Some good things are coming out of the Charlottesville tragedy: One, people are talking about racism; two, the racists clearly overreacted by murdering Heather Heyer and wounding nine others, thus turning off many of their would-be supporters.
But lest we believe that virulent racism is the exclusive property of the white supremacists, we need to understand that racism is historic, systemic, and structural, woven in the social fabric of the United States. Its essence is embodied by the following statistic: the median wealth (not income) of white households is 13 times that of Black households, $141,000 to $11,000 (1913 figures).
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, 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 $387 billion, or 10% of the total federal budget (2015) of 3.8 trillion.
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. In order to get even such modest approaches passed by the government will require white people to take responsibility for our history of privilege and could supply the Black community with the capital that it has been for so long denied.