It’s Time to Get Specific on Reparations

Political Platitudes Are Not Enough

Mattias Lehman
Feb 26 · 10 min read

Reparations — the notion that America owes black Americans compensation for slavery and other discriminatory injustices — is a political issue which has long been dismissed to the fringe of American politics. The most notable recent iteration followed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic: The Case for Reparations. His own article was light on policy suggestions, and instead hinged on the notion that Congress had failed to even consider the issue (evidenced by the fact that they wouldn’t even pass a bill which would investigate reparations).

However, now that Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has publicly supported reparations (followed swiftly by Kamala Harris and Julian Castro), it seems like a good time to talk about reparations. The above politicians weren’t exactly detailed about what ‘reparations’ means to them, so let’s start there.

Senator Bernie Sanders said it well in his 2/25 CNN Townhall when he asked “What does that mean? What do they mean? I’m not sure anyone’s very clear.”

I want to be very clear. I think it’s amazing that Elizabeth Warren has brought reparations into our political discourse. But we must go farther. It will do no good for politicians to bandy about the notion of reparations as a political campaign promise without discussing what such a program would look like.

Whipped Slave

To understand what reparations should look like, we first need to understand why we should pursue reparations. The answer is simple, but worth reviewing. The history of racism in America is far-reaching. black Americans faced injustice in every generation, whether it’s 1760 or 1960.

For example, Larry Neal estimated the unpaid wages from black slave labor at $1.4 trillion ( 6.5 after interest). Bernadette Chachere and Gerald Udinsky estimated that “labor market discrimination between 1929 and 1969 cost black Americans $1.6 trillion”. Redlining prevented black Americans from investing in housing at a time when home ownership built a booming middle class.

We should not see this as a solely historical problem. Those past iniquities have led to modern day inequalities. Today, the median black household owns about 3 cents in wealth for every dollar the median white household has.

Those inequalities will not go away if left unaddressed. Economic inequality perpetuates itself, and the longer we go without addressing it, the wider the racial gap will become.

The solution is a government reparations plan. Reparations is both moral restitution and economic justice, and it must be comprehensive, not singular. As the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America says:

“Reparations is a process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments, corporations, institutions and families.”

So what’s first?


You can’t solve a problem — any problem — without knowing what it is. Representative John Conyers has introduced HR 40 — a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans — every year since 1989. It’s time we finally pass it. That’s not even a commitment to enact reparations, merely to understand the magnitude of black people’s historical oppression, and how we could possibly go about repairing that damage.

Without the benefit of full research, I’ll be focusing on one injustice in particular: The War on Drugs.

Slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, other aspects of mass incarceration, and other historical forms of racial discrimination will need to be similarly investigated to create a comprehensive reparations plan, but they are not my focus here. (although I will reference them rhetorically throughout the article).

Why have I chosen The War on Drugs? For one, it’s recent — ongoing even. That makes researching its impact easier. For another, it’s specific (we’re talking about one subset of mass incarceration). Finally, its impact has been far-reaching, so it’s a goal worth tackling by itself, despite its specificity. Mass incarceration has broken up black families, with one-in-nine black children having a parent in jail (The War on Drugs has been a significant contributor).

Black men make 69 cents on the dollar compared to white men and 91 cents on the dollar compared to white women, and it’s hard to imagine that the War on Drugs has played no part in that gap (given how difficult it can be for ex-inmates to get jobs). And now, to add insult to injury, as we begin decriminalizing marijuana in state after state, white businesspeople are profiting off an industry which continues to put black people behind bars.

So how do we fix it?


The United States has a lackluster history when it comes to admitting its past wrongs, whether that’s black slavery, native genocide, or our history of overthrowing democratically elected governments abroad. We do have one good example of apologies and reparations: The Civil Liberties Act, which issued a formal apology to every Japanese-American interned during WWII, and $20000 in compensation.

The case of The War on Drugs is particularly ripe for an apology, given that The War on Drugs was likely intentionally targeted at black people, according to even former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Regardless of intent, the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected black people. If you don’t find the example of the War on Drugs compelling, hopefully we can agree that the heinous industry of slavery deserves apology.


An apology is nice; it’s a demonstration of intent and contrition. But we also must take material steps to end the current effects of these discriminatory policies.

Thanks to the legacy of Brown v Board of Education, America may no longer have formal segregation, but many of those “separate but equal” facilities are still a statistical reality, in large part stemming from de facto housing segregation.

When the National Housing Act was implemented nearly nine decades ago, blacks were denied access to the housing subsidies that so many whites used to vault into the middle class, in part thanks to the practice of redlining.

While The Fair Housing Act was signed five decades ago, housing segregation has scarcely improved since then. And where you live determines so many things about your life: what type of education you get, what type of medical treatment you get, how policed your neighborhood is, and so on. Living in a majority black neighborhood even drives your property value down.

We must end all of these dual systems.

