The Right Kind of Reparations

The combination of election year politics with the demonstrations and riots following the brutal killing of George Floyd have focused the thoughts of Americans, perhaps more than ever before, on our treatment as a people of African Americans. Even as we struggle with the question of police reform, another old issue has newly forced itself onto our attention: reparations for the victims of American slavery.

A few days after Floyd was killed in May, Human Rights Watch issued a call for reparations for descendants of the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, one of the worst race riots in American history. Just two weeks ago, the city council of Asheville, North Carolina, approved reparations for black residents in the form of subsidies for homeownership, business and career development. Federal legislation has also been introduced to compensate for “systemic racism and historic underinvestment in communities of color.”

The modern reparations debate has focused on how to seek compensation for numerous acts of legal discrimination authorized by local, state and Federal governments in the century and a half since the end of Reconstruction in 1877—laws and policies that prevented American blacks from participating in the country’s economic life on an equal basis with other Americans. 

Readers of what has become the most compelling intervention in the contemporary reparations debate, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations,” indicts local and state governments, north and south, as well as the Federal government, for many decades of racist legislation. He maintains that a great part of the persistent income gap between whites and blacks is a direct result of this legal discrimination. He argues that actual restitution should be paid, not only to the descendants of African slaves brought to America, but also to blacks injured by unjust enrichment at the hands of governments and corporations since the end of slavery. By so doing America will right a great wrong and allow African Americans, at long last, to lay aside their just resentment and integrate into American society as full members. It will allow white Americans aware of the evils in our past to feel that justice, at long last, has been done.

Coates’ argument is almost Burkean in its appeal to intergenerational moral responsibility. He might well agree with Burke’s famous dictum, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Yet he is often attacked for being a radical Marxist, making demands that are unrealistic, divisive, and destructive of civil society. Many are eager to discredit his argument for reparations by equating it with the demands of the social justice mobs now on the streets, the activists calling for defunding the police and for a guaranteed minimum income, free health care, and housing for all African Americans—reparations through racialized socialism. Despite the sanction shamefully bestowed on such demands by media organs and many public officials, most Americans still have the good sense to recognize that enacting these measures would wreck the lives of both black and white citizens.

Yet many Americans continue to feel that we as a people need to make some kind of restitution for past discrimination. The difficulty with the reparations argument has always been practical, not moral. It lies in the questions, by whom? to whom? and how much? Who has the obligation to pay, who has a just claim to be paid, and how much of the relative poverty suffered by modern black Americans can be traced to the discriminatory practices of the past?

Educating young black men and women so that they can better profit from college is a much wiser use of public funds than educating future baristas in subjects of small value to society.

Most people who reflect on these questions thoughtfully will conclude that we as a people can never really make restitution for slavery and the racial discrimination of the past. The damages can never be calculated in monetary terms. Nor will we ever be able explain to the Chinese businessman in my neighborhood, a man who came to this country in 1956 to escape communism, why his taxes should go up to compensate African Americans, some of them now well off and college educated, for discriminatory housing policies in 1940s Chicago.

What we can do is consider policies that will both close the wealth gap between white and black Americans and increase the prosperity of all Americans. What holds poor African Americans back more than any other circumstance is the wretched quality of public schools in the inner cities. This is not really in doubt. But the inner cities also hold the largest untapped reservoir of talent in America: badly educated African Americans. If we could find a way to improve how these young men and women are educated, we could reduce the poverty gap quickly and dramatically improve social relations in America.

We have the resources to do so without raising taxes. All we need to do is strongly consider reallocating some of the $160 billion the federal government spends annually on grants, work-study programs and loans for post-secondary education. Instead of spending those funds on middle-class entitlements, which often just inflate tuition at wealthy private colleges and for-profit schools, we should convert those funds to education vouchers that would give African-American parents the resources to choose better K-12 schools for their children. Instead of loading middle class students with mountains of debt, we could provide a solid benefit to those who need it most.

Surely those funds would be much better spent on the part of our society that has the most potential for improvement and for contributing to the general welfare? Given the misallocation of educational resources caused by lavish federal spending in higher education, shifting funds to basic education makes a great deal of economic sense. Those of us who have watched with alarm the performances of our college educated youth in the streets over the two months will not regret reducing government subsidies for poisonous indoctrination. Educating young black men and women so that they can better profit from college is a much wiser use of public funds than educating future baristas in subjects of small value to society. Educating African Americans, and indeed all Americans, well at the earliest stages of their development will make us all better off.

