Let’s discuss reparations

California may have created a template for a conversation about reparations, which we are bound to have. Repeat — may have.

It is part of the “racial reckoning” ignited by the murder of ex-con George Floyd we are now experiencing.

Illustration: The Economist

The idea of somehow “making whole” African-Americans who experienced loss because of America’s racist past is not a new idea. It’s been around for a very long time and helped create fame for Ta-Nehisi Coates with his June 2014 essay in The Atlantic magazine.

The problem with his analysis, I wrote at the time, was that Coates made no “ask.” He laid out the history of slavery, and Jim Crow that followed that, and past racial policies such as redlining neighborhoods and denying some Black veterans the benefits they should have had under the G.I. Bill.

He did not say who should receive how much from whom, which are really important questions.

At the time, I wrote we can have a conversation about reparations, but a conversation consists of an exchange of ideas, not one side lecturing the other.

I can’t discuss reparations without a price tag, and not under a formula by which my minimum-wage daughter would have to pay reparations to Oprah Winfrey, or my son on disability payments would have to write a check to LeBron James.

In a mind-numbing stretch, Coates prefaced his academic analysis with a quote from Deuteronomy, ordering Hebrew slave holders to release (especially Hebrew) slaves after six years and to compensate them.

First, I doubt that Coates is Hebrew. (Sorry for the Levi-ty.) 

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Photo: Vanity Fair)

Second, the command is for the master to compensate the slave. It does not say the great-great-great-grandchild of the owner, who has never owned a slave, must compensate the great-great-great-grandchild of the slave, who has never been enslaved. 

The idea of reparations is fraught with complicated details, and California has tried to address them, but is lacking in a way I will explain. 

In a related development, 11 U.S. cities have committed themselves to a small-basis reparations scheme, with details to follow. Georgetown University and the Princeton Theological Seminary are offering free tuition to descendants of slaves sold by those institutions. The institutions that directly benefited from slavery are making amends. That seems fair and right.

”Apologies” for slavery and the following discrimination have been made here and there, but the sincerity of apologies could be measured by the amount of restitution. There rarely was any, yet something is due.

Some Native American tribes were given some remedies — including the financial benefit to operate casinos — for past injustice, and Japanese who were wrongly interned during World War II received an apology and a small cash stipend of $20,000. That went only to those incarcerated — not their descendants.

So there are two precedents — payment for illegal treatment, but limited to actual victims. The latter would not apply to African Americans.

The whole California report is 490 pages. I have read the 24-page executive summary.

But before I get to that, there is a point I want to make.

My family — which arrived here shortly before World War I — never had anything to do with slavery and to my knowledge no one related to me ever took advantage of a Black person.

But my country did, and I am a member of that community. Not to be held guilty. I don’t believe in collective guilt, but I can be part of an effort to make whole those who had suffered.

The California task force, which began meeting in June 2021, voted in March to limit reparations to the descendants of African Americans living in the U.S. in the 19th century, overruling advocates who wanted to expand compensation to all Black people in the U.S., AP reported.

“All” Black people would include people like Barack Obama, whose father was an immigrant from Kenya, arriving in the mid 20th Century. Obama has no ties to slavery whatsoever (while Michelle Obama might). But Obama might qualify as someone who was the victim of racist housing, economic, or environmental injustice. As I said, it is complicated and fraught with details.

Slavery itself is a topic to discuss, because it was not an invention of American white supremacy, it has been around since Biblical times, and practiced by Blacks against themselves. White Britons brought it to North America. White Americans eventually abolished it.

“Four hundred years of discrimination has resulted in an enormous and persistent wealth gap between Black and white Americans,” said the report by the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans…”

Here’s some great context provided by AP:

“California is home to the fifth-largest Black population in the U.S., after Texas, Florida, Georgia and New York, the report said. An estimated 2.8 million Black people live in California, although it is unclear how many are eligible for direct compensation.