In the case of the War on Drugs, ending the dual system should mean ending the system entirely:

  • Releasing all nonviolent drug offenders from jail immediately. Nonviolent drug offenders — especially those arrested for possession — are not a threat to society. There’s no reason they should be locked up.
  • Expunging their offenses from the record. It’s not good enough to legalize starting now, we need to decriminalize the pasts of those who were punished under the War on Drugs.

Nullifying the impact of housing segregation will be far more complicated, thanks to the far-reaching impacts mentioned above. This is why passing HR 40 to research the problem is so necessary.


A mere apology and releasing somebody from jail does not make up for the iniquity they’ve gone through. Many people lost their jobs, custody of their kids, their homes, and more. They deserve restitution from the system which destroyed their lives:

  • Everybody who was arrested of a suspected non-violent drug offense — but never convicted — should be paid restitution by the government, in the form of a check and job training.
  • Everybody who was convicted of a non-violent drug offense should be paid back for their lost time spent in jail, with both job retraining and cash commensurate to the amount of time they spent behind bars.
  • Anybody who died behind bars while serving time for a non-violent drug offense should have their remaining family compensated instead.

How much should that compensation be? We don’t really know. The immediate cost of losing your job can be calculated, but what of the difficulty of finding a new one with an employment gap and a conviction on your record? These are topics to be researched and — you guessed it — that means passing HR 40 (but let’s do the releasing now).

Prison-to-Profit Pipeline

Personal restitution is not enough. Decriminalization is creating a massive industry for marijuana, and that will only grow with time. We must ensure that the industry does not become a profit farm for white people when just years ago it was a life-destroyer for black people. As we dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, we should establish a prison-to-profit pipeline for former non-violent drug offenders.

We can start by setting aside a percentage (a large percentage) of the licenses for marijuana dispensaries for former non-violent drug offenders. To help those businesses get off of the ground, we should create a government fund which distributes grants to all newly established marijuana dispensaries owned and run by said former nonviolent drug offenders.


Too many of the horrors of American racism have been elided or softened in our history books. We must ensure that our educational system — not just schools, our whole educational system: museums, monuments, etc — tells the story of American racism in a way that makes no excuses and ensures that we will never repeat such atrocities. We could learn a lot from Germany’s reaction to World War II and the Holocaust, in this regard, as they pay reparations, have legal bans on Nazi imagery, and maintain Auschwitz and other memorials to the Jews killed during the Holocaust.

Generational Wealth Transfer

Finally, we need to acknowledge the role of generational wealth. Anything which sets a people behind in one generation is going to affect their children, given what we know of the effect of your parents’ wealth on your success. Whether it’s slavery, redlining, or the War on Drugs, American racism has destroyed the lives of too many black adults and prevented their kids from having a fair shake. Over time, many white families have been able to build significant family wealth, while black families largely have not.

Any form of reparations which does not address the generational wealth gap is incomplete. As such, the estate tax, capital gains tax, and wealth taxes should be primary funding mechanisms for any reparations, as opposed to income or consumption taxes.

For starters, we should be lowering the estate tax threshold from about 5 million to about 1 million (this still only includes the top 10% of households), and significantly increasing the tax to fund all of our reparations programs. Many of those profits were wrung from black people’s labor, and it’s time they were returned.

Just The Start

This is not a full reparations plan. It’s just a sketch for a hypothetical, undetailed plan which focuses only on the War on Drugs. Redlining, Jim Crow, slavery, and other historical wrongs all require specifically targeted plans to right them.

Nowhere in my War on Drugs reparations sketch did I mention race. I think we are better off pursuing such a program in this fashion. It will still disproportionately benefit black people, but it will also benefit poor whites who were caught in the crossfire of a war on poor blacks. Call it a “yes, and”.

There is nothing preventing any such legislation incorporating racial language. However, it would surely be a complicated enterprise, especially taking into account mixed-race Americans, and I think opens the whole proposal up to far more concern-trolling over who “deserves” reparations.

However, that is not to say we should prioritize a colorblind approach. To grapple with reparations, we must grapple with race. Looking at other such areas of reparations (slavery, Jim Crow, housing segregation), it is going to be nigh-impossible to pursue reparations without accounting for race.

A close reading may take this as a critique of my proposed plan: that I have chosen the low-hanging fruit of the War on Drugs to avoid grappling with the deeper, more complicated issues I have referenced.

That reading would be accurate. I am not a policy writer. I am not a government representative. I don’t have a team of legislative assistants. But even government representatives with legislative teams have failed to create legislative solutions to these problems. This is why it’s particularly clear that we need a research bill like HR 40 to understand how to tackle racial inequality from the perspective of reparations.

When I look at the platforms of candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, I think plans like this fit right in with what they already believe: addressing real-world inequality with government programs. It’s time for them to step up and seriously discuss reparations as a detailed policy, not an abstract aspiration.

As Senators, if they want to support reparations, the first thing they can do is introduce HR 40 in the Senate.

Mattias Lehman

Written by

Democratic Party Delegate, Black Lives Matter, Proud Social Democrat, Aggressive Progressive —

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