, the inhabitants of the US have been very fortunate. At least some immigrants who arrived after the Civil war will remember that, and might wonder why slavery should cause some unique inter-generational trauma to Blacks while the sufferings of their own ancestors are treated as irrelevant.

    And yet, this issue will never be raised. Despite the diversity of America, its intellectuals have a hard time accepting that there are more experiences on this planet than that of their black and white countrymen.

  24. In the discussion of comment #8: “…the dominant historical narrative (accepted in both the North and South) was that Reconstruction (1865-1877) was characterized by the good white folk of the South being tyrannized by scalawags and carpetbaggers…” Hollywood films were virtually unanimous in this view, with Randolph Scott as the courtly but heroic Confederate veteran who tries to set things right. How did this misrepresentation come to be so pervasive? How did the South win the civil war in regard to Hollywood scripts?

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