Reparations for the enslavement and subsequent discrimination against black people has been the most important issue facing U. S. society at least since 1865, if not 1619. It is a very good thing that the issue has been placed on 2020 presidential campaign agenda by Harris, Warren, and Booker, no matter what other disagreements we may have with them. [I’m still supporting Bernie, even though he has waffled on this issue – I’m hopeful his position will evolve.] Next week I’ll examine all their proposals, but my first impression is that all of them hesitate on the issue of race, addressing poverty in general. But race is central to the need for reparations, just as it was central to the egregious policies that require them.
And now none other than David Brooks, conscience of the conservative movement, has embraced the concept.
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 10 times that of Black households, $171,000 to $17,000 (2017 figures from the Federal Reserve Board). A difference of $154,000 per household.
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 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 $154,000 to African American households. With 9.9 million Black households, this subsidy would cost 2.34 trillion, or 59% of the total federal budget (2018) of 4.0 trillion. However, if the money were paid out over ten years, this would amount to 234 billion per year, or 6% 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. And it could be distributed by prioritizing the poorest households and excluding the likes of Oprah, the Obamas, and other wealthy black families.
The point is that a reparations program is eminently doable. This particular approach around housing 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, newly introduced by Rep. Shirley Jackson Lee of Texas.
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 — as well as heal the country of its original crime.