REPARATIONS: A WELL-ROUNDED VIEW
Questions to consider for supporters and detractors alike
In the last few weeks, I have had no less than three deep conversations about race during interviews for my radio program. And though it wasn’t the primary topic of conversation, each of my guests brought up the issue of reparations. Most of the debate around reparations is approached in an absolutist manner. Either they are completely wrong or they are long overdue, depending on the speaker’s point of view. I wanted to address the issue in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way—as much as someone with an opinion on the matter can. This, of course, means that there will be something here for most people both to agree with and to disagree with; however, I hope this discussion will force those with strong opinions on the subject to think about all the ramifications of the proposal. If we are going to seriously consider paying reparations to black Americans, we had better have a clear understanding of what it means for the country.
The logical place to start is to determine what the reparations are for. While this seems like a simple task, the reality is not so clear. We must determine whether the reparations are being paid to fix the race problem in America or to punish the country for its part in the atrocity of slavery. When I read articles supporting reparations or hear someone defend the payments, the phrase “make the black community whole” is often used. What we are not told is what it means for the black community to be whole.
If such people are saying—in line with the argument of The 1619 Project—that the problems blacks in America face today are a direct result of past and present racism, this poses a problem for the “reparations fix.” This is not the place to argue whether this view is right or wrong, but if it is right, no amount of money is going to fix past racist actions or put an end to any current ones. Whatever “whole” means, it is clear that monetary payments will not achieve it.
Making the claim that reparations are punitive seems more supportable. Black Americans were caused immeasurable harm, and thus an argument can be made that some sort of punishment is in order. However, this approach has its share of problems as well. The first is the “sins of the father” problem. There is no doubt that slavery was evil, but none of the enslaved people are alive today, and one might argue that they are the only ones owed direct payments. Proponents of reparations would argue—correctly—that the effects of slavery and the theft of wealth and opportunities lasted long after slavery ended. While no one can dispute this, it is nearly impossible to measure the exact amount of wealth or opportunities stolen.
To determine the damages owed, many use an overly simplistic “but for” argument. They reverse a negative and say, “but for slavery,” or assume a positive and say, “if we had gotten our 40 acres and a mule,” and then predict the outcome. Of course, many people would have been better off in this alternative situation, but many would not, and there is no quantitative measure for determining how things would have been a century and a half and several generations later. Beyond the problem of determining an accurate assessment of the damages, many ignore the very real possibility of the Butterfly Effect. That is, we have no way to assess what sort of knock-on effects 40 acres and a mule (for example) might have had. It might have made all black people richer in 2021, or it might have birthed a genocidal white power movement.
I’ve often stated that reparations were the right answer to slavery. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they were feasible. Reparations should have been paid during Reconstruction, but history shows that the country wasn’t ready for that. It is easily conceivable that the events that unfolded over the next 100 years, from the Black Codes to Jim Crow, would have happened anyway, stealing or destroying whatever wealth had been gained, leaving us in the same position we are in now.
Conversely, paying reparations today wouldn’t compensate those who were owed. A reasonable compromise—and one that I could agree to—would be to pay Jim Crow reparations. The payments would go to black Americans born before a certain date, say, 1958. This, of course, might well solve nothing, since the loudest voices arguing for reparations would not be eligible (except for any wealth they may inherit later as a result of payments to their elders). Moreover, if America made this large payment, many people would want assurances that it was final—that there would be no second bite of the apple.
Once we determine what reparations are for—a restorative racial fix or punitive damages, for slavery or for Jim Crow—we must next determine who should pay. The argument that the answer is “America” is lazy. If we buy the argument that slavery in “America” began in 1619, for 170 of the 246 years slavery existed, there was no United States of America. How can we truly be trying to right a wrong when we give the countries that owned slave ships a pass? Hell, New Orleans’ mayor gave the key to the city to the King and Queen of Spain three years ago. Are we going to pretend that much of the South wasn’t controlled by the French and the Spanish, or that New York City wasn’t founded by the Dutch?
This is one of the few areas in which I think the proponents of reparations underestimate slavery’s reach in their claims about those who benefitted from it. They tend to stop at America or at the plantation owner, but those who traded with them and bought their products were also complicit. Additionally, the slave-ship captains were very often not American, nor were the bankers who mortgaged their properties (including enslaved people), loaned slaveholders money, and backed their financial institutions. How do we hold these slavery enablers accountable?
Even when we confine our view to America, all parties are not equal. If all Americans have a debt to pay, some debts must be greater than others. From Abolitionists to Union solders, from Reconstruction politicians to white civil rights activists, if the descendants of enslaved people are owed restitution, surely the descendants of those who opposed slavery are owed an exemption, or at least a discount. Never mind the descendants of those who immigrated to the US after the Civil War. Or even more to the point, immigrants and their descendants who came here after Jim Crow, under the 1965 immigration reform bill. To do this right, there needs to be a way to mete out justice—which means exacting payment—proportionately.
