One of the most universal and repeated messages in the Bible is that God loves justice. Yet, when the word “reparations” is thrown into the political ring as a possible counter to the damages done by slavery, even strongly progressive individuals often dismiss it as “a liberal fantasy” or “just identity politics.” Many people are simply unwilling to hear of compensation to an entire group of people based on “past” injustice. “Haven’t Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmation Action (EEO/AA) solved this problem? Weren’t specifically financial reparations tried in the 1960’s, to no avail?”
But if you’ve actually clicked the link to read this article, you are either willing to hear me out or preparing to counter my specific arguments—which are aimed at realities of post-2000 America. So, despite the political vitriol associated with the word, I will boil down people’s concerns into three broad questions…and you can debate me in terms of those:
1. Are reparations still necessary?
2. What could reparations look like today?
3. Can we afford reparations like that?
Are reparations still necessary?
I think that this question is asked because different people have fundamentally different understandings of the current state of the world—simply because we have different life experiences.
From one point of view, we live in a largely well-functioning, merit-based society. If it is true that those who work hard can get ahead, then equality of opportunity means that the poor and the marginalized must somehow be at fault…because how can equality be racist? This is the view of many folks who dismiss calls for reparations, oppose “handouts,” and see efforts like the Black Lives Matter as simply “causing trouble or “disrespecting police.” (BLM, though starting with a protest over the deaths of unarmed Black men and boys, has called for certain reparations and many social changes.)
When one digs deeper into the causes of poverty, however, it becomes clear: the assumption that merit is always rewarded is false. As Stephen Pimpare wrote last year: laziness isn’t why people are poor. Upward income mobility in the United States is today rarer, more difficult, and much more dependent on luck than on hard work or “grit.” To a large degree, our economic fate is shaped by the economic standing of our parents. These factors come into play regardless of race, but are amplified for populations which have historically faced economic disadvantage.
When you add discrimination into the picture, however, the debate gets more real. Most white readers of this editorial live in a different world from those who know marginalization first-hand. People of color have known economic discrimination in every generation since slavery ended—from Jim Crow, to centuries of inhumane medical experimentation, to unconstitutional racial gerrymandering (see Shaw v. Reno, 1993), to disparities in sentencing that drive mass incarceration, to a GI bill which was structured to disqualify nearly all African-American veterans, to racial profiling and associated police brutality, to effectively segregated public schools that are separate and unequal in their support for students trying to thrive. “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi-Coates does a thorough job of documenting the many faces of discrimination in the United States, over centuries and from inception.
Today’s injustice is sufficient reason to substantiate the need to repair our society.
If the only reason for reparations consisted of slavery, the claim to reparations would all hinge on whether the so-called “Continuing Injustice Argument” holds water—that is, whether or not distant descendants of slaves should be compensated for slavery today, either by the descendants of slave-owners or by the broader society benefiting from earlier contributions of enslaved people. (I find this argument strong.) But my point is this: today’s injustice is sufficient reason to substantiate the need to repair our society. It is not just our “nation’s original sin” but our enduring sins which make the need for reparations, to me, a point of obvious fact. The intensifying economic inequality, still so closely mapped onto race, only makes that need more urgent.
Our collective stake in society means that public atonement is needed when injustice occurs. And for Christians, as for all people acting in good faith, real atonement involves actively undoing the damages caused by wrongdoing.
What would reparations look like today?
Part of the skepticism toward reparations comes from the assumption that they would come in the form of direct payouts to individuals. (And perhaps that is an ultimately necessary part of living up to the narrative of equality in the United States.)
But what if we were to step back from our assumptions about what we think reparations “inherently are” and instead focus on their goals? At its root, the word “reparation” is about repairing rifts in society. When viewing it through the lens of that goal, stripping away all assumptions about its particular form, there is potential for more fundamental change.
At minimum, in order for our society to be equal going forward, we would need to work toward the following goals:
1. Truly equal (and thus fully integrated) public education—which means re-imagining school districts, since housing segregation and local school taxes currently guarantee massive inequity.
2. Truly equal prison sentencing—which means an end to disproportionate punishing of people of color and, in particular, an end to the failed “War on Drugs.”
3. Truly equal access to housing—with stronger punishments for companies that use redlining or other means of segregation (note: “white flight” is still encouraged by some when a neighborhood starts to integrate, while others use subtler methods to gentrify or economically segregate neighborhoods).
4. Truly equal access to the job market—which means sufficient public transportation and other infrastructure connecting underserved neighborhoods to those with available work.
It is abundantly clear that without equality in these areas, there can be no movement forward toward the repair of our brokenness as a people. The first step of any reparations program, then, would be to allocate sufficient resources to fixing the structural and active barriers to these goals.
So, what would that cost? Ending segregation in public schooling would be expensive…perhaps quadrupling the 2018 Trump Administration-requested ED budget of $59 billion (which was a significant reduction) in order to directly support and increase the capacity of local school districts—with requirements for busing availability and integration of said districts. (A $190 billion increase, all else equal, would be an about 30% increase in total spending on public education, and might do the trick). However, a beneficial side-effect would be that a commitment to funding public education on a national basis would relieve budgetary stress from local governments (which borrow at much higher rates).
Equality in prison sentencing would save a lot of money, in particular because of the high cost associated with over-sentenced nonviolent offenders. Over time, instead of ruining the economic prospects of such individuals by imposing excessively long sentences, we could actually stimulate the economy by shortening their time off the job market.
It is unclear how much, precisely, it would cost to rigorously enforce anti-redlining and anti-block-busting practices in real estate. However, the efforts would both help ensure equality in housing AND prevent sudden drops in housing prices from the real estate machinations that have often galvanized “white flight”. Using 1/10th of the expenditures of the IRS as a rough estimate would put this on the order of $1 billion.
