Opinion Reparations for Black Americans can work if they are reimagined
November 21, 2022 at 9:52 a.m. EST
“Andrew Delbanco is a professor of American studies at Columbia University. This is adapted from the Jefferson Lecture he delivered in October.
Reparations — the idea that a decent society must accept responsibility in the present for injustices perpetrated in the past — have been imagined in various ways through the course of American history. But until now, the idea of reparations for the crime of slavery, as well as for its long aftermath of racial subjugation, has run into objections — both principled and practical — that have shut down any effort to turn the idea into reality.
Reparations must be reimagined in a way that could turn aspiration into action.
First, we must contend with the kind of questions that have stalled such efforts in the past: What connection should one feel to acts committed or omitted before one was born? How can the cost be calculated of living at the mercy of a person who claims to own you, and of knowing that the same will be true for your children and their children? Even if one could compute the cost, who would fund the reparations, and to whom should they be paid? Would they be subject to means-testing and paid on a graduated scale? Who would decide who qualifies?
Adjudicating these questions — and there are many more — would no doubt open more cracks in our already fractured country. But evading them, as the phrase goes, is not an option.
Over the centuries, many voices have been raised in an effort to move America toward confronting these issues squarely and honestly.
Years before the first shots were fired in the Civil War, Black writer and abolitionist Martin Delany called for a “national indemnity … for the unparalleled wrongs, undisguised impositions, and unmitigated oppression” endured by Black people since the first enslaved Africans arrived in the 17th century.
After the war, the idea of money reparations began evolving into the idea that the federal government should provide formerly enslaved persons with grants of free land. That might sound like a radical plan out of Mao Zedong’s China or Fidel Castro’s Cuba — but there were precedents in 19th-century America. In 1862, on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, which had been captured by Union forces early in the war, the federal government granted to former slaves free housing, modest wages and basic rations in exchange for cotton cultivation on small plots of land. Three years later, Gen. William T. Sherman issued his famous Field Order 15 assigning ownership of hundreds of thousands of abandoned acres along the coast from Charleston to Florida to some 40,000 former slaves.
But these were wartime measures. As soon as peace returned, the “poetry” of the idea, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, collided with “prose” reality. With the return to power of a federal administration friendly to the White South, promises to the freedmen were revoked, property returned to former Confederate landowners, and the dream of Black homesteads “melted quickly away.” Toward the end of his life, Frederick Douglass bitterly remarked that “when the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living.” But America’s slaves were “sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends and without a foot of land upon which to stand.”
Land, of course, was not the only essential asset of which Black people had been deprived. Education was another. “Let us atone for our sins,” wrote the leaders of the American Missionary Association, “by furnishing schools and the means of improvement for the children, upon whose parents we have inflicted such fearful evils.”
This, too, proved to be a dream deferred. After federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877, Black children were subjected to what can only be called a terrorist campaign. Parents who dared send their children to school were fired by their White employers. Teachers and students were beaten. Schools were torched. And even when terror abated, Black schools were grossly underfunded. By 1950, in Mississippi, Black public schools receivedapproximately $32 of state support per student while White schools received roughly four times as much.
And so the debt owed by White America to Black Americans continued to accrue. It grew through the sharecropping system that locked agricultural workers into inescapable cycles of debt. It was compounded by the system of convict labor by which Black men were snatched off the streets for such putative crimes as “vagrancy,” and forced to work unpaid in factories or mines. It persisted into the 20th century as the United States built the semblance of a welfare state from which millions of African Americans were excluded. The signature program of the New Deal, the Social Security Act of 1935, exempted agricultural and domestic laborers who, in the South, were overwhelmingly Black. Black military veterans were excluded, too, not de jure but de facto, from the G.I. Bill. At just the moment when a college degree began to supplant the high school diploma as the minimum credential for entering the middle class, most Black veterans, who came overwhelmingly from the South, failed to qualify because their schooling had been negligible, or because most colleges wouldn’t admit them.
These larcenies were measurable forms of theft that help explain why Black Americans have owned so little that could be passed on to their children, and why the median assets of Black families today trail so far behind — by about 700 percent — those of White families.
But there is another list of immeasurable injuries: frat boys posing in blackface; Black men shoved aside so White women might pass on the sidewalk; beaches segregated; and, of course, the ghastly regularity of beatings and lynchings. These pathologies haunted Black writers such as Richard Wright, who wrote of them with icy rage, and James Baldwin, who wrote of them with sorrow and pity, as when, flying to Atlanta over woodland, he imagined that the “rust-red earth of Georgia ... had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.”
This appalling history makes the moral case for some form of reparations irrefutable. But it doesn’t answer the political question of whether reparations in any conventional sense are conceivable.
Through the 19th and into the mid-20th century, Black Americans issued impassioned calls for recompense, even sometimes proposing dollar amounts per person or per family. By and large, these demands were dismissed, ignored or, as in the case of Callie House, leader of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association, silenced by imprisonment.
But around the middle of the 20th century, propelled by two historical events, the reputation of reparations began to change. The first event took place abroad: the campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe, led by Germany. The second took place here in the United States: the movement to secure basic civil rights for millions of Black Americans.
It is always dangerous to go down the road of analogies. There are no scales by which to weigh the worth of Jews sent by rail to the gas chambers versus Africans sent by sea into oblivion. In thinking about history, differences are always more salient than commonalities. Yet the fact that post-Nazi Germany was trying to own up to its crimes was not lost on those who, in the 1950s, began to press the United States to do the same.
