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Explain reparations to me like I'm an alien
June 29, 2014 9:10 AM   Subscribe

I've been trying to follow the reparations debate, particularly as referenced in The Atlantic in the last few months, but I find that it's largely targeted at convincing readers of the injustices suffered by African Americans...which I don't just accept, I take for granted. That said, I don't understand the practical case for reparations, EXCEPT in terms of community rehabilitation. In scanning the wikipedia page, I felt like the practical reasons against were even more compelling. Here I'm speaking of US government taxpayer-funded reparations for slavery etc. I list the following reasons I don't see how reparations could be a good idea, and hopefully someone can explain what points I'm missing.

- the people who faced the worst injustices are long dead, and it would be difficult to even track their descendants in some cases
- the proportion of white Americans intentionally or directly involved in or benefiting from the slave trade, slave labour, or subsequent exploitation of African-Americans was extremely low
- there doesn't seem to be any evidence that reparations would make white Americans "wake up" to systemic racism, or change hearts and minds, and moreover I "feel" like the concern that it would increase racism and resentment is more realistic (though I have no data for that either)
- I don't see how giving people money necessarily improves their lives (I mean cash; I'm all about giving people healthcare, education, social services, housing) particularly since the reparations movement in Canada (for survivors of the residential schools) has left people open to scams and the jury's open as to whether it will do any good in the vast majority of cases, BECAUSE I believe all people everywhere are bad with money
- the taxbase in the US involves a huge number of people who did themselves or are descended from people who immigrated after slavery had its heyday
- if it's about the principle of the thing, wouldn't it be more effective to make public apologies, build monuments, and make sure it's covered in school curriculum

In terms of checking my privilege/assumptions, I am a white middle-class professional Canadian from a big city, but I've been poor (real-live barely making ends meet bartering for food poor) as a child and teenager, and I work with racialized and marginalized and vulnerable populations of various kinds.
posted by sarahkeebs to Law & Government (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't support reparations at all, but most of your objections are pretty easily addressed.

In the Anglo American legal system, assets, including claims for damages, are fully heritable when the claimant dies, and when damages are proven, the claim is paid in cash with no strings attached to whoever currently own the claim. Imposing more conditions on a legitimate claim for reparations is to add insult to injury.

Determining slave descent isn't especially hard and rules of proof can be laid out and administered, and could be used both to award reparations and to grant exemption to the related taxes.

Public liabilities have always been of the corporate body of the state and not of the individuals. Anyone who voluntarily immigrates assumes, to the extent of his taxpaying, the liabilities known and unknown, of his new home.
posted by MattD at 9:35 AM on June 29 [1 favorite]


I that that Ta-Nehisi Coates's original Atlantic article goes a long way towards answering your objections. Coates argues that this isn't about racist injustices in the far past - this is about current, systemic injustices that continue to hold down African-American families from all walks of life.
In 2010, Jacob S. Rugh, then a doctoral candidate at Princeton, and the sociologist Douglas S. Massey published a study of the recent foreclosure crisis. Among its drivers, they found an old foe: segregation. Black home buyers—even after controlling for factors like creditworthiness—were still more likely than white home buyers to be steered toward subprime loans.
As to "who will we pay?" and "how?" - those kinds of practical concerns can really only happen if we can agree that we have an obligation to ask them. Coates addresses this, too:
No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced.
In Coates's argument, reparations isn't the end of the discussion - it's not a bribe or hush money - but a signal that America is ready to accept their historical and continuing complicity in white supremacy, rather than continuing to ignore, deny, and cover-up.
posted by muddgirl at 10:39 AM on June 29 [8 favorites]


I believe one of the major points of the Atlantic article was that there are more current injustices than slavery: particularly redlining, which was a major, federally-sponsored barrier to black home ownership in the mid 20th century. Those folks, and their immediate family, are largely still around.
posted by brentajones at 10:45 AM on June 29 [1 favorite]


Also, here's a helpful sort of "cliffs notes" version of the article that specifically addresses at least a couple of your bullet points: How To Tell Who Hasn't Read The New 'Atlantic' Cover Story.

posted by brentajones at 10:50 AM on June 29 [4 favorites]


- the people who faced the worst injustices are long dead, and it would be difficult to even track their descendants in some cases
- the proportion of white Americans intentionally or directly involved in or benefiting from the slave trade, slave labour, or subsequent exploitation of African-Americans was extremely low


This is definitely not true. The case for reparations includes black families who faced housing and education discrimination, and that happened as a matter of policy as late as the 1960s. The GI Bill alone catapulted white veterans into the middle class by the millions and left black veterans behind. It's very easy to quantify the class of people hurt by those policies ("All black World War II veterans"), their service is well-documented, and some of them and the vast majority of their well-documented children and grandchildren are still alive today.