Reader Discussion

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on August 03, 2020 at 08:00:02 am

Reparations here are based on the immoral/illegal premise of guilt by association. America is not Renaissance Italy, the well spring of Machiavellian political exploitation. Reconstruction was a failure, no less than Great Society policy, in pursuing the remedy cum evil of government intervention in a matter epicentered in heart, soul and mind, calling for Spiritual healing, and there to revival, individual by individual, not material gratification or dependency by race or any other 'privileged/suspect' group. Collectivist orientation has undermined the significance and importance of individual right in the promotion of true virtue in the love of our fellow man, and there to preempting it in the mistaken belief that collective government solutions solve individual moral problems. 'Systemic racism' is a myth, generated out of a racist frame of mind. Perhaps, if the academy were to rediscover the virtue of theology, maybe the 'socialist engineering', and there to the 'shaming', would be seen for what it is, an impediment to good relations amongst the races amongst all. Afterall, all lives matter! Particularly in the equality of protection. Maybe a little less government intervention and a little more religious revival, the classic American kind, focusing on the individual, not the race, or any other abstraction, and there to the love, not the hate?

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on August 03, 2020 at 11:21:51 am

The only cure for government caused evils is for the government to be prevented from continuing to do evil. There can never be just-reimbursements from government because government has nothing of its own to give as reparations. It must steal everything it purports to distribute to the aggrieved. So, justice cannot be found via means that are unjust.

The sole remedy is freedom from government control and subsidy...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on August 03, 2020 at 08:51:38 am

“Show us your skin color. Then we’ll know whether you are to get special government favors or whether you get the bill for them.” That’s not Law. That’s not Liberty. That’s not reparations for harms done. It’s collectivist, racist, destructive policy that will sow more discord.

Contemporary black Americans have not been hurt by slavery. There are plenty who have been hurt by the welfare state, which creates incentives to fail. If one wants to “close the wealth gap,” one should work to eliminate the welfare state.

Hankins does have one good idea here, though. Government subsidies the colleges should be eliminated. The university system is a fundamental source of the poisonous doctrines that threaten to destroy civilization.

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Charles N. Steele
on August 03, 2020 at 10:44:06 am

Hankins is half-correct--end government subsidies to post-secondary institutions. Where he goes wrong in assuming that blacks are the only victims of the failures of k-12 public education. What is required is legislation requiring that the amount spent per student in the public schools be credited to parents for choosing among educational opportunities. The result would be not only to spur the establishment of private alternatives to failed public schools but would force public schools to compete.

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John Braeman
on August 03, 2020 at 11:03:23 am

He doesn't argue that African-Americans are the only victims of poor education. His whole point is we can address this in a way that does not cause further division. And in that, I think this is a very helpful approach. The solution proposed, however does not go far enough. It depends on budget priorities, which change like the weather. A structural change would take educational funding away from localities and give it to the state governments, who would be required to fund the education of every student equally. We can argue about whether that is best achieved through vouchers or charter schools, or public education, but the first requirement is that poor districts have the same per student funding as rich districts.

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Lee Perlman
on August 03, 2020 at 14:23:02 pm

"...the first requirement is that poor districts have the same per student funding as rich districts."
Yeah, let's throw more money at public education. That'll stop riots, end poverty and eliminate crime.

BTW: the DC school system spends among the highest (if not the most) per student and ranks among the worst (if not the worst) in the nation.

Why do people always want to do more of what did not work and hope for a better outcome than the failure they always get?

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on August 03, 2020 at 19:55:58 pm

Time after time two things occur:
1) Proponents of a failed program / policy stance insist that MORE money is THE answer.
2) countering this are innumerable statistical analyses that demonstrate that the relationship between educational dollars provided and student achievement is at best tenuous and often the higher the monies the poorer the performance.
No more money to an educational commissariat that teaches only hate for its benefactors and disregards the growth, intellectual and moral, of the students (our children and grandchildren, BTW) placed in their care.
Most "educators" I have encountered are 2nd / 3rd minds who "parrot" the intellectual mush that they themselves have had forced upon them.
Not a dime more for the Democrat - National Federation of Teachers coalition.

