In order to understand the need for reparations, we need to understand that racism is historic, systemic, and structural, woven in the social fabric of the United States. It’s not about who was alive in slavery times or even who benefitted from centuries of oppression and discrimination. Its essence is embodied in the following statistic: the median wealth (not income) of white households is 13 times that of Black households, $141,000 to $11,000 (2013 figures). A difference of $130,000 per household.
While useful, the destruction of Confederate monuments or even the stopping of police murder of Black people will not end racism. The only way to decisively remedy the effects of 400 years of enslavement and Jim Crow discrimination is to provide reparations to the descendants of its victims. An eloquent “Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nahessi Coates was published in the Atlantic in 2014.
A variety of remedies, of ways to implement reparations, is listed under the reparations demand from the Movement for Black Lives – a program which should receive our unqualified support – among them a guaranteed annual income and free education.
Another approach is suggested by Richard Rothstein in his new book, The Color of Law. Much of the wealth gap can be attributed to the unconstitutional federal, state, and local government policies that built the suburbs after World War II, policies which explicitly excluded Blacks from such massive developments as Levittown in New York and Westlake near San Francisco, thereby preventing Black families from acquiring the capital that their white counterparts were able to accumulate. So the federal government could offer housing grants of $130,000 to African American households. With 9.9 million Black households, this subsidy would cost $1.287 trillion, or 32% of the total federal budget (2018) of 4.0 trillion. However, if the money were paid out over ten years, this would amount to 1.287 billion per year, or 3% of the annual budget.
This money could be easily cut from the bloated military budget or raised by a tax on banks as a penalty for their role in redlining Black neighborhoods.
The point is that a reparations program is eminently doable. This particular approach doesn’t require going back 150 years to slavery, but remedies the unconstitutional practices of the federal government which occurred in many of our lifetimes. The specifics can evolve from the first step of Congress passing HB 40, the Conyer’s bill calling for a study of remedies to racism that’s introduced every year.
No amount of reparations can make up for the horror of the centuries of enslavement and oppression of Black people. But such practical approaches as suggested here and by BLM would go a long way to healing the racial divide. To get even such modest approaches passed by the government will require white people to take responsibility for our history of privilege. But it could supply the Black community with the capital that it has been for so long denied.