Are Reparations Even in the Realm of the Possible?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.



  1. That was a fun conversation for you, maybe, because you weren’t the moderator. I was busy trying to keep peoples’ heads from exploding. I mean, sometimes exploding heads are preferable in panel discussions, but this would have been outré in Aspen, I think.

  2. I agree that “decarceration” (is that an actual word yet?) is not going to be achieved by going after only low-hanging fruit, though I’d like to hear you describe your own definition of “violent crime” before I comment.

  3. Your categories sound correct. I mean, the Angola penitentiary, for instance, has a hospice. A fucking hospice. Staffed, by the way, by murderers who have been trained as hospice attendants, and who seemed like—I spent some time with them—some of the gentlest people I’ve ever met. They told me they do this work in order to repent for their crimes. Amazing people who, by the way, could not be hired in hospices in the outside world because they are convicted murderers. Not that they’re ever getting out, because murder comes with life without the possibility of parole in Louisiana. Just think about this hospice for a minute: You’ve got guys dying in prison who could, in some cases, be dying with their families. As it is, family members have to make the long drive to Angola (it’s a pretty long way from anywhere) to be with their dying relatives. Someone would have to pay for their end-of-life care, but I’m reasonably sure their care would cost less than the $25K it costs the state to house a prisoner in Angola each year. But all of this isn’t even the point: A guy with pancreatic cancer is not a threat to society. Neither is the murderer who has gone blind in prison. Seriously, I was told that Angola holds an elderly, blind murderer.

  4. One of the inmates in the film we made in Angola (the excellent team of Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, Sam Price-Waldman and Paul Rosenfeld is responsible for this video) is a guy named George Gillam, who was convicted of murder at age 16. He’s an inmate-minister now, and has probably steered dozens, if not hundreds, of his fellow-inmates onto a straighter path. He’s an intelligent, thoughtful, charismatic person who, by all accounts has made himself into a model of repentance and redemption. The thought that he might die in Angola—he’s 40ish now—is terrible. I don’t forget that he killed someone, but I also don’t forget that he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as a juvenile.

  5. Burl Cain, the warden of Angola, isn’t my cousin: He’s my brother. We’re all brothers, because we’re all created in the image of God. Even atheists such as yourself.

  6. I think your last point, about the difference in the way we approach issues, is interesting, and more-or-less correct. I would say that I have more tolerance than you for politicians who are trying, imperfectly, to fix problems we both think are important. I’m not arguing that this is a good thing, necessarily. I think you know, in your heart of hearts, that America is not granting reparations to African Americans—not that you would admit this, by the way, which I understand. But by making this demand, you’re shifting the conversation toward solutions that, while imperfect and incomplete, might otherwise not even be discussed. That to me is the real value of your approach. (In my opinion, you will win the reparations argument when the U.S. makes a concerted effort to a) bring African American mortality rates into line with white mortality rates; b) desegregate housing in a comprehensive way; c) treat the homicide problem in segregated, impoverished African American neighborhoods as the crisis it is; d) institute police and penal reforms that will remove inequality from enforcement and sentencing; and so on.)  Not that I want to rehearse the gun debate again, but I think you’ve nailed it—I start from the position that there are more than 300 million guns in circulation in this country, and that any constitutional effort at gun control will be inadequate to the task of disarming people who need to be disarmed. Which sends me down the path of looking for ways to help people protect themselves. But I always wonder: Maybe I should just be working toward universal disarmament—except I then think that there is no such thing, so why waste my time? By the way, now I’m turning over this idea in my head, that you might actually believe that you’re going to convince America to grant reparations to African Americans. Is that so?