Two discussions of reparations

May 29, 2023 • 10:45 am

Here are two videos discussing whether African-Americans should be given reparations because many of their ancestors were slaves.  I haven’t written about this subject because I haven’t come down on what I think about it.  This is my inchoate thinking so far: there is a good case for reparations, but if they’re given, they should be in the form of investments in opportunities for minorities, not simply checks cut and handed out.  And if they are given by states or by the federal government, that should—as John McWhorter emphasizes in the discussion with Glen Loury below—bring an end to all forms of racial preference and affirmative action. It is a one-time “reckoning” that should eliminate for the future all other advantages given to minorities over non-minorities.

I of course realize the terrific problems involved with reparations, particularly those of who gets them, who decides who gets them, and how much they will be.

But don’t listen to me: watch Loury and McWhorter below. Loury is dead set against reparations, while McWhorter is on the fence but seems to favor them. (If you want to see the full-on case FOR reparations, the most famous is Ta-Nehishi Coates’s 2014 Atlantic article, “The case for reparations.”)

If you want to see the two guys chew the fat in general, you can listen to the full hour, but if you want to hear just their vigorous discussion of reparations, start at 37:40 with Loury’s tirade and listen to the end of the video.

A summary of the earlier parts includes McWhorter beefing about being a pariah because he’s antiwoke, so he’s suffered professionally for his heterodox ideas as a black man. He says, for instance, that he’s not going to be invited to any more professional linguistics meetings, nor will he be inducted into the AAAS. I’m a member, and believe me, if I could get in, McWhorter certainly deserves it!

They then discuss the incident in which Jordan Neely—a mentally ill black man who was harassing people on the NY subway—was killed after being held in a chokehold by Daniel Penny, an ex-Marine.  Most people fault Penny for restraining Neely, but McWhorter, in his NYT column on Jordan Neeley, demurs (he doesn’t favor the killing, though!):

I am going to venture an idea that may be unpopular: Jordan Neely, in all of his innocence, did deserve restraint. Only that. He deserved neither injury nor any more discomfort than necessary, and certainly not death. Where precisely Penny’s actions and intentions fall on this spectrum is a question for the legal system to interrogate aggressively. But society has a problem on its hands when mentally ill people are terrifying innocent citizens trying to get to work or back to their homes. The system needs to help both the Jordan Neelys and the rest of us. And this means there should be an honest discussion about the role of cops and subway officers in confronting and even detaining the mentally ill more frequently. Our mental health system, too, needs to better ensure that people who present symptoms of the kind that Neely did are more rigorously restricted from menacing or threatening others.

The reparations discussion begins at 37:40 with Loury so exercised about the idea that he nearly blows an artery. McWhorter listens attentively, and they note that some reparations have already been given, though not entirely to blacks; these include affirmative action, the Great Society, and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977.  McWhorter also emphasizes—and here I agree—that if reparations are given, that must be the end of any form of racial preference: there would, for example, be no more DEI initiatives.


Addition: I should have said (see comments below) that McWhorter appears to be in favor of reparations in principle, but doesn’t’ think they’d work in practice. And on that I agree with him.

Have a listen, at least to the last 24 minutes, and see if you agree.

A quote from Loury’s discussion above. Note that he begins the show by announcing that he’s retiring.

There are any number of right-of-center arguments against reparations. I’ve made them before. Now, with cities around the US considering cash reparations payments to black Americans, I’m dismayed to find that I have to make them again. But why do we most often hear objections to reparations coming from conservatives? The left, if it was thinking about its broader long-term electoral viability, ought to reject reparations claims as well.

Imagine, for example, a white working-class voter in a Rust Belt state that is suffering the effects of deindustrialization, inadequate public services, and the opioid crisis. Such a voter might be quite receptive to a senatorial candidate calling for class-based solidarity in order to address these serious problems with large-scale structural reform, a more robust social safety net, and higher taxes on the wealthy. But if the candidate, at the same time, also promises to distribute huge cash payouts to this hypothetical voter’s African American neighbors while leaving him to fend for himself, the voter might question how serious those calls to solidarity really are.v

As well he should. We hardly ever hear this contradiction addressed by progressives calling for reparations, and yet it violates the very premise on which the likes of Bernie Sanders and John Fetterman have based their appeals to voters. Perhaps, as John McWhorter suggests in this excerpt from our most recent conversation, people would be willing to go along with reparations if they would finally end calls for race-based benefits. But, as John also suggests, reparations wouldn’t be the end. And if the payments go out and race remains a divisive issue, our hypothetical white working-class voter, and millions like him, may decide the only thing that’s finished is the left.

Below is half an hour of a 2001 debate on slavery reparations involving both Loury and the late (how it stings to write that word!) Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t listen to it today, though I did before, but, as I recall, they take opposite positions, with Hitchens favoring reparations. Loury speaks first, then Hitch (with his usual panache), and then Loury gets a rebuttal.