I strongly, strongly recommend reading Coates's complete article if you haven't already or if you have only skimmed it.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:10 AM on June 29 [9 favorites]


- the people who faced the worst injustices are long dead, and it would be difficult to even track their descendants in some cases

I apologize if I was curt in my previous answer. I want to explain a little bit more about why this leg of the anti-reparations argument chaps my hide so much. One of the most common lines that people who oppose anti-racism activism use to justify their opposition to racial justice movements is that slavery and racism in America were so long ago that they don't matter anymore, and that all the people involved or harmed are dead, and we can't figure out who they were anyway. As a student of history, this line in particular really bothers me because it is historically not true at all in like three separate ways!

First of all, even slavery itself, as in human chattel bondage unmitigated by criminal conduct, the people owning people thing that was outlawed in the US by the 13th Amendment in 1865, was not that long ago, in either historical terms or absolute terms. There are people alive today in America whose grandparents and great-grandparents were born into slavery. In the 1930s, the WPA collected over 2000 narratives from people who had been born into slavery. Those people lived to see World War II, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren fought in it! It really is not very long ago, at all.

Second, as I mentioned in my first comment, there were many, many, many racially unjust policies post-slavery in the US that continued as late as the 1960s. Jim Crow segregation, convict leasing programs, redlining, blockbusting, educational segregation in public schools, voter suppression- all those continued WELL into the 21st century, and the legacy of those policies is still very visible and quantifiable. So when people say, "slavery was so long ago," it's a little frustrating, because racially unjust policies didn't end with slavery, and we aren't talking about extra-legal hearts and minds type discrimination. These were laws on the books whose explicit goal was to disadvantage black Americans. It wasn't like a small minority of racist people took advantage of loopholes in the laws; the laws were made to discriminate against black Americans. And that happened very recently as well.

Third, the effects of racial discrimination in the past continue today in quantifiable ways. We can analyze data on homeownership, educational attainment and financial resources and see the effects of this discrimination. Black Americans continue to face injustices as a direct result of racially discriminatory public policy. You can posit that those injustices aren't "as bad as" slavery (I personally don't think "Well, slavery was worse!" is that great an argument for not remedying an injustice) and still recognize that they ARE injustices and should be remedied.

I hope you keep reading and learning about this issue and stay open to ideas that don't seem reasonable to you at first and stay willing to change your mind, that's truly a lot of the battle for those of us who don't face racial injustice personally and it will really serve you well as you move forward.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:42 AM on June 29 [10 favorites]


- I don't see how giving people money necessarily improves their lives (I mean cash...

Well, of course giving people money improves their lives. If they're poor, they'll be less poor. If they're not poor, they might not need the money, but they might be more able to start a business, go to college, etc.

Here are the main problems I see with reparations, along with possible rebuttals:

1) The legal analogy to a "claim for damages" is flawed. Now, this point is going to make some people mad, so to be clear at the outset: of course slavery was a terrible evil that should never have happened! However, the legal analysis gets a bit complex. As noted by Thomas Sowell (who, in addition to being an economist, knows something of racial discrimination, being a black man born in 1930 who dropped out of high school), the usual goal of damages is to give the person compensation in the amount that puts them in the position they would have been in, if only the wrong had not been done to them. But think about it: would the average black American (whose ancestors were slaves) have been in a better or worse position ... if s/he had stayed in Africa? As Sowell puts it:
The people made worse off by slavery were those who were enslaved. Their descendants would have been worse off today if born in Africa instead of America. Put differently, the terrible fate of their ancestors benefitted them. If those who were enslaved were alive, they would deserve huge reparations and their captors would deserve worse punishments than our laws allow. But death has put both beyond our reach. Frustrating as that may be, creating new injustices among the living will not change that.
One rebuttal I've heard is: "But s/he would have been a completely different person if s/he had stayed in Africa!" But I don't see how that should affect the amount of compensation. Of course different people would have been born if no Africans had been brought to the US, but I see no reason to think they would have been better off, and in fact there's good reason to think they would been worse off. In no way does that justify slavery, of course! It's just the simple fact that most people who live in Africa today aren't very well off, and it's no subtle distinction — many Americans we consider "poor" by our standards would be considered rich by the standards of someone who actually lives in Africa. (You could say: but that's still because of racism — colonialism! But if you want to shift the focus to the victims of colonialism, then let's compensate them instead.)

I think a more convincing rebuttal would be: OK, maybe the initial bringing over of the person to the US did improve the fortunes of their descendants in the long run. But after any African had landed here on American soil, it then became totally immoral not to release the person and start treating him/her as an equal American, and that's the long-term, grievous wrong for which there should be compensation. Still, I hope you can see that as far as a cold, analytical calculation of damages, it's at least a bit tricky.

2) If the theory is that we're compensating black Americans, then imagine there are reparations, and the program is seen as a brilliant success. Imagine that most Americans think, "Yes! This is great! The living victims of slavery have been fully compensated!" OK, then you've removed the motivation to try to help black Americans in other ways — including through programs that are more specifically focused on assisting blacks who are particularly disadvantaged (on top of the generalized legacy-of-slavery disadvantage). And you've given an argument to those who would like to defund other social programs: "We've already done enough. We've paid the compensation. We've settled the score — leveled the playing field. Now that the playing field is leveled, you can't keep invoking 'the legacy of slavery' the way you did before." You might not like that argument — but it would be made. And it might convince people who see things differently from you.

