In the past, reparations have usually taken the form of government-issued payments to marginalized communities. In 1988, for example, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which provided financial compensation and a formal apology to Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II. In 2013, the state of North Carolina established a reparations fund for victims of its forced sterilization program.
But policy experts believe that, in this case, a direct financial payout can’t be the sole solution; any sort of program needs to be multifaceted in its approach. “The damage was done on all fronts, so you’ve got to tackle housing, you have to build wealth in these communities,” says Bardaran. “Look at the New Deal as an example: It restructured the economy on all fronts.”
To that end, an influential paper, published in 2005, might offer a path forward. In their research, economists Darity and Dania Frank proposed offering reparations through a trust fund for asset-building ventures such as homes and businesses, in-kind reparations in the form of scholarships, health insurance, or financial vouchers. Other promising ideas have sprung up since then. Just this month, a report released by the Institute for Policy Studies includes a number of proposals meant to close the racial wealth gap. Among them: guaranteed employment, an increase to the minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, and baby bonds (that is, savings accounts issued to all newborns that would accrue tens of thousands of dollars).
Yet, for many reparations advocates, direct financial compensation still needs to be central to any package.
“What is there about the recognition of a justice claim among black Americans that leