The Elusive Specificity of Reparations

They’re not an abstract notion. They’re particular amounts of money paid to particular people. To atone for America's sins, whom should the government pay, how much, and why?

The Manzanar War Relocation Center in California, one of ten such sites where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II (Ansel Adams/Library of Congress)

An advocate of reparations should not, in my opinion, disregard the fundamental question: Who will get them? How much? Who will pay? Ta-Nehisi Coates—the author of the Atlantic's cover story on this issue and my debate interlocutor here—disagrees. Ta-Nehisi notes that the U.S. has paid ethnically based compensation before, to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. It will therefore be “radically practical” to pay again, this time to black Americans.

But that’s a deep and dangerous misunderstanding.

The United States did not pay reparations to Japanese Americans as an ethnic group. The United States government paid $20,00 per person to those Japanese Americans (or next of kin) who were interned during World War II. Japanese Americans who were not interned (about 15,000 people) received nothing. The compensation was individual, not collective—a point I stressed when I wrote in favor of such payments back in the late 1980s as a fledgling columnist for the Toronto Sun (no link available to those ancient times).

In this way, the payments to interned Japanese Americans look much more like the payments the U.S. government makes to coal miners under the Black Lung program than it does to anything Ta-Nehisi seems to have in mind.

Where individual black Americans can show that they were wronged by an action of government, I’d agree that compensation is due. The payments to black farmers under the so-called Pigford litigation come under this heading.

But I understand Ta-Nehisi to be advocating for something much bigger and broader than individual restitution. He wants a collective payment for a collective wrong. And this is where Ta-Nehisi opens the way to exactly the kind of inter-ethnic struggle for spoils I warned of earlier this week.

Ta-Nehisi dismisses this risk, of course. “Slippery slopes will not do.” What will happen, he promises, is that we’ll have a reasoned discussion of group grievances, after which we’ll arrive at a consensus about which groups should receive race-based income supplements and which shouldn’t.
But Ta-Nehisi’s edict will not, I suspect, settle the matter. "Nothing would please me more than to read a 15,000 word 'Case for Native American Reparations,” he writes. "I say this because we can't evaluate particular claims without understanding particular history.” But wait a minute: Shouldn’t the author of 16,000 word article about reparations himself have an idea to offer about who is owed and who is not owed?
I’m still awaiting for example the answer to the question whether Ta-Nehisi’s vision of reparations extends to the estimated 50,000 African-born people who migrate to the United States each year, a population that now totals some 1.4 million people. Almost all these migrants arrived after 1990. They did not experience American slavery or American segregation. They enter this country voluntarily—often illegally. Are they owed money by virtue of the color of their skin?
I assume the answer must be “no.” Yet many of the most prominent black Americans descend from families that likewise did not experience American slavery and segregation: Attorney General Eric Holder (son of immigrants from Barbados), former Secretary of State Colin Powell (son of immigrants from Jamaica), and of course President Barack Obama (son of a citizen of Kenya). It would be a pretty weird form of reparations to African Americans that excluded such prominent members of that community. But it’s equally a pretty morally odd form of reparations that would include them.
Would reparations be paid regardless of wealth? Will the deckhands on Jay-Z’s yacht be taxed to add a symbolic bonus to their employer’s income? And how black does one have to be to qualify? Will reparations be paid to Tiger Woods? Derek Jeter? Former Representative Bob Barr?  Actress Heather Locklear?

Ta-Nehisi does not wish to deal with fine details of who pays, who receives, how much, and on what basis. First we are to agree to his proposal. Only then will he tell us what the proposal is. But it seems to me the time to discuss an idea is before it becomes law, not after.

Especially since, in this case, the reparations idea actually distracts from understanding—and overcoming—the continuing disadvantages of black America. By Ta-Nehisi’s own telling, for example, his protagonist Clyde Ross was a victim not only of housing discrimination, but also of Ross’s lack of financial sophistication.

“We were ashamed. We did not want anyone to know that we were that ignorant,” Ross told me. He was sitting at his dining-room table. His glasses were as thick as his Clarksdale drawl. “I’d come out of Mississippi where there was one mess, and come up here and got in another mess. So how dumb am I? I didn’t want anyone to know how dumb I was.

“When I found myself caught up in it, I said, ‘How? I just left this mess. I just left no laws. And no regard. And then I come here and get cheated wide open.’"

Racial oppression deprived generations of African Americans of the opportunity to accumulate not only financial capital, but also human capital: the skills, habits, and outlook that make for success in a modern society. What parents have been prevented from learning, they cannot pass on to their children. In the 2000s as in the 1960s, black Americans were again targeted by unscrupulous mortgage lenders—and again, many fell victim. The housing crisis wiped away the wealth many black families had accumulated in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Would a reparations check, or series of checks, have made black Americans less vulnerable to predatory lending? That seems unlikely. If simply writing a check could make human capital deficits disappear, then maybe it would be a good idea to write the check, regardless of the merits or demerits of the claim. But check-writing alone does not have that effect, as almost every lottery winner sadly discovers.

The most disappointing thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ case for reparations, from my personal point of view, is that it detracts from the most powerful elements of the story he himself tells. Ta-Nehisi is right about the nature of the harm done to black Americans. He’s right that later generations of black Americans still suffer from harms inflicted in the past. He’s wrong to insist on a remedy that is not only unworkable, but indefensible against the very obvious questions that I raised earlier this weekand that Ta-Nehisi mostly ignored.

Yet his mistake does not excuse anyone from contending with the reverberating question that haunts American life even as we approach the 150th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment: How will a country built on both freedom and slavery, on both human equality and racial subordination, make good on its promise of opportunity for all its people?