There Is No Middle Ground on Reparations

Americans who oppose reparations care more about responding to political expediency than about the emergency of inequality.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee speaks during a hearing about reparations before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on June 19, 2019
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee speaks at a hearing about reparations before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties today. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

On December 1, 1862—a month before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation—President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Congress. He was not yet the Great Emancipator. Instead, he proposed to become the Great Compensator.

Lincoln proposed a Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the most expansive and expensive slavery-reparations plan ever put forth by a U.S. president. “Every State wherein slavery now exists shall abolish the same therein at any time or times before” January 1, 1900, and slaveholders “shall receive compensation from the United States” for emancipating the enslaved.

Lincoln stressed to his fellow citizens that “we cannot escape history.” Pursuing gradual emancipation, and compensating the enslavers for their lost labor and wealth—and not the enslaved for their lost labor and wealth—would repair a broken America once and for all. “Other means may succeed,” he said in closing; “this could not fail.”

Indeed, Lincoln’s proposal did not fail to escape history. His politically expedient plan made and portended history, projecting a middle ground for Americans to stand between permanent slavery and inequality, and immediate emancipation and equality.

Today, many Americans who oppose reparations, including a slight majority of Democrats, stand on this middle ground. These Americans self-identify as “not racist,” but do nothing in the face of the racial wealth gap that grows as white people are compensated by past and present racist policies. Or they support small-scale solutions that barely keep up with this growth. Or they support class-based solutions that are bound to partially fail in solving this class- and race-based problem. Or they oppose reparations because they’ve consumed the racist idea that black people will waste the “handouts,” that the reparations bill will be too expensive, or that black America is not too big to fail.

Americans who prefer gradual approaches that do not radically disrupt inequality and who label their approaches “plain, peaceful, generous, just,” to use Lincoln’s words, carelessly ignore or understate the complex, violent, stingy, and unjust damage wrought by inequality. These Americans care more about responding to political expediency than about the emergency of inequality, care more about repairing alienated white Americans than about repairing pillaged black coffers, and claim to be horrified by slavery and “not racist” but end up, knowingly or unknowingly, compensating the white beneficiaries of slavery and racism.

These Americans claim they oppose racism and reparations. They support the drive for economic equality between the races at the same time they are pumping the brakes on the only foreseeable policy that can dramatically close the growing racial wealth gap. Only an expansive and expensive compensation policy for the descendants of the enslaved and relegated of the scale Lincoln proposed for the enslavers and subsidized could prevent the racial wealth gap from compounding and being passed onto another generation.

The reparations debate returned to Capitol Hill this week for the first time in more than a decade. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Danny Glover testified on Wednesday in a hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. Is this hearing, and the fact that some Democratic presidential candidates are endorsing reparations, the beginning of the reckoning? Is the United States finally beginning to acknowledge the economic damage that state-sanctioned racist policies have wrought since slavery? Is the United States finally beginning the process of eradicating those policies and repairing their damage?

For every $100 of wealth that white families hold, black families hold just $5. One in four black households has zero or negative wealth, in contrast to one in 10 white households. White households make up 96 percent of the top 1 percent, while black households constitute 2 percent of that highest wealth bracket.

The racial wealth gap will not repair itself. And it is growing.

From 1983 to 2013, the wealth of the median black household declined 75 percent as the wealth of the median white household increased 14 percent. By 2020, black people are projected to lose an additional 18 percent of wealth, and white households will own 86 times as much wealth as their black counterparts. By 2053, the median black household is projected to flatline at $0. Generally speaking, black people are facing economic death.

State-sanctioned racist policies, which have opened, sustained, and broadened the racial wealth gap, have often been ironically framed as reparative for white people. Wealthy-white victimhood has been the creed of racist history since long before Donald Trump vowed to repair America’s greatness from the tyranny of the first black president. The Founding Fathers identified only themselves as the victims of tyranny. Slaveholders cast themselves as under siege by abolitionists, runaways, and especially revolting captives. Confederates fought the so-called War of Northern Aggression. Whites described civil- and voting-rights bills and judgments as “made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race,” to quote President Andrew Johnson’s reasoning for vetoing the first Civil Rights Act in 1866. Klansmen and lynchers said they were fighting against black debauchery. Whites complained they were subjected to affirmative action, welfare queens, the Central Park Five, reverse discrimination, race cards, and roving and ravishing migrants and immigrants.

Throughout this alternative history, white people were collectively accumulating, compounding, and passing down wealth from selling black bodies; exploiting no-wage or low-wage black labor; stealing black assets, from the days of whitecapping to the foreclosure era; seizing opportunities, such as the New Deal or GI Bill, that were denied to black people; utilizing family wealth to start businesses; owning government-subsidized homes in government-subsidized white suburbs or gentrified neighborhoods; and cashing in on Reagan-, Bush-, and Trump-era tax cuts for the already wealthy.

Racist policies have historically compensated people for their whiteness and extracted wealth from people because of their blackness. But Americans occupying the middle ground do not attack these policies like they attack reparations. They support (what they don’t call) reparations for white people at the same time they oppose reparations for black people.

When the so-called not-racists express their opposition to reparations, I do not quarrel with them over their reasoning. I do not point out the history of white compensation to repair damages that hardly existed. I do not point out their middle ground. I ask a simple question: How does the United States close the growing racial wealth gap without reparations?

Nearly all Americans claim to be not-racist, but the so-called not-racists are usually not up to supporting a policy that can create racial equity.

Reparations is not my litmus test for presidential candidates. But it is a litmus test for whether a person is being a racist or anti-racist when it comes to one of the most damaging racial inequities of our time, of all American time—the racial wealth gap. To oppose reparations is to be racist. To support reparations is to be anti-racist. The middle ground is racist ground. It is occupied by people passively doing nothing in the face of racial inequity, or actively supporting policies that reproduce racial inequity. The anti-racist approach requires standing up for the policies, like reparations, that can create racial equity.

Take Lincoln’s compensation plan in 1862. He considered it a “compromise among friends.” Opposition to his planned Emancipation Proclamation had been mounting like casualties from the Civil War. In the November 1862 midterm elections, Democrats gained 34 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives shouting at Republicans like Lincoln: We are warring for reunion with our Southern brethren, not for emancipation. Lincoln shuddered and related. In the summer of 1862, he had publicly declared: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”

Lincoln’s reparations plan went nowhere. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation as scheduled, on January 1, 1863, as “a necessary war measure” to save the Union. But when slavery reemerged in another form after the Civil War, when former slaveholders received a different manner of compensation from Jim Crow, when a civil war had to be fought each time black people proclaimed they should be the ones receiving reparations, it renewed the questions Lincoln answered with his plans to compensate the slaveholders. These questions still divide Americans today. Who is being damaged? Who is being compensated and repaired?

The slaveholder still—or will it finally be the enslaved?