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on August 03, 2020 at 11:06:55 am

Couple of observations:
1)" It will allow white Americans aware of the evils in our past to feel that justice, at long last, has been done." While it MAY allow some white Americans to feel self satisfaction that justice has been done, it does not necessarily follow that it will end the constant demands for more and more "equality of condition." Why not demand that all occupations be representative of the population demographics? (See NYTimes Guild demands, etc)
2) Charles Steele is correct. Welfare state has impaired the ability of black families to prosper; indeed, policies such as requiring a SINGLE (not dual) parent family in order to be eligible for welfare payments has mis-incentivized poor families.
3) While Hankin correctly identifies the socially and morally destructive consequences of present day univerity education, he fails to note that the problem is also prevalent in K-12 education where the minds of 6 - 18 year old children are shaped / forged in self-hate, self loathing and disrespect for this country. What passes as History is more akin to an episode from "Fractured Fairy Tales", a cartoonish version of Aesop's Fables from 1960's TV.
No, it would be better to dis-establish the Schools of Education, the Teachers Unions and allow for "UN-credentialed" teachers from industry and commerce to provide instruction at ALL schools. End the monopoly of the Teachers-Democrat Party coalition.
4) BTW: While we are providing reparations, how about we provide some for the massacre of Italians in New Orleans circa 19th century?
5) The mere mention of reparations, without a sound denunciation based upon both the moral (natural law) and positive law predicate ONLY encourages the Ta-Nehisi Coates and Glovers of the world. To misquote and old commercial: "It is the steady drip of [cultural and moral] acid." Eventually, the acid will break through the containment vessel.

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on August 03, 2020 at 11:17:32 am

Good comments by "GDP" especially. Although there's much to like in Professor Hankins's post, it lacks the moral clarity of those comments.

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David B Frisk
on August 03, 2020 at 11:18:32 am

I have further ideas than just educational choice. Let's also do the following:

1) Repeal the federal minimum wage and strongly fight for the repeal of all minimum wages at all levels of government. The late Milton Friedman referred to minimum wages as "the most anti-Negro laws on the books" because they price the least skilled and least job-ready people who tend to be minorities out of the job market, denying the critical job skills needed to become self-sufficient.

2) End the war on Folks who Imbibe Substances to Which Vested Interests Object. The "school to prison" pipeline runs right through the Drug War. Once a felon, always an unemployable state-dependent.

3) Gut the social-welfare state plantation. Since the Great Society programs, the US has maintained a steady 11-15% social underclass: uneducated, unmarried, unemployable folks dependent upon crime and the state for their sustenance.

Embrace the words of Fredrick Douglass - stop "doing things to" minorities and let them stand on their own...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on August 03, 2020 at 12:36:56 pm

I think Hankins makes a good argument--but I wonder--why is it always the case that we need to remove funds from basically decent programs--and promise not to "raise taxes?" Is that because good progressive ideas must always appeal to ideological selfishness and historical blindness? We can do as Hankins suggests--and we could transfer subsidies from fossil fuel companies and bail outs for airline companies--and then--go ahead and raise taxes too. We have had no trouble cutting taxes to stimulate the national deficit. Let's go the other way for while. Tax reform, on the basis of greater justice and equality--might also aid in getting this done. In the end, apologizing for the desire to pursue true public goods is becoming tiresome.

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Anthony Raymond Brunello
on August 03, 2020 at 15:33:51 pm

Merriam-Webster Online informs us for “reparation”: “the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury.”

It is shocking to encounter the construct “right kind of reparations” respecting United States fellow citizens. There are other steps before reparation to “We the People of the United States in order to . . .” can be proposed as statutory justice. Is there injury or opportunity in being a U.S. citizen? Has the injured individual accepted being of “We the People of the United States in order to . . .”? How did the injury happen? When did the injury happen? Who inflicted the injury? Did the injured party appeal to the perpetrator(s) for relief? Did the perpetrator respond? What caused the harm? Do U.S. citizens connect to develop individual happiness with statutory justice?

Some citizens appreciate the United States, having: been colonized for 295 years on its Eastern seaboard with people enslaved in Africa by Africans---Africans sold by Africans, brokered by Arabs, bought by European colonizers and delivered to N. America’s Eastern seaboard (see, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_slave_trade); won military independence from England by virtue of France’s strategy and strength at Yorktown, VA in September 1781; ratified global status as 13 free and independent states in 1784; accepted that the 1774 confederacy of states could not survive; proposed that citizens connect for 5 public disciplines to establish responsible psychological independence in 1787; and accepted Civil War as necessary for Christians who believed in abolition of slavery to prevail over fellow citizens who were erroneous believers. Nine of those states ratified the proposal, on June 21, 1788, intending to amend it. Operations began on March 4, 1789. Territories requested statehood such that as of August, 1959, the nation is the people of 50 states with 6 territories.

Due to interference by Congress and citizens’ failure to hold Congress accountable, the constitutional intentions have been neglected for 233 years, a short time in the history of slavery. The slavery competition in Africa is attributed to the descendant religions of Abraham---primarily, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and now African-American Christianity. Congress, by stating in the First Amendment they ratified in 1791, that they would neither establish nor prevent religion, obfuscated the intentions of the U.S. Constitution: encouraging U.S. citizens to develop responsible human independence. The action needed to relieve the dominance of religion in the U.S. is to amend the First Amendment so as to protect the individual citizen’s opportunity to develop integrity.

