On June 19th, 2019, Representatives of the 116th Congress took to the House floor to debate the passing of HR 40, a bill intended to fund a study on how reparations would affect society. It was the first time in over a decade that a hearing had convened on the subject, and it sent the topic of reparations and racism back into mainstream public discussion. The bill has predictably met with push-back from Republicans; many of whom seem afraid to even study the issue. Regrettably, this fear of a mere academic study has continued to cause reparations to be regarded as a “he said-she said” topic: there is no clear picture of what reparations would look like or even what form would be the most beneficial. However, the Republican push-back has gifted us the opportunity to look at the issue without the influence of politics to color our views. Because there is yet to be any kind of plan laid out and heavily endorsed, we can debate the different types of reparations without falling victim to a mob mentality that usually occurs whenever a certain policy gains widespread acceptance.
If there is an important discussion to be had, the subject of reparations is certainly near the top of the list. Race continues to be an incredibly incendiary topic in America, and a quick look at the speeches and campaigns of the Democratic candidates for president shows just how much weight race carries in American politics. The subject of reparations has been a recurring idea since the end of the Civil War, but interest was renewed by a 2014 article in The Atlantic, an excellent piece of journalism that helped bring the ills of racial discrimination to national attention. Perhaps now, Americans are ready to reckon with the injustices of the past and the problems of today.
Perhaps now, Americans are ready to reckon with the injustices of the past and the problems of today.
But what is more important? Repairing our current divides, or looking to atone for the sins of the albeit recent past? Ultimately, the correct method of reparations rests on this question. A simple, one-time check would do nothing more than address the latter. The biggest issue with simple, one-time monetary reparations is that it is nothing more than a mere band-aid. The money that each individual receives would do nothing to address the racial gap in high school graduation rates, nor would it achieve any meaningful change in our failed healthcare system. While a monetary reparation would help poor black families pay for healthcare or a better apartment for a short while, it would be temporary at best. Any amount of money that is distributed would quickly be absorbed back into our broken system and return to the pockets of those who profit the most from discrimination while black communities see no real change. And while a recurring payment could theoretically provide a long-term solution, it would still run into a major issue in terms of the yearly cost. Our economy couldn’t sustain a multi-trillion dollar program like reparations for any significant length of time without crippling our social services and military.
Any amount of money that is distributed would quickly be absorbed back into our broken system and return to the pockets of those who profit the most from discrimination while black communities see no real change.
Another issue is raised when you try to define who would receive the payment. For example, I am a blond, blue-eyed white man who can almost positively point to a black ancestor who was either the son or grandson of a slave. Would I be entitled to a reparation? I would assume not, but it shows that heritage itself is far too unreliable and intertwined to be an effective measuring stick of those affected by racism. What about the people who descend from a father who is a slave owner and a mother who was a slave? Are they going to be taxed or will they receive the reparation?
If heritage isn’t the solution, some might argue that the solution would be found by measuring the color of one’s skin. If this would be the method of determining the right to financial compensation, who plans on telling a biracial child with very light skin that they aren’t black enough to receive a payment? No matter how you structure the system, you are still going to be forced to exclude people who may or may not have an equal right to a reparation.
Who plans on telling a biracial child with very light skin that they aren’t black enough to receive a payment?
This leads to perhaps the worst consequence of financial reparations: the conservative reaction to any such bill. It almost certainly would be vigorously and angrily opposed, and would do more to widen the racial divide than it would close it. After the reparations have been paid in full, whether in one lump sum or allocated out over a certain number of years, conservatives would be able to say that they had paid their debt, and any social program or affirmative action seem grossly unfair to them. Even worse, how are we to explain it to the poor white families in the rust belt? Securing these voters is crucial to the success of any legislation intended to address racism and discrimination, and taxing them to give to other poor families will not appeal to these voters in the least.
So are reparations a dead issue? Certainly not. A different form of reparation would be extraordinarily beneficial, if not a societal imperative. We must find a way to solve the myriad of problems that face black communities today, and we must do so as quickly as possible.
The most important change that we could make is putting an end to the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs has affected over 1.5 million families each year since 2000, and at this moment 2.7 million children are growing up with one or more parents incarcerated while one out of nine black children has a parent currently jailed. And as drug overdoses continue to rise, it’s clearer than ever that as a war it is an utter failure that destroys communities and lives instead of saving them. If we wish to fix our broken system, we need to start by eradicating the primary source of our predicament.
The next solution would lie in fixing and overhauling our public education system. During the 2012 school year, only sixty-nine percent of African Americans graduated, almost seventeen percent lower than the graduation rate of white Americans. We need to find a way to retain black students for their entire school career and educate them to a level that at a minimum prepares them for a job that can sustain them. Free college would be a major boon to poor communities by allowing young people to finally break the cycle of poverty, and a stronger elementary through high school system would give children the foundation they need to better themselves and their families.
Finally, a complete overhaul of the healthcare system would do wonders for breaking addiction and treating disease, perhaps repairing the damage done by the War on Drugs and other discriminatory policies. We cannot allow any more families to go bankrupt because they can’t afford healthcare costs. Furthermore, free and easily accessible contraceptives would allow more black women to live more productive lives that benefit themselves foremost and by extension their community in many different and important ways. As Christopher Hitchens said, “The cure for poverty has a name, in fact. It’s called the empowerment of women.” Any effort to end the racial wealth divide must ensure that women have full control of their reproductive organs.
As Christopher Hitchens said, “The cure for poverty has a name, in fact. It’s called the empowerment of women.”
There are certainly other things to change and practices to end (the devaluation of African-American owned property comes to mind), but the three I mentioned are the most pressing. The problem is, we cannot hope to distribute fair retribution and fix any of these issues at the same time. Although decriminalizing all drugs while regulating and taxing the sale of them would most likely pay for itself, providing better education and free healthcare would require a substantial sum of money. These policies are without a doubt achievable, but I fear the massive cost of reparations would render all of them impossible. Any amount of common sense would suggest that we should instead spend our money on meaningful change, not an empty, superficial form of virtue signaling that would only succeed in making us feel better about ourselves. I, for one, would much rather my tax dollars go towards building a school that empowers thousands of young men and women to take control of their lives and future instead of paying for three month’s rent in an apartment complex that is overpriced and crumbling due to discriminatory policies. Monetary reparations are not a solution, they are a rug that would cover the dirt and filth of real problems.