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The issue of reparations for Black Americans reemerges from time to time, but it has invariably garnered less traction than it deserves.  Indeed, it is a controversial and complicated matter, and there are many daunting aspects to it.  What should reparations be for?  Slavery?  Discrimination in government programs or business practices?  Racism?  What form(s) should the reparations take?  Cash payments?  Programs to fund education, Black businesses, or home ownership?  Who should be the beneficiaries of reparations?  Descendants of slaves?  All Black Americans?  And where should funds for the reparations come from?  The federal government?  Descendants of former slave owners?  Corporations and universities that engaged in racist activities?

But there is no question to me that reparations in some form are a moral imperative whose time has come.  (N.B.: This paper primarily addresses reparations on a national level and only very briefly addresses reparations programs established by state and local governments.  However, the concepts and issues discussed below apply to reparations regimes at all levels of government.)  Much of the public is unaware or forgets that there is plenty of precedent for reparations for Black Americans.  Examples of this would include payments made by the U.S. Government to native Americans and to Japanese-Americans interned in camps during World War II, compensation given by Canada and Australia to indigenous peoples, and reparations paid by Germany to victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.

Most know the history of African-Americans in this country.  They were brought to America in droves against their will and under the most barbaric conditions.  Once they arrived, they became chattel, were forced to work without compensation, were treated with great cruelty, and had their families torn apart.

Most of the discourse on reparations focuses on the subject of compensation to the descendants of enslaved persons for the labor that was extracted from their ancestors without pay.  One need only consider how much more wealth Black Americans would have today if their enslaved ancestors had been fairly compensated for their work.  Some may criticize this position by arguing that Black Americans today are not the victims of slavery, as they never lived as enslaved persons.  However, this is a weak argument, as it ignores how much more wealth Black households would have accumulated if their ancestors had been fairly compensated.  It also ignores how the legacy of slavery still affects in many ways even those who did not live under it.

But slavery is not the only challenge faced by Black Americans today.  A history of discriminatory treatment by government and businesses, such as redlining and the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws, has done tremendous harm to Black Americans.  And racist attitudes among the public at large have undoubtedly contributed to the problem.  Of course, compensating for these wrongs would drive up the cost of any reparations program, making it even more controversial.  Many would assert that compensation for such mistreatment should not be their responsibility, as they are not racist and, in any event, we now have laws that protect against discriminatory treatment of Black people.

But it is impossible to grow up in America today without being racist on some level (even if it is not conscious).  And it fails to take account of the fact that we are talking here about compensation for past wrongs; the improved landscape today is irrelevant.  Admittedly, calculating the amount of compensation for these wrongs would be quite fraught and complex, but that does not justify failing to move forward with the best plan possible, even if it is not precise.  As Voltaire cautioned, perfect is the enemy of the good.

Turning now to who should be the beneficiaries of any program, it would seem to me that compensation for the labor of enslaved persons should go to those Black Americans who can show that they descended from an enslaved person.  It would be impossible, of course, to link beneficiaries to the precise compensation to which they would be entitled.  As is the case with determining what wrongs should be compensated for, absolute precision cannot be the goal.  But we should also accept that this problem does not invalidate the concept of reparations generally.

If reparations are to be made for racism on the part of government, businesses, or individuals, a broader collection of beneficiaries would seem to be appropriate, as these wrongs affected even those Black Americans whose ancestors were not enslaved persons.  Thus, if reparations are to be made for such racism, the compensation ought to flow to all Black Americans.

As for the question of who would pay for the reparations, there are a number of sources that would seem appropriate.  Of course, the federal government should shoulder a large portion, as government policy and law supported the institution of slavery and, as noted above, the government carried out acts of racism in law and policy even after slavery officially ended.  In addition, funding for reparations would justifiably come from the families whose ancestors held enslaved persons and who benefited from the institution.  Again, it would be impossible to link each slaveholding family to precisely how much they should owe, but that should not invalidate the notion that descendants of slaveowners are a proper source of some compensation.  In addition, funds might also be derived from businesses, universities, and other institutions that funded or benefited from slavery.

As for what form reparations should take, one possibility, of course, would be cash payments to beneficiaries.  This would funnel wealth to those whose coffers were diminished because of the theft of their ancestors’ labor.  Some may express concern that beneficiaries might not put their payment to responsible use.  But this is a paternalistic position and ignores the fact that it is their money.  And there are means by which the money could be made available to beneficiaries, but only used for stipulated purposes, such as education, healthcare, or housing.  Of course, turning large sums of cash over to people who were not themselves enslaved would likely generate much objection on the part of the public, especially among those who don’t recognize how these people were harmed by slavery and discrimination even if they were not themselves enslaved persons.

Another option would be for reparations to take the form, not of payments to beneficiaries, but rather of funding and other support for education, home ownership, Black-owned businesses, Black communities, and access to health care.  This option would likely generate less opposition than cash payments, and a Pew Research study revealed that many Black Americans have a very positive view of such programs.  Notably, Pete Buttigieg’s “Douglass Plan,” which he introduced during his Presidential campaign as a means for improving the lives of Black Americans, relies primarily on such an approach.

No matter how morally justifiable a reparations program to benefit Black Americans may be, as noted above, there would almost certainly be opposition to any such program, and the details of a program would be exceedingly complex to tackle, potentially bogging down any renewed initiatives.  Indeed, the unsuccessful history of attempts at reparations is instructive as to how difficult it would be to enact a reparations plan today.  But many social justice initiatives that once seemed impossible have been realized thanks to the dogged commitment of their proponents.  In this spirit, the moral necessity for reparations demands that we continue the struggle so that a reparations program in some form becomes a reality.

While progress on reparations at the federal level has proven sluggish to say the least, the state and local levels have shown greater promise.  The State of California and the City of San Francisco have both recently set up reparations commissions to make recommendations on reparations programs.  New York is also setting up a commission, and other states and cities are waiting in the wings.  It will be interesting to see what they come up with, whether the programs they support will ever become a reality, and if their precedent ignites similar initiatives in other state and local jurisdictions and at the federal level.