Most citizens consider and accept the proffered U.S. Constitution, because they perceive self-interest in contributing for mutual, comprehensive safety and security. Other citizens want egocentric liberty rather than responsible human independence. Some of them take the license to harm property and injure or murder fellow citizens. They invite written law-enforcement whether statutory justice has been discovered and worked out or not. Some think guilt is arbitrarily determined by the accuser. Citizens who do not contribute to civic, civil, legal, and spiritual development of their nation invite the justice proffered by We the People of the United States---willing citizens.

Professor Hankins is correct in concluding “Educating . . . Americans well at the earliest stages of their development will make us all better off.” Beginning in 2020---this moment, every Education Department in this country needs to develop programs to coach and encourage each person to accept being a human being; to accept that it takes a quarter century for an infant to acquire comprehension and intention to live his or her unique lifetime; to accept the human individual power, energy, and authority (HIPEA) to develop integrity; to accept that more than a quarter century of engaged service to humankind is the vehicle for experience and observations that empower a person to discover his or her unique abilities; and to hope for another quarter century to share before dying the lessons learned to posterity (Gaines, 1993, d. 2019).

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Phillip Beaver
on August 03, 2020 at 17:44:59 pm

Besides the repugnance of channeling Edmund Burke through the words of Ta-Nehesi Coates, this essay is politically confused and intellectually confusing. On the one hand, it appears to support the reparations demand of Coates, Danny Glover (see photo header) and other race hustlers, a crass demand that whites pay blacks huge sums of cold cash based on the patent lie that white supremacy then and now makes blacks forever victims and deserving of even more money than the trillions of dollars blacks have received since the Great Society's onslaught of special compensation and special benefits for blacks. The trillions in direct federal expenditures fails to account for the far larger dollar value of 50 years of economic and educational special benefits to blacks from affirmative action in public education and employment and the even greater dollar value of affirmative action goodies provided blacks by the private sector in the last half-century. (Talk about having paid and paid and paid again for a running tab!) The essay also suggests that reparations (the author calls them "restitution," which sounds nicer, I suppose) is morally warranted, legally justified and should be viewed socially as unexceptionable. And, of course, all of this has been and must continue to to be provided, paid for and offered at the expense of whites.
But, having called Ta-Nehesi Coates' racialist bet, the author folds his cards, sighs and opines that the logistics of reparations (excuse me, "restitution") are simply to difficult for it ever to work. ( It's as if he's declaiming, "We'd do it in a New York minute if we could all agree on how to make the payments. But we just can't agree of how to spread the cash.")

So, instead of directly giving blacks cash, the author argues we must pay them indirectly by taking federal dollars away from colleges (which seem to teach rioting) and (those nasty) "for-profit schools'' and using that money to fund vouchers for blacks to attend better K-12 schools.
At last, a cogent, intelligent notion!

Three thoughts:
1) It is bad strategy, morally and intellectually, for an author to seek support here by citing the lowly Ta-Nehisi Coates, especially in the same breathe in which one invokes Burke. That is akin to invoking the Reverend Al Sharpton in support of Dr. King's moral arguments.
2) The author has it backwards. The logistics of reparations ("restitution") would be easy; the public support is not (yet) available, and there is no legal or moral case to be made for penalizing or rewarding someone in America solely because of the color of his skin. Indeed, doing so is contrary to natural law and would violate the constitution (if Chief Justice Roberts gets out of bed on the right side the day the case is decided.) Comments by Z9Z99 and I discuss this matter extensively in reply to the article "Forgiveness as a Political Necessity" in L&L on July 31, 2020.
3) Federal funding of vouchers was the heart of W Bush's No Child Left Behind bill. The Republican proposal to the Dem's was, "We'll give you federal money for public schools and you give us educational standards which allow bad teachers to be fired and private school vouchers which will fund competition in K-12 education, thereby forcing public schools to improve." Chief Dem negotiator Ted Kennedy, Lion of the Senate that he was, replied, "We like the more- federal- money offer and we can even agree to federal funding of state standards, but, George, all that stuff about firing bad public school teachers and federal funding of private school vouchers is a non-starter." George W, hard-bargaining Texan that he was, said, "Deal." and the rest is history.

The essayist suggests we revisit George W's strategy. HaHa!
Yet, the "Lion of the Senate" is dead, and Chuck U Schumer is a reasonable fellow. Just ask Nancy Pelosi.