Improvements in public infrastructure are good for the economy, but would cost a lot—particularly in areas which cities have deliberately allowed to stagnate. (For a sense of scale, the Chicago Transit Authority budget for 2018 included a $2.7 billion capital improvements plan on top of its $1.5 billion operating budget.) However, in this arena the federal government need only contribute sufficient funds to facilitate and incentivize cities to provide broader access; the lion’s share of the transportation funds burden could continue to be borne at the local level. For example, take the 275 cities in the US that applied to be Amazon’s second headquarters, recognizing that most of these offered poor Amazon multiple billions of dollars in tax breaks and zoning giveaways. Let us estimate a mere $1 billion for each in capital improvements to public transit in poorer neighborhoods: $275 B for structural equality…a figure which these cities seem willing to allocate to corporations!
The challenge of reparations is putting price tags on moral arguments about social obligations to structurally and historically disenfranchised groups. The benefit of the “repairs” framework is that it adds to general budgeting for the common good, though it makes reparations not a one-time thing…and some may see that as problematic.
My estimate of a minimum reparations commitment from the Federal Budget does not focus on the equal employment opportunity or fair hiring, or even Affirmative Action, though these are still important. Rather, this approach seeks to equalize (and reduce/eliminate segregation in) public education ($190 billion), criminal justice (-$20 billion before additional long-term benefits), housing practices ($1 billion), and public transportation (federally, perhaps 1/3rd of the $300 billion total), each of which would contribute toward social equality and repairing an undeniable continuing problem in the US. There are many additional steps that could be taken. But naturally, a commitment of even this size (in total, $270 billion is only 19% percent of the recent $1.4 trillion tax cut on the wealthy) would be budgeted in over multiple years.
Can we afford reparations like that?
One ever-so-persistent point raised against the idea of reparations is that “paying back for slavery would bankrupt the nation.” But in the context of the United States, this argument falls apart pretty quickly, for several reasons:
The first reason comes down to basic economic incentives. A self-interested implementation of reparations, being focused on doing the most possible good for the economically marginalized peoples, would deliberately avoid any extreme that would lead to economic catastrophe on a national level. Why? Because the disproportionately black and brown population of the American working poor always suffers the most in times of recession. So, any reparations bill which went to such extremes that it would actually bankrupt the country is not a program that the reparations coalition would endorse. Destroying the economy is not social justice, and we should not pretend that such an extreme is the thing we are debating.
The United States also plays a unique role in the world economy that gives it incredible economic flexibility with its budget…this is why we’ve been able to maintain such large budget deficits without adverse consequences in the short or medium-term. Each $4 billion investment would add less than 1% to the deficit, even assuming no cuts to any other programs. And though economists generally favor reducing the deficit in times of economic expansion, any program that invests significantly in the educational capabilities, housing, and work opportunities of marginalized populations would be economically stimulating in the long term, and is well worth doing in any part of the boom-bust cycle.
On the other hand, there is an easy place in the U.S. budget (easy economically, not politically) to find a significant amount of cash without increasing the deficit, if we would only prioritize the potential for justice over the potential for violence. The Trump military budget stands at $700 billion for 2018. Cutting it by 10% would free up $70 billion for other uses, and still leave it higher than it has been throughout the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. On that note, ending our foreign conflicts would free up trillions of dollars over the next decade, some of which could be redirected to repairing our society.
We don’t need to look any farther than the $1.4 trillion deficit increase, legislated by President Trump and the current Congress by cutting taxes for the wealthy, to know where reparations money could easily come from.
Ultimately, though, the lion’s share of federal funding for this and all programs should come from those who benefit most from the status quo: the wealthiest. We don’t need to look any farther than the $1.4 trillion deficit increase, legislated by President Trump and the current Congress by cutting taxes for the wealthy, to know where reparations money could easily come from. (As mentioned before, these initial proposals are only 19% of the size of the tax cut).
I should acknowledge that, by making the basic goals of reparations structural equality rather than direct payouts, people other than the descendants of slaves would benefit from this type of program. But justice tends to do that…it’s not a zero sum game. And I hope and believe that the spirit of this piece is consistent with the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign, Black Lives Matter, and other movements striving for equality and racial justice.
Some final questions worth asking are: would reparations on a smaller scale still be worth having if they are what is politically achievable? Would addressing all these issues in the short term, or putting nominal funds toward it, be analogous to “settling without admission of guilt” in court? There certain would be a danger of reparations making (white) people feel absolved of any urgent moral need to repair relations among various peoples in this country. Likewise, a bill of reparations which focuses primarily on undoing the effects of historical injustice against African-Americans would not undo a history of broken treaties with Native American tribes. But I argue that if any reparations bill were passed, no matter how insufficient, it would signal that a fundamental shift in national perspective had taken place. Even amounts much less than those I suggest would be symbolic acknowledgement that the intensified and highly racialized inequality of the current US needs healing.
With the resignation of Rep. John Conyers, Jr. from the House of Representatives, HR 40 (a bill which makes no initial commitment to a reparations program—it only advocates for study of the issue) will likely cease to be introduced. But it should continue to be discussed. To quote and agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced.” In some respects this essay, written during Black History Month, is an attempt to respond to Coates’ call.
No, making reparations will not erase a history of slavery, discrimination, and oppression. Nothing can or should erase our memory of that dark legacy. Rather, an acknowledgement of the centuries of killing, abuse, inequality, and economic oppression, accompanied by a significant commitment to easing the unjust suffering of people today, may be the only way to move toward the American promise for all peoples…and toward God’s justice.