Reparations arguments call for the kind of general racial classifications that have not been part of public law or finance since the Jim Crow era.
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?
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.