29 thoughts on “Two discussions of reparations

  1. “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in”. Bishop Desmond Tutu.
    This isn’t really an argument against financial reparations, but they will do nothing to improve equality, let alone equity. And how to address all the wronged groups? Decendents of Japanese interns? Chinese railroad laborers? Nothing compares to slavery, and perfection is the enemy of the good, but these conversations will need to happen, and it won’t be pretty.

    1. >”Nothing compares to slavery, . . .”

      The aggrieved group you left out are Native Americans, who might argue that their treatment was far worse than chattel slavery and they should get paid off first, preferably (and why not?) with return of all the land. (They, of course, kept slaves, including African ones.) After all, no slave owner or cotton gin operator ever said, “The only good slave is a dead slave.” And if they made up 13% of the population with a major urban concentration of mass, with reporters on TV, professors at colleges, dominance in athletics, and representatives in Congress, the civil service and the military, Native people probably would be making a big stink for reparations. Your Original Sin was coming here in the first place, not who you brought along for the ride. Africans don’t belong here any more than any other settler and would be dispossessed of whatever they had to make good for Native reparations.

      The only time to sit down to have a “conversation” about giving money to someone you don’t love is if the other party threatens violence and you lack the resolve to resist his attempts to take what he wants by force. This is called paying the Dane-geld.*. I don’t see it as something Americans would ever do. If some stranger tells you you owe him a million dollars, you tell him to get lost, or sue you.

      If you do pay the Dane-geld, can the people you are afraid of and negotiating with give you a release that, having been paid, they and the people they represent will get out of your life and never bother you again about anything forever? Of course they can’t, whether it’s Al Sharpton or the Black Democratic Congressional Caucus, or the American Federation of Indian Nations, so think of whatever you do pay as a first instalment, not as a final settlement. They’ll be baa-a-a-ack. That alone should make reparations a non-starter.

      You pay reparations out of fear, not out of generosity, respect, or love. You will all hate one another when it’s over.
      * “But we’ve proved it again and again,
      That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
      You never get rid of the Dane.”
      (Rudyard Kipling, of course.)

      1. I’m late here, but I have often said that I’ll listen to such reparation proposals AFTER reparations have been made to the descendants of the First Peoples who were killed, enslaved and driven from their homelands to forsaken places.

  2. I am a subscriber to The Glenn Show and watched this podcast on YouTube. And yesterday I read a segment Loury posted he labeled “The Left-Wing Case Against Reparations”. His words. One of the great things about Glenn Loury is that he knows all the arguments about an issue and can articulate them well. As a lefty, I agree with his argument, and posted a favorable comment in response, adding another concern that I have, and thought hadn’t been addressed. Yes, Loury is a conservative, but one who invites interlocutors from across the political spectrum and engages with them thoughtfully and generally without rancor. Just don’t get him started on Ibram X. Kendi! As for John McWhorter’s statement that he would favor reparations if that would bring an end to all the DEI, affirmative action, etc. stuff, he knows well, and said so, that there’s no chance of that. So, I don’t think we can place him in the pro-reparations camp.

  3. Amongst the facts often missing from this highly contentious debate, which also obscures the sad reality of the millions currently trafficked around the globe in the contemporary version of the slave-trade (far less often discussed in the media than the slavery of the past) are the number of black Africans enslaved by the Muslims of North Africa and the Middle East, over many centuries (greater than the number shipped to the New World), the long history of the internal traffic within sub-Saharan Africa which existed before the arrival of the Europeans and continued after the Western trade’s demise (the abolitionist movement being entirely a Western phenomenon), not to mention the many millions of Europeans enslaved in Islamic Spain, Islamic North Africa, throughout the Ottoman Empire, and in the nominally Ottoman Crimea, from the medieval period until the 18th century.

  4. Loury nails it with a phrase: “our hypothetical white working-class voter, and millions like him, may decide the only thing that’s finished is the left.” The current fad of appearing to support “reparations”, like that of indulging gender ideology activists in education, reflects the curious death wish seen so often on the Left. We need a psychiatric analysis of the Left’s seemingly inevitable slide into what therapists call suicidal ideation.

  5. I am against reparations unless a person can prove in court that they themselves were directly impacted by slavery or slavery’s impact on their ancestors, in the same way any other person would have to prove injury in the courts. Of course, nowadays the arguments for reparations also include all the racism that has impacted black Americans since slavery and up to the present day as well. Progressives assert that people’s “lived experience” means that they have some sort of mystic tie to their ancestors and share in the injustice they experienced, and are, therefore, deserving of reparations. (To be fair, they don’t talk about a mystic tie; in fact, they don’t explain the method of transmission at all.) And why are black Americans more deserving of recompense that any other American whose ancestors experienced racism? At the end of the day, if you look at the sums being tossed around, reparations is only another mechanism for the redistribution of wealth. Paying the trillions of dollars called for would shatter the economy. (And let’s not forget what happens to most lottery winners.) The proponents of reparations aren’t looking for justice, they are looking for a way to overturn the existing society and start building their utopia.

    The country paid an enormous price to end slavery. No, the Civil War wasn’t fought to end slavery, although a lot of people did fight to end slavery. The simple fact, though, is that the principal outcome of the war was the end of slavery. As Lincoln said this about the war:

    Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

    Tens of billions of dollars (trillions in current dollars) and hundreds of thousands of lives. And all black Americans got was freedom.

    1. After the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), the North as governmental policy was fighting to end slavery as well as restore the Union.

  6. I haven’t listened to this exchange yet. But I would be surprised if McWhorter is actually in favor of reparations (as you say he sounds). In 2001 he wrote a lengthy explanation of why he is against them, except in the form of (1) assuring de jure racial non-discrimination, and (2) race-blind, means-based help for the poor, which would end up helping proportionately more blacks because of their greater representation among the poor. Perhaps his views have changed–but I doubt it.

      1. I think you were right the first time about what McWhorter argues in his video with Loury. He is in favour in principle of modest reparations—his hypotheticals are all about individual cases we might find at least moderately sympathetic, e.g., $100,000 so a woman in San Francisco can own her house, and not the actual proposal for $5 million for every black person, plus a house for $1, plus a stipend of $97,000 a year for 250 years*. And this (lukewarm) support is conditional on the activists dismantling DEI and shutting up forever about irredeemable racism in America. McWhorter says the activists would never agree to this—they’re already saying reparations are only the beginning. So he’s really saying he can’t support reparations because the beneficiaries won’t accept them as full payment.

        Reparations wouldn’t work in practice for the reasons Loury elaborates. But for McWhorter, skeptical of Loury’s arguments, reparations wouldn’t “work” in the sense that they wouldn’t shut up the race grifters, so no deal.
        * The San Francisco task force chair, a white woman, admitted glowingly that the panel just brainstormed these numbers because they sounded good. They made no economic analysis of either entitlement of the target population or affordability for the city.

        1. Do you have a link for this?:

          “The San Francisco task force chair, a white woman, admitted glowingly that the panel just brainstormed these numbers because they sounded good. They made no economic analysis of either entitlement of the target population or affordability for the city.”


          1. She was taped during a press conference announcing the preliminary report her task force was to be making to the city’s municipal government. They were carried by a local TV station and the segment was broadcast on Fox News, which is where I saw the segment. She had dark brown shoulder-length hair and was wearing a brown dress with large white polka dots. I stress these were the words I heard uttered out of her mouth. They were not being reported second hand by a Fox News host.

  7. If the reparations are to go to the current generation of ancestors of slaves, then how is this to be defined? The one drop rule? I’m sure I saw some genetics stats showing that quite a few Americans have a black ancestor somewhere… at least in a few of the states. Will some form of paper work be required?

    1. Or skin-tone color swatch comparisons? This would be a horrible, (and “racist!”) morass.

  8. PCC(E), thanks for posting a new chance to see Hitchens’ erudition (his picture should be next to the dictionary entry for that word). I shake my head in admiration.

  9. The time for reparations was in the first generation after abolition. It is beyond ridiculous to take money from a recent Chinese immigrant and give it to a recent Nigerian immigrant on the basis of something that happened so long ago. By now, the practice that ended 158 years ago is not what is holding anyone back. Whorter, Thomas Sowell, and others have written about what really is doing that, and that is what needs to be addressed.

    Also, significant percentage of black Americans have a slave owner as ancestor as well. They and anyone descended from an African slave trader should be disqualified from any reparations.

    1. It won’t work legally either (it will certainly be instantly challenged). In our court system, you have to show harm and you have to show who harmed you (who is liable to pay you). Whatever they put up for these, it won’t pass muster, except in some really specific cases, where the legal avenue is already open for redress.

      1. But this isn’t being put forth as a court case; it’s a suggestion for legislatures to allocate money and possibly raise taxes to pay for it. I don’t think even the current Supreme Court would strike down such a law. The plaintiffs would need to show that the allocation itself violates some clause of the Constitution.

  10. Good luck with ending calls for race-based preferences and DEI initiatives.

    In NZ we’ve had a number of full and final settlements for colonial malpractices, only for an influential number of the next indigenous generation to calculate that the settlements weren’t anywhere near full enough, and therefore should be renegotiated.

    Of course, there’s not such a great demand for reparations for the vastly more murderous, immediately pre-colonial tribal wars.

    Labourers in the DEI industry will not go quietly into the night nor, to switch metaphors, want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Their best hope might be to get into the new reparation bureaucracies which will need well-paid administrators.

    1. I strongly concur that the “full and final settlements” are no such thing. But looking at the practical history of this fiction, it appears to be working out pretty well for NZ overall. The value of the settlements runs to maybe a couple percent of what has been formally judged as improperly taken, so renegotiating an additional couple percent each generation seems a good deal for both parties: for each generation’s government it is financially and politically affordable, and for each generation’s Māori leaders it is their own victory.

      Financially it’s like a very-low-interest-rate very-long-term mortgage.

    2. You are right. Any reparations will signal weakness, and activists who want unearned income will immediately demand more. And it will never end.
      Not to mention that forcing a part of the citizenry to financially support another part for dubious reasons can only increase tensions, instead of “healing wounds” (not that anyone alive today can realistically have any wounds from slavery).

  11. Why doesn’t anyone give a damn about modern day slavery, and instead focus their minds on an example of slavery that was outlawed over 200 years ago by the Brits and 160 years ago by the US? There are 50 million people still in slavery according to the UN. Wouldn’t the remarkably generous people in San Francisco do better to spend their $100 billion on buying the freedom of actual slaves? The national cost of such a programme is said to be $14 trillion, which would provide $280,000 per current slave, which would likely gain their freedom in places like Libya and Mali (I’ll name names even if the UN report declines to do so).
    UN report:—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_854733.pdf

  12. The idea of reparations are based upon a huge flaw of basemark misidentification. Without slavery, blacks in America today would be as rich as the typical African, not as wealthy as whites. Add that to the huge burden that blacks inflict upon white society and it should be easily apparent that the flow of reparations should be from blacks to whites, not the other way around.

  13. My Right-Wing Case for Reparations to African Americans

    African Americans have suffered tremendous harm inflicted by the US government, both from the (continued) legalization of slavery when this country was founded in 1789 and the actions of left-wing politicians and parties to harass and oppress African Americans after passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

    As this harm continues into the present, all African American citizens should be entitled to reparations whether or not they can demonstrate they or their family have ever been enslaved. Eligibility for reparations should be determined by whether the individual is a US citizen and whether the individual is perceived by others as African American.

    Should newly naturalized African Americans receive reparations? Yes, as the harm is on-going. Will this cause more people of African descent to seek to become US citizens? Yes, but I don’t see any problem with that.

    The intent of the original amount proposed for reparations, “forty acres and a mule”, was based on what it was assumed would be needed by a freed slave to become financially self-sufficient. Therefore, the dollar amount should not be based on the current market value of those commodities (about $150k). Rather it should be based on how much individuals would need to get to a point where they can provide for themselves. This is variable depending on each person’s starting point, but I suggest $500k as a reasonable amount. This can be increased if needed to achieve consensus.

    Simply depositing this amount into a bank account for each African American would be to ignore the nature of the harm inflicted upon African Americans by our government, which has impeded the creation of intergenerational wealth. What is needed by the recipients is not just money, but the knowledge and the habits to continue to earn money beyond the amount provided. Unfortunately, our government is incompetent in many ways but is especially incompetent in education. Our government delivers lower educational outcomes for African Americans (as compared as a group against the average for all students) despite spending significantly more on a per pupil basis for African American students. The only group that African Americans can rely on to provide the knowledge needed to receive the full intended benefit of reparations is themselves.

    I propose the best way to convey reparations is as a tax credit. Most individuals would fully utilize the $500k, assuming 50 years of working and an average yearly tax liability of $10k on an average $50k income. About 10% would burn through the tax credit in less than 10 years. By making the rate at which reparations are delivered to individuals variable, it allows the individual to adapt to the increased income as it is earned. It also incentivizes work as well as investment and entrepreneurism.

    The obvious objection is that this forces the individual to earn a reparation which is already owed. This is a valid point, but I can’t see any other way to overcome the deficiencies of our government and the racism of the Left.

    Doing this one-time would not have the needed impact, so reparations should be available to all living African Americans as well as all those born or naturalized in the 100 years after adoption of this policy.

    Some may question how our government could possibly afford this. However, the government is not handing out payments but just simply not collecting as much in taxes (which results in much lower overhead). Also, as has been demonstrated repeatedly (and most recently by the Trump administration) tax cuts pay for themselves so there is no long term cost incurred by these reparations. Instead, tax revenues will increase as those how receive reparations become more and more better off and eventually pay taxes on higher incomes.

    As an added benefit, reparations will significantly reduce dependency in the US on government benefits, reducing the cost of those programs. These programs will of course continue despite reparations since most individuals dependent on these programs are white.

    1. This starts off with the incorrect premise that blacks today are worse off due to slavery. Not only is this not true, but the opposite is actually correct. Blacks today are huge beneficiaries of their ancestors being brought here.

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