The most celebrated champion of racial justice in midcentury America, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is not usually counted among them. As far as I know, he never used the term “reparations.” But he knew that, in the absence of redress, time alone does not erase past injustice. And so, in 1964, we find him writingthat:
The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the Government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.
Construing such a “settlement” in monetary terms was encouraged not only by the German precedent, but also by homegrown efforts in the United States. In 1946, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission as a mediator between Native Americans and the federal government. Since then, from Alaska to North Carolina, several billion dollars have been paid out by federal and state governments in settlement of land claims; it’s a big-sounding number but, in aggregate, it amounts to less than $1,000 per person.
Another official act of reparation occurred in 1988, when Congress, with bipartisan support, passed the Civil Liberties Act, by which the United States officially apologized to Americans of Japanese descent who had been thrown into detention camps during World War II. Almost 50 years after the internment, payments of $20,000 were authorized for living individuals.
Today, some advocates of reparations propose distributing trillions of dollars to everyone who can demonstrate descent from an enslaved ancestor and who, for some designated period, has identified as Black. Heartfelt as they might be, such purely monetary approaches face overwhelming obstacles: competing claims by other groups, rivalry and discord among prospective beneficiaries, not to mention the mind-boggling price tag attached to any meaningful attempt to give back what was taken away.
And yet, inspired in part by a powerful essay published by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic not quite a decade ago, the question of slavery reparations has been gaining attention across a swath of American life. Apologies are flowing from universities, municipalities and businesses for their complicity not only in slavery but also in subsequent forms of racial exploitation. Reps. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) have introduced a bill that would provide federal loan guarantees and education subsidies to descendants of Black World War II veterans who were denied their G.I. Bill benefits. House Resolution 40, first introduced more than 30 years ago, calls for a commission to design a national reparations plan, and has now garnered more than 200 co-sponsors. Depending on one’s point of view, these are either baby steps or signs that the dam is breaking.
At stake in all these efforts is what might be called the sins-of-the-fathers question, addressed by authors from Sophocles and Aeschylus to Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Faulkner. Edmund Burke, in the wake of the French Revolution, decried the idea of holding individuals responsible for what he called a “pedigree of crimes” committed in the past by some class, party or sect to which they may belong. But Burke also wrote that society “is a partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” If history confers on people in the present neither credit nor blame for what happened in the past, what kind of partnership exists across time?
Our nation is badly overdue in facing this question. But seeking a consensual answer is like wading into quicksand. I suspect that most people believe both the nay and the yay of the matter — that no one living today is to blame for the sins of the past, but that everyone has a responsibility to help redress them.
In pondering what this might actually mean, I came upon a book, “Reconsidering Reparations,” published a few months ago by a young scholar at Georgetown University, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, who speaks of reparations not as payback or getting even or settling scores but as what he calls a “construction project.” “What if building the just world,” he asks, “was reparations?” He means, I think, that we must proceed with full awareness that the dire challenges of our time — climate change, disparities in health care and education amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, gun violence, state violence in the form of bad policing, misused and inequitable incarceration, to name just a few — all have disproportionate effects on persons left vulnerable by history, notably but by no means only Black persons. This version of reparations does not gloss over penalties exacted in the past by racial cruelty, but it looks to a future in which human dignity will count for more and more and race will count for less and less.
King shared this view. Back in the 20th century, when our politics were positively congenial compared with today, he understood that targeted reparations solely for Black Americans were a political impossibility. He correctly predicted that “many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights,’ which seeks special consideration to the Negro … and does not take into sufficient account of their plight (that of the white worker).”
But this did not dissuade King from the principle of redress itself. On the contrary, he envisioned something more daring, more ambitious, and more inclusive — an idea of reparations that was not post-racial but cross-racial. “It is a simple matter of justice,” he said, “that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.”
Today, a great many White Americans feel as demeaned and discarded as Black Americans, and just as forgotten. In the grim metrics of poverty rates, infant mortality and maternal deaths in childbirth, Black Americans and Native Americans continue to hold the lead. But in the distribution of suffering, as measured by other markers such as opioid addiction, alcoholism and suicide, the racial gap is closing.
This multiracial reality can be addressed only with a multiracial response of the sort envisioned by King. Beginning with a robust defense of the right to vote, such a response must include subsidized housing for low-income Americans; improved access to health care; investments in public transportation; expanded child tax credits; preschool and wraparound services for all children of the sort that affluent families take for granted. It must include renewed investment in community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, tribal and regional public colleges, where low-income White students as well as Black, Hispanic and Native American students are likely to enroll. At elite private colleges, it should mean less dependence on the blunt instrument of standardized testing, and more bridge programs for recruiting and preparing children from low-asset families, White as well as non-White. All this might sound like a fanciful wish list, and a partial one at that — but it is no departure from the American creed of equal opportunity, in which both parties profess to believe. I have no doubt that a racially inclusive approach to repairing our society stands a better chance than any effort that is racially exclusive.
Reparations narrowly conceived will stoke anger and resentment, but reparations broadly imagined can be a force for unity and reconciliation. This is the dream by which King was possessed: to repair what he called the broken “network of mutuality” that was, according to his religion, both the origin and destiny of humankind. The reconstructed world he imagined — still, for now, a dream world — will be a place where anyone’s remediable suffering is an affront to us all.“
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