The Impossibility of Reparations

Considering the single most important question about racial restitution: How would it work?

The United States government launched its reparations program to African Americans in autumn of 1969. Originally known as “the Philadelphia plan,” the program set quotas for black employment in construction trades. Over the next decades, such quotas would spread from industry to industry, and would expand into higher education and public contracting.

The plan is usually credited to the Nixon administration. Sometimes it’s even described as a secret scheme to split the Democratic base. The history is more prosaic. The plan originated under the Johnson administration, following President Lyndon Johnson’s pledge in his 1965 Howard University speech to seek racial equality as a result, not merely as a theory.

In this month’s Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an eloquent case for restitution to black Americans, not only for wrongs done before 1865, but as much or more for wrongs done in the century of segregation that followed. Yet this powerful essay explicitly disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution he has in mind: How would it work?

The affirmative action experience since 1969 offers some insights into what is likely to happen next:

1) The program will expand to additional groups.

Within only a very few months of the implementation of the Philadelphia plan, preferences of various kinds were extended to women, Hispanics, and other groups. With any program of reparations, likewise, other claimants will come forward. If African Americans are due payment for slavery and subjugation, what about Native Americans, who lost a whole continent? What about Mexican-Americans, who were deprived by the Mexican-American war of the right to migrate into half their former country? Japanese Americans, interned during World War II? Chinese Americans, the victims of coolie labor and the Oriental Exclusion Acts? Members of these groups may concede that they were not maltreated in the same way as African Americans—and may not be entitled to exactly the same consideration. But if black Americans are entitled to almost a trillion dollars in compensation (Coates suggests a figure of $34 billion a year “for a decade or two”) surely these other maltreated groups must be entitled at least to something?

Coates’s essay is built on an unstated assumption that America’s racial composition is essentially binary, a white majority that inflicts inequality; a black minority that suffers inequality. Others enter into his imagination only at the hazy edges: “One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration … A nation outlives its generations.”

But the “others” are now 25 percent of the nation and rising fast. Does the Fujianese delivery man pedaling through the brownstones of Fort Greene owe a debt to the people whose food he carries? How much? The reparations idea—so long politically outlandish—has become thinkable today because of the gathering power of the Obama political coalition. But nothing would blow that coalition apart faster than the internal redistribution Coates contemplates from some constituencies to others. And if the idea is that the newest arrivals to America will be persuaded to accept paying reparations as a cost of immigration—or that new Americans can be cajoled to pay a symbolic something because the bulk of the burden will be carried by the dwindling white majority (a majority that already feels ever more culturally insecure and economically beset)—well, that’s a prescript for an even more dangerous political explosion.

2) The question of who qualifies will become ever more contested and embittered.

Under today’s racial preference rules, a nephew of the King of Spain or the daughter of the chairman of the biggest bank in Chile would both qualify for Hispanic preferences if they resided in the United States. Harvard can (and does) meet its African American diversity requirements with the children of recent African immigrants, whose families never experienced slavery or segregation in this country.

The problem of “who qualifies?” is explosive enough with hiring and admissions preferences. As the benefits at stake expand to the vast dimensions urged by Coates, the question will become more explosive yet. Does a mixed-race person qualify? How mixed? What about recent immigrants from Africa or the West Indies? What about future immigrants? What about illegal immigrants from Africa who subsequently gain legalization—would amnesty come with a check attached?

3) Side effects will be large and unexpected.

Affirmative action characterizes some parts of the American economy more strongly than others, and in particular the public sector more than the private sector. This pervading fact has shaped the growth of the black middle class. Black Americans are 30 percent more likely than non-blacks to work in the public sector, where they earn higher wages relative to white Americans than they do in private employment. This strategy brought security to many black families in the years between 1970 and 2008.

But the strategy came at a cost.

First, the strategy tethered black economic advancement to the growth of government. That growth has become ever more fiercely contested in recent years. Since 2008, it has abruptly halted and reversed.

Second, the strategy detoured talented people away from the higher risks and rewards of the private sector, and especially from entrepreneurship. Black Americans are less than half as likely as white to own their own businesses.

A reparations plan is likely to prove even more distorting.

If paid to individuals as an income stream, reparations would dis-incentivize work.

If paid to individuals as a lump sum, reparations would expose one of America’s least financially sophisticated populations to predatory practices that would make subprime lending seem socially responsible by contrast.

If paid to institutions or collective entities … well, let’s look at that under another header.

4) The program will work severe inequities.

Affirmative action’s quirks and injustices are notorious. But they will be nothing compared to the strange consequences of a reparations program. Not all black people are poor. Not all non-black people are rich. Does Oprah have a housecleaner? Who changes the diapers of Beyonce’s baby? Who files Herman J. Russell’s taxes? Will their wages be taxed and the proceeds redirected to their employers?

Within the target population, will all receive the same? Same per person, or same per family? Or will there be adjustment for need? How will need be measured? Will convicted criminals be eligible? If not, the program will exclude perhaps 1 million African Americans. If yes, the program would potentially tax victims of rape and families of the murdered for the benefit of their assailants.

And if reparations were somehow delivered communally and collectively, disparities of wealth and power and political influence within black America will become even more urgent. Simply put, when government spends money on complex programs, the people who provide the service usually end up with much more sway over the spending than the spending’s intended beneficiaries. The poorer the beneficiaries, the more powerfully this rule holds—and it has held strongest of all in programs intended to aid the black poor. The District of Columbia public schools have excelled at delivering stable jobs to their unionized employees. They have failed their students.

5) The legitimacy of the project will rapidly fade.

Affirmative action ranks among the least popular thing that U.S. governments do. When surveyed, white Americans crushingly reject race preferences, Hispanic Americans object by a margin of two to one, and black Americans are almost evenly divided, with only the slightest plurality in favor.

Now imagine how Americans will feel when what is redistributed by racial calculus is not university admissions or workplace promotions but actual, foldable cash.

Ta-Nehisi Coates anticipates this trouble by suggesting that reparations might be paid not to individuals but collectively to African Americans as a group. He favorably cites the example of German reparations to the state of Israel after World War II.

But the state of Israel was a sovereign, elected by a democratic process. Few in the Jewish world doubted that Israel could and did act for the Jewish people as a whole. Black Americans, however, do not have a state of their own. If reparations are deemed some kind of collective debt to black Americans as a group, rather than to black Americans as individuals, then the question will arise: Who decides how this money will be distributed? Some kind of National Endowment for Black America? Chosen how? Accountable to whom?

The Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree suggests widening the concept of reparations even further, into a national “program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.” In that case, reparations would cease to be a new program but would become instead a new argument in favor of the preexisting policy preferences of the left wing of the Democratic party. Earlier in his article, Coates quotes with seeming disdain the radio host Rush Limbaugh’s disparagement of the Affordable Care Act as a form of “reparations." But aren’t Limbaugh and Ogletree more or less in agreement here?

Coates dismisses all these questions and so many others. He suggests the country first enact Rep. John Conyers’ Reparations Bill and then open a discussion about how reparations would work. But committing yourself to a solution before you have any idea whether such a solution is workable—or, rather, in defiance of pretty strong reasons that your solution is utterly unworkable—is not a responsible reaction to America’s racial dilemmas.

Instead, we’ll be all too likely to repeat once more the sad pattern of so many civil-rights initiatives: the bold announcement, the raised hopes, the unexpected difficulties, the suppression of open discussion of those difficulties, the ossifying of the project into bureaucracy, the realization of failure, the discovery of the political impossibility of reforming or repairing the failure.

* * *

In his Lincoln Memorial address of 1963, Martin Luther King spoke of the words of the Declaration of Independence as “promissory note” on which the nation had defaulted. He meant this as a metaphor, not a financial analysis. Coates has taken him literally. King understood, however, that the wrongs of which he spoke could not be redressed with money (or money alone), and that is even more true today than in 1963.