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on August 04, 2020 at 00:05:44 am

this essay is politically confused and intellectually confusing.

It certainly is not very persuasive. The structure of the essay is a non sequitur. If you start with the paragraph that begins "What we can do is consider policies that will both close the wealth gap...", everything that follows can be a stand-alone essay with no reference to the wandering thoughts on reparations. The conditions necessary to reparations are neither necessary nor sufficient, nor for that matter related, to the education-funding proposal advocated by Professor Hankins. What he has done has made a public policy burrito, wrapping an education funding filling inside a reparations tortilla, and hoping someone will swallow it. If the education-financing proposal described by Professor Hankins is a good idea, it does not need the concept of reparations to make it worth pursuing. Improving the education of students, including black students, is a worthwhile undertaking regardless of the current status of the debate over reparations, and does not need to be justified with reference to past injustices.

There are other criticisms as well. Professor Hankins claims

The difficulty with the reparations argument has always been practical, not moral.

It seemed not to have occurred to him that perhaps the practical difficulties are a result of the moral difficulties. Perhaps the difficulty in explaining the situation to his Chinese immigrant neighbor is that the idea of reparations doesn't really make sense without a moral claim. Furthermore, if we do not identify the moral issues at the center of the claim for reparations, e.g. generational liability, liability of recent immigrants, etc., we have no perspective by which to try and resolve the practical difficulties (e.g. what is due those of mixed race), or make moral assessments of the consequences.

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on August 03, 2020 at 20:14:24 pm

Well, once we start on the "Reparations Trail", where do we stop?

Just as one HISTORICAL EXAMPLE, more WHITE EUROPEANS were abducted and forced into slavery than were black Africans with 600,000 blacks from Africa, quite often with the support of Muslim African Blacks, forcibly removed and transported to the THEN ENGLISH Colonies in North America while 1,200,000 WHITES were removed from Europe and subjected to slavery.

Who pays the White folks?
Do we demand that Black African Muslims share in the cost of reparations?
Do we demand that Islamists, who still practice slavery, pay their share.

One would think that our sometimes "dead" constitution would prohibit payment of any reparations (Oops, restitution) by the descendants, if they can be found AND by those who arrived in this country long after manumission and were themselves subject to all manner of discrimination / prejudice, many of whom themselves escaped serfdom (another form of slavery, BTW) as COTUS prohibits the "corruption of blood". The sins of the Fathers shall not be visited upon the sons - NOR should it be visited upon the sons bloody neighbors.

And of course, one should compare the material well-being of American Blacks against those of African Blacks. Who do you think has a better material standing? This is not to deny the hardships and prejudice that American Blacks have endured but I WILL NOT, SHALL NOT accept responsibility for it.
As Z says, let us hope that Justice Roberts does not wake up on the wrong side of the bed.
Should he do so, I fear that the reaction of we "payees" may be a bit more than the good Justice can either appreciate or stomach.

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on August 03, 2020 at 20:15:37 pm

Oops, forgot this link on statistics of slavery:


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on August 05, 2020 at 09:13:10 am

“What holds poor African Americans back more than any other circumstance is the wretched quality of public schools in the inner cities. This is not really in doubt.“

This old saw? What holds inner city public schools back is their wretched underfunding and impoverished conditions. This is not really in doubt.

If you disagree, then I suppose there is some doubt about both our positions after all, isn’t there? Which means it’s an important debate to continue having. Blanket declarations that a matter is settled when it really is not are not a worthy substitution for argument, Mr. Hankins.

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Greg Vinzent
on August 05, 2020 at 12:22:30 pm

I have come to believe that the 100's of thousands of Union soldiers (many being from the South, including former slaves) who died to force the rebel states to give up slavery, and rejoin the Union on that condition, paid more than just reparations, and that should be the end of it.
Now we need to end the "Great Society" disaster that undid much of the progress made by former slaves, and their descendants, in the first half of the 20th century, in advancing their own well-being on the same terms as everyone else in the USA. That destruction of the nuclear black family, and the communities they had developed was accompanied by trillions of tax dollars that did more to enrich bureaucrats and "experts" than the supposed beneficiaries, as they were motivated to avoid "solving problems" of poverty to keep their self-enriching scams running in perpetuity. Any so-called reparations schemes further "managed" by government with the "help" of experts, NGO's, foundations, etc, will just wind up worsening the damage.

That's just my attempt to add to many of the other far more excellent comments posted here.
Regarding the commenting process, I have finally, after months of being bewildered by the weird new dual-column format of the revised commenting layout, realized that narrowing the web browser's page to force a single-column makes for a far more readable format. I hope that helps others reading here.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.