“African Americans make up less than 6% of California’s population yet they are overrepresented in jails, youth detention centers and prisons. About 28% of people imprisoned in California are Black and in 2019, 36% of minors ordered into state juvenile detention facilities were African Americans, according to the report.

“Black Californians earn less and and are more likely to be poor than white residents. In 2018, Black residents earned on average just under $54,000 compared to $87,000 for white Californians.”

Those few paragraphs give a remarkably clear picture of Black California. Numbers, facts, stats.

The task force opens with a long, and detailed history of slavery and inequality in the U.S., and in California.

It then moves into recommendations. Here is a selection of proposals, some of them reading like a social worker’s bucket list, having nothing to do with slavery:

  • Making education, substance use and mental treatment the first priorities of prisons
  • No prisoner should be forced to work
  • Incarcerated people should be allowed to vote
  • Create expressions to acknowledge “state-sanctioned white supremacy terror,” including memorials and a truth and reconciliation commission
  • Furnish to Black Californians the estimated value of Black-owned businesses and property “stolen or destroyed through acts of racial terror.” (I am not sure if this includes damage by riots in Black communities.)
  • Apologies for voter disenfranchisement.
  • Better voter registration
  • Allow felons to serve on juries
  • Compensate people removed from their homes by urban renewal
  • Prevent banking and mortgage discrimination
  • Repeal “crime-free housing policies”
  • State subsidized mortgages with low interest rates for Black people
  • Development incentives for businesses that provide healthy food
  • Eliminate racial bias in standardized testing
  • Free tuition for California colleges and universities
  • Reduce arbitrary segregation within California public schools
  • Provide scholarship for all Black high schools graduates. (To attend the free colleges?)
  • Adopt a K-12 Black Studies curriculum that introduces students to concepts of race and racial identity
  • Fund the statewide planting of trees to create shade equity
  • Reduce the density of “food swamps” (I.e., high-densities of fast-food restaurants) in Black neighborhoods.
  • Compensate families who were denied familial inheritances by way of racist anti-miscegenation laws 
  • More welfare for Black people
  • Eliminate past-due child support owed to the government for non-custodial parents
  • Eliminate the collection of child support as a mean to reimburse the state for current or past government assistance
  • Require that all jail visitation policies be culturally competent, trauma-informed, and non-threatening for family members
  • Compensate individuals who have been deprived of righteous profits from their artistic, creative, intellectual or athletic work
  • Raise the minimum wage
  • Address disparities in transportation that limit access to jobs.

That just scratches the surface.

Fair-minded people will agree something is owed some African-Americans, the ones who can prove continuing injury from long-ago slavery. But what?

Despite the hundreds of pages California devoted to the topic, the same thing is missing here as from Coates’ work:

The overall price tag, and who gets what?

It’s great to kick the tires and take a test drive, but until a price tag is put on the vehicle, we can’t have that conversation about reparations. 

12 thoughts on “Let’s discuss reparations”

  1. For some of these proposals there’s also the question of determining who is black. Would we use the rule of the Jim Crow South, “even one drop”? I hope not. But if not that, what? When there’s money on the line, it’s not hard to imagine people choosing to “identify as black”.

  2. Andrew has a good point.
    While I think that African Americans have had a raw deal, my position is that this reparations demand is just plain tiresome. As much as I hate straw man arguments, I will ask if, as a Jew, and a child of Holocaust survivors I am entitled to reparations from Germany? For that matter, are we Jews entitled to reparations from every country (and there are lots of them) that subjected us to ghettos, persecution and deadly pogroms and second class citizenship over the millennia. I suspect that the natives of all of the countries colonized by Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Belgium might ask for reparations as well from those countries that occupied them, sucked up their wealth and subjected the natives to slavery, servitude and second class citizenship. Certainly, as citizens and human beings, African Americans should have the same rights as any other citizen regardless of their ethnicity or color. But my ancestors were in Poland for centuries while they were slaves. They were not responsible for their trauma. They had their own. And this reparations discussion is becoming exceedingly tedious.