A real-world example:

Young black Americans spend on average 4.5 hours more per day with electronic media (notably television, video games, and other forms of online entertainment) than do their white counterparts, for a total in excess of 13 hours. While all young people spend a lot of time in front of screens, black youth watch far and away the most television: almost 3.5 hours per day, or an hour and a quarter more than young white people. Almost 80 percent of black youth say they “usually” eat meals in front of a TV.

The disparity is growing wider, not narrowing, as more forms of electronic media become available. The disparity shrinks, but does not disappear, with education and income. The best predictor of how much TV a child will watch is not whether he or she lives in a single or two-parent family. It is not family income or wealth. It is race: Even the most advantaged black youth spend 90 minutes more per day with electronic media than do their white contemporaries. It won’t surprise you to hear that heavy use of electronic media correlates with all kinds of bad outcomes, from obesity to poor school performance. (Across all races, only about 16-20 minutes per day of screen time is connected to schoolwork.)

It’s not difficult to draw a chain of causation from the exploitation so stirringly described by Coates to the TV-dependence of black youth in the 2010s. In this case, however, detailing the cause does not reveal the remedy. To realize their full potential, those kids must watch less TV. No plausible government program can shut down their devices for them. That decision—like almost every decision that leads to self- and collective improvement—must come from within families and within individuals.

The great white lie America tells itself is that the passage of civil-rights laws in the 1960s and ’70s lifted the burden of the racial past. But racial subjugation imposed over 350 years could not and was not alleviated over a single generation. Today’s white Americans inherit financial assets and human capital accumulated over a long span of time—and very possibly by robbing or cheating victims of color.

In refuting that lie, however, Coates advances an error that also does harm: that black Americans can build their future by debunking white Americans’ illusions about their past. It does not work that way. Racism may have turned the TV set on. Anti-racism won’t turn the TV set off.

The government of the United States could trace the genealogy of every white family and send a massive bill to the descendants of every slaveholder and every slumlord who did business from 1619 through 1968. It could redistribute that money in a princely lump sum. But that money won’t change unhealthy dietary patterns, or enhance language skills, or teach the habits on which thriving communities are built.

Germany and Israel may not be historically exact precedent for Coates’s plan. The more exact precedent may be the sudden surge of oil wealth into the Middle East after 1973. Nations that had always felt themselves cheated of their due suddenly saw their incomes triple and quadruple. Yet the nations did not progress. The wealth of nations is built on their human capital—and the oil income not only failed to enrich them, but oftentimes incentivized behavior that left (or will leave) those nations in many ways worse off than before.

The human qualities that advance a community and a nation were defiantly acquired by black Americans themselves under conditions of horrifying adversity. Their development has accelerated as equality has come nearer to view.

Education Next

Disparities remain, of course. Coates challenges all Americans to remember where those disparities came from—and to think hard what is owed to those on the wrong end of them.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

If reparations means remembrance and repentance for the wrongs of the past, then let’s have reparations. Americans tell a too-flattering version of their national story. They treat slavery as ancillary rather than essential. They forget that the work of slaves paid this country’s import bill from the 17th century until 1860. They do not acknowledge that the “freedom” championed by slaveholding Founding Fathers, including the author of the Declaration of Independence, included the freedom to own other human beings as property. They can no longer notice how slavery is stitched into every line of the Constitution and was supported by every single early national institution. The self-reckoning we see in Germany and other European countries does not come easily to Americans—and is still outright rejected by many.

If reparations means intensifying the nation’s commitment to equal opportunity for all its people—and most especially for the descendants of those once enslaved—then (again) let’s have reparations. Better schools, more jobs, some form of universal health coverage, an immigration policy that does not exert endless downward pressure on the wages of America’s least skilled workers, improved nutrition especially in early childhood, higher taxes on alcohol, more effective and less punitive enforcement of drug laws—there’s a program of group betterment awaiting the right advocates at the right time.

But if reparations means what most Americans reasonably interpret it to mean—cash flowing from some Americans to others in race-conscious ways meant to redress the racial wrongs of the past—then it’s a disastrous idea for all groups in society.

And if, when you advocate reparations, you aren’t sure which of the above things it does mean, then your advocacy should be postponed until you are.