3) We've already had reparations programs for decades! The arguments in favor of welfare and affirmative action have largely been put in terms of "remedying past racial injustices." (And if you're saying, "Wait a minute — welfare isn't a race-based program!" then I suggest reading Winning the Race by John McWhorter — specifically the chapter called "Why Are You Talking About Blacks on Welfare?" Welfare for blacks actually used to be capped, and there was a conscious decision to expand welfare to benefit poor black Americans.)
posted by John Cohen at 12:14 PM on June 29


Here’s the easiest way I know explain it. Imagine running 100 meter race. Instead of waiting for the starting pistol, you just start running. 50 meters in, you stop running, turn around, look at the other runner still at the starting line, and say, “I’m sorry I cheated by starting early. No more cheating for me. Let’s both start running right now.” Is it a fair race? You’re starting 50 meters in while the other runner is at the starting line. But if you let the other runner come up to meet you at 50 meters, you two aren’t being treated equally, because that other runner gets to skip the first 50 meters, whereas you worked hard to run those first 50 meters. But making you start over at the starting line punishes you because you have to give up the 50 meters that you already ran.

A significant predictor of a person’s wealth is their parents’ wealth. Same goes with health, education, class position, etc.

So maybe instead of a 100 meter race, think of it like a relay race. If you decide to “stop cheating” when on the last leg, the position of the person you’re running against was dramatically influenced by previous runners. Even if you’re running the last leg (meaning that you weren't the one that started running early,) you’re still benefiting from that cheating, and the person you’re running against is still disadvantaged, not by your cheating, but by cheating of previous runners on your team that you’re still benefiting from.

That’s why discussions of reparations are still relevant today. Today’s runners are still dealing with that 50 meter gap from the first leg generations ago.

Now, reparations in the form of cash actually exacerbates the current problem. There’s a difference between wealth and money. If generational bias allows one category of persons to be owners of factories and makes another category the customers of those factories, giving those customers more cash doesn't solve anything, since all that money just slows back to the factories. The factory owners have wealth. The customers just have money.
posted by ochenk at 2:00 PM on June 29 [3 favorites]


I don't see how giving people money necessarily improves their lives (I mean cash; I'm all about giving people healthcare, education, social services, housing)...

See this FPP from yesterday: Mexico tried giving poor people cash instead of food. It worked.

...particularly since the reparations movement in Canada (for survivors of the residential schools) has left people open to scams

And this comment from emjaybee in the same thread:
I do think that if you're worried about the poor being scammed out of the money we give them, then you'd do best to crack down on payday lenders and high-interest loans of all types, which are some of the worst offenders.
Anecdotally: As a concentration camp survivor, my father received reparations from Germany and I can assure you that he was no more susceptible to scams with that money than he was with his paychecks or any other income. As his widow, my mother gets those checks now and the same goes for her. FWIW I have no idea how much the checks are (not much I don't think) nor will the reparations continue down to me.

And despite any braggadocio you might hear from people about what they would do with that hypothetical money, anyone who thinks it's a big party should go down to the German consulate one day and see people and their families waiting to fill out paperwork or deal with administrative issues. I promise you every single one of them wishes they'd never heard of reparations. (Or as it's obliquely known in my house, "your father's check.")
posted by Room 641-A at 2:18 PM on June 29 [2 favorites]


- the taxbase in the US involves a huge number of people who did themselves or are descended from people who immigrated after slavery had its heyday

I'm a White American whose family on both sides came to the US in the early 1900s. I still benefit from racism in this country. My grandparents were able to buy a house in the suburbs due to the GI Bill, which excluded Black veterans. My father was therefore able to go to a good public school, and to college, and to get a good job that elevated him from his blue-collar roots; at all steps, he faced less competition than he would have had Black Americans had equal access to good public education, good colleges, and well-paying jobs. My family's accumulated capital (in only the few generations we had been in the US), which all came disproportionately to my family because we were White, meant that I grew up in wealthy suburbs and had access to even better public schools, which gave me even more of a leg up in getting into college and getting hired after college.

- if it's about the principle of the thing, wouldn't it be more effective to make public apologies, build monuments, and make sure it's covered in school curriculum

If I stole your house from you, would you prefer a public apology and a plaque on the house to my paying you for your stolen house?
posted by jaguar at 9:04 PM on June 29 [8 favorites]


- the people who faced the worst injustices are long dead, and it would be difficult to even track their descendants in some cases

It's been mentioned upthread, but it bears emphasizing that inequality has a lot to do with wealth, and wealth (or, more important here, the lack of it) tends to be transmitted across generations. Slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and countless other injustices against African Americans have stood and still stand in the way of wealth generation. You might check out Black Wealth/White Wealth (or some reviews of it) for more on that topic.

Also, on the question whether affirmative action already constitutes a reparations program: The Supreme Court has long held that "remedying societal discrimination" is not a purpose that can justify race-based affirmative action.
posted by heisenberg at 10:03 PM on June 29


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