    1. Just to be argumentative (so unlike me 😉) YES, the former Colonial people would be entitled to reparations, too. If the argument is valid for one, it should be valid for all.
      As to Germany, it did make payments to those directly suffering, and I believe it has made restitution to some families whose wealth was plundered.
      But clearly, not to me. Even though it murdered my family. The people in charge were tried, if captured.

      1. I do not argue about the colonial victims at all. Of course, the argument would be valid for them. Let’s also throw in Native Americans, who really got screwed over as well. Did they ever get their lands back? The shitty reservations don’t count. As far as Germany, yes, they reimbursed Israel for the 500,000 refugees and also compensated Holocaust survivors. I doubt that they got them all. My mother wanted nothing to do with Germany after we emigrated here. To her dying day she was haunted by the specter of a Nazi return. Certainly Germany did not reimburse the Goyim branch of my family in Poland. It’s estimated that Germany owes Poland $850 billion in reparations. Like you, I’m still waiting but I am not holding my breath.

        1. Wanda,
          I here you. War sucks – PERIOD ! Fanatics trying to annihilate any people is wrong, be it Native Americans by the whites, who became Americans. Nazis who tried to rule the world. Chinese, Cambodians, Africans or any of the other countless many.
          As for the Real People. To the best of my knowledge, There are still tribes that have not signed treaties with the United States. I don’t believe that there are any lawsuits at this time. The big one that I recall, is the Tribes ( Nation ) up in Massachusetts who after many years won their suit. The infamous Boston Commons belonged to these tribes. They were reimbursed in money and land. I believe that they were the first Indian Casino. Other tribes have casinos, but it is in the language of the agreements. They are few and far between. There are no ‘reservations’ in this area. Further south and north you will find them, and they are of the few that made money from the tourists. The bulk of the res are ghettos ! The local tribes choose to live on the land that our government gave them. They receive a stipend and get what they get. Also true for the Native People of Canada.
          What did the Indian do to receive such attention.? They stood in the way of progress. Live on land that the white man wanted, then took. The annihilation of the Jew was almost complete. Had the U.S. entered the war earlier, less damage and killing and murder would have taken place. This is true with the Japanese as well. We stayed back because money always dictates the politics.
          This is more true right here in our own country and sorry to say, it’s a well kept secret. Who ever heard of these famous ‘Indian Schools’, such as Carlyle ? These ‘schools were common in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When it became to obvious that the government was killing off the indian, they tried the other, more human method. Take the children off the res, send them to a white man school where they were stripped of all things native. No uncut hair. No native language or dress. No mention of being indian. This under the threat of punishment – you better believe that there was nothing humane about these so called schools. They were also common in Canada as well. Under court order, the people of these tribes are permitted to locate their relatives, buried on these government properties. When found, they are taken home to be among the real people.
          So, why is our past kept almost a secret ? Are we pretending that the white man was here first with his slaves ? The along came more whites and with them, black slaves ? The whole time, telling the ‘natives’ to blend, move or die. If in fact, we do recognize this injustice, will we then give reparations to the surviving generations ?

    An interesting topic, to be sure. Is there an ( easy ) answer ? Definitely not. Just as with almost all of our issues here in America, the slavery issue is complex. First, the obvious. All slaves and slave holders are long since dead. That’s probably the only statement everyone can agree on. I myself do not believe that we owe anybody anything. What needs to be corrected are the injustices bestowed on all humankind. The slaves were freed, but they weren’t given a fair chance to make their mark on society. Every immigrant suffered similar treatment. As you pointed out. The Japanese-Americans were dishonored during the second war. The Native American STILL is our biggest black eye. Your one and only statement on casinos on reservations left a huge hole in that conversation.
    In your context of fair-minded people, I am not . The injustices came about over the years for any number of greedy selfish reasons. Just as it is/was of every other people.

  4. A thoughtful piece, Stu. It is indeed a complex issue. I am in agreement with everything you said herein.

  5. I consider myself a ‘fair-minded’ individual, and I disagree in toto with any form of so-called ‘reparations.’ The idea is ludicrous.

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