The Case for Considering Reparations

A country that could actively contemplate atoning for plunder would be a very different nation than one we live in now.

President Ronald Reagan signs the 1988 bill granting reparations to the victims of the wartime internment of the Japanese. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Kevin Drum offers an interesting, and familiar, rebuttal to the reparations argument:

A couple of years ago Coates famously wrote an Atlantic article titled “The Case for Reparations,” and after reading it I concluded that he was reticent about reparations too. He certainly made the case that black labor and wealth had been plundered by whites for centuries—something that few people deny anymore—but when it came time to talk about concrete restitution for this, he tap danced gingerly.

Drum believes that I was “reticent” about reparations because I did not talk about “concrete restitution” in the article. Of course, the article was not a plan for reparations. It was a case for reparations. That was the headline. Even so, I did offer some details on the proposals which have been put forth by scholars over the years:

In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.

With that said, I concluded that the next-best step was to back John Conyers’s H.R. 40 bill, which proposed to study slavery and its legacy, and to determine whether reparations were feasible. This seemed intelligent, given that is the exact same path taken by one of the more successful reparations efforts—those awarded to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. It was also actionable—a bill in Congress that could serve as a rallying point—as opposed to merely rhetorical. Finally, although studies certainly end up in the dust-bin of history all the time, without some sort of official document tallying up the specific costs of some three centuries of injury, it seems relatively useless to argue for a plan for payment.

This did not stop people from demanding specifics. These demands always struck me as akin to demanding a payment plan for something one has neither decided one needs nor is willing to purchase. Nevertheless, after my colleague David Frum wrote a piece making the same argument as Drum, I offered the following response:

Even if one feels that slavery was too far into the deep past (and I do not, because I view this as a continuum) the immediate past is with us. Identifying the victims of racist housing policy in this country is not hard. Again, we have the maps. We have the census. We could set up a claims system for black veterans who were frustrated in their attempt to use the G.I. Bill. We could then decide what remedy we might offer these people and their communities. And there is nothing “impractical” about this.

The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.

My case for reparations was not centered on long-dead enslaved black people, but actual living African Americans who’d been wronged, well within living memory. The wrong was massive and perpetrated in virtually every major city in the country. My proposal addressed the thrust of my article—housing discrimination and red-lining. There is nothing dodgy, canny, or hard to understand about it. I made that argument it in 2014. I have made it several times in interviews since. This has not stopped people from asking for something even more specific. I have, with some regularity, pointed them to this excellent paper from the Duke economist, and tireless reparations proponent, Sandy Darity, which discusses “the size of a reparations payment and how the way which it is financed and distributed effects the income of blacks and nonblacks.”

That has not halted the demand for more specifics, generally from people—like Drum—who don’t actually believe reparations are due in the first place. Nevertheless, the most striking portion of Drum’s rebuttal is not his obsession with divining an installment plan for a debt he has no interest in paying, it is the preciousness of his worldview. Drum blithely asserts that “few people” deny that “black labor and wealth” had been plundered for centuries. He offers no evidence for this sweeping generalization.

That isn’t because there’s no evidence to be found. Indeed in 2014, a YouGov and Huffington Post poll revealed (unsurprisingly) that the vast majority of white Americans—75 percent—opposed reparations in all forms. White Americans did not oppose reparations because they were flummoxed by the practicalities of making good on the debt. They opposed them because, ultimately, they didn’t think the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow were any longer that big of a deal. Seventy-eight percent of White Americans said that the legacy of slavery is either a “minor factor” or “no factor at all” in today’s wealth gap. Sixty-four percent of whites thought the same of Jim Crow.

The task I took on with “The Case For Reparations” was to counter this thinking—to show how the damage of slavery and Jim Crow was extended and compounded by ongoing discrimination, how this continues to devastate black communities, and why a debt was owed. Perhaps Drum lives in a country where white people are deeply cognizant of American history and openly confess to pillage and plunder, and thus feels no case even needs to be made. One sees this belief evidenced in Drum’s post just yesterday, where he asserted his complete unawareness of one of the most significant trends in American historiography (“Dunning? Never heard of the guy.”) Ignorance is no great sin—there are always things we haven’t read or don’t know. But arguing out of admitted ignorance, opining despite one’s ignorance, isn’t ignorance at all—it’s incuriosity.

Incuriosity is what most “practical” arguments against reparations boil down to. A sincerely curious reader might well have looked at Boris Bittker’s work, or Sandy Darity’s work, or Charles Ogletree’s work. Curiosity might compel one to investigate the victims of the Tulsa pogrom, consider the reparations offered to the victims of John Burge, or the victims of North Carolina’s sterilization campaign. Or curiosity might compel one to support John Conyers’s bill to actually see whether these smaller, successful reparations claims might illuminate something larger.

Drum’s argument implies that before any of this can be answered—or even really asked—a detailed plan of repayment must first be constructed. It suggests that assailants should only consider paying compensation after their victims have offered spreadsheets detailing how best to dispense it. Drum believes that the problem with the bringing pirates to justice is the distribution system. I believe the problem is piracy itself, and grand piracy always extends beyond the act of theft. It requires the construction of an elaborate architecture to either justify the theft, or to justify non-compensation for the theft.

I have always believed that one of the great benefits of considering reparations lies in their potential to expand the American political imagination. Before there could be a Republican Party, abolitionists first had to imagine emancipation. A country that could actively contemplate atoning for plunder, by devoting significant resources to compensating its victims, would be a very different nation than one we live in now. You don’t get to that different country by waiting to talk about it.

And in this sense the conversation ends right where it began: Liberals and radicals see no problem imagining a socialist presidency. They do not demand specific details of how single-payer health care, free public-college tuition, and the break-up of big banks would make it through a Republican Congress. They are not wrong. God bless them and their radical imagination. I mean it. I just want them to imagine more. Like the movie says—You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.