Next, we need to determine how the reparations will be paid. The most arduous step in this process is determining who is eligible. Are we to follow the lead of past racists by re-instituting the “one-drop rule”? Where do we draw the line genetically? Wherever that line is drawn, this clearly means DNA testing would be mandatory. Are we to believe that the group that is most likely to distrust the government—as evidenced by its proportion of vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic—will be willing to give up their DNA so readily? Never mind the implications for privacy, government surveillance, and a host of other issues.
After we determine who is eligible, how will the reparations be divided? I’ve heard talk about giving the funds to the black “community.” What does this do for blacks who no longer live in a majority-black community? Does every black person get the same amount, regardless of age? Will there be means testing? If this is a “restorative fix,” some may argue that people like LeBron James or Oprah Winfrey don’t need a payment. Or does the wealth of wealthy blacks actually argue for higher payments to them? Will the payments come from tax increases? If so, how do we ensure that blacks who are owed are not paying their own damages? This is messy and seems to lead to more questions than answers.
The final piece of this complicated puzzle is, surprisingly, the issue least discussed in the discourse on this topic. What will the effects of paying black Americans reparations be? We know that the debate will never go away so long as there isn’t something paid, but does paying reparations end the debate? While support for reparations seems to be growing, much of the talk about it is in the abstract, far removed from any serious consideration of the economic cost. Estimates of that cost, however, range from $1.4 trillion to as much as $51 trillion.
There is little doubt that when Americans are faced with the cost of paying reparations, support would wane. Just as likely, many who would continue to support reparations would do so on the condition that the payment would put the discussion around America’s racial reckoning to rest. If this failed to happen, resentment among non-blacks would likely grow. This would have a devastating effect on race relations in the long term.
There would also be an irreversible economic price to pay. Proponents often say America is rich and can afford it, but some estimates propose a payment larger than anything the government has ever paid. If the cash to cover it were simply printed, the value of the dollar would be greatly diminished. If taxes were raised to cover the cost, the tax increase would be so large that it would be politically infeasible. If $12 trillion, let alone $51 trillion, were added to the national debt, America’s economic standing in the world would surely decline. One has to wonder: Is a one-time payment to a targeted US population worth it if it measurably decreases the standard of living for all Americans, even those receiving payments? Even those callous enough not to care would not be able to avoid the reaction of the millions of Americans who would not only care but would place the blame solely at the feet of reparations and its proponents.
After listening to both sides of the argument, my views on reparations have not changed. It would have been the best response to the ills of slavery if done generations ago. That time has passed, and we cannot return to it to get it right. I believe that the alternatives being offered—free tuition, baby bonds, funding for the black community—are not reparations, but rather social programs disguised as reparations.
Even to consider the payment of reparations, all parties must be honest and consistent regarding their arguments. One cannot demand slavery reparations and then use redlining and mass incarceration to support the demand. Moreover, if the argument is that reparations are owned specifically for slavery, how does one prove trauma for actions one did not experience?
As I stated earlier, I am not opposed to Jim Crow reparations; however, we must admit that it is not enough to simply group people together by race. Just as all whites are not equally responsible for America’s racist past, conversely, all blacks have not suffered the same. Paying everyone the same amount regardless of their personal experience seems counterproductive and immoral.
Finally, we have to weigh the benefits of payments to black Americans against the cost. We must acknowledge that closing the wealth gap between black Americans and whites is a positive thing that would benefit the entire country, but not if it’s done to the detriment of other groups—especially those groups with no historical connection to slavery and Jim Crow—or of the country at large. We also have no way to predict how the funds will be used. If we trade reparations for affirmative action and all race-based government programs, what will happen to those families who are not “made whole” by the payments?
If we could get everything just right—what the reparations repair, whom exactly they go to, what the sum amounts to, and how it is to be funded—as well as an end to all affirmative action and race-based set asides—I could endorse Jim Crow reparations, as I have stated. But in the absence of clear and compelling answers to these questions, I believe that the best way to improve issues in the black community is through E Pluribus Unum. If a white man sees a black man as his fellow countryman, his brother, and sees that he's struggling, he's more likely to try to help him than if he sees him as the "other." This is where the current race-focused push is taking us—to a place where everyone is first measured by race, then by gender, then by religion, then by political affiliation, and so on. This will make a weaker, less perfect union in the long run, and an imperfectly conceived reparations program would likely result in yet another shift away from unity. And that is a cost none of us in this country can afford.
Charles Love is the Executive Director of Seeking Educational Excellence (SEE), a non-profit whose mission is to empower disadvantaged students to reach their full potential. SEE understands that education and marketable life skills are the keys to success, regardless of race. Therefore, SEE’s mission is to focus on STEM and end the social justice agenda in education.
Charles’ third book, Race Crazy, is scheduled for release on November 9, 2021 and is currently available for pre-order. He is the author of two previous books, Logic: The Truth About Blacks and the Republican Party and We Want Equality, How the Fight for Equality Gave Way to Preference. He is a scholar at 1776Unites and a contributing writer at City Journal. He also hosts The Charles Love Show on Chicago’s AM560 The Answer and co-hosts the Cut the Bull podcast. He is passionate about solutions rather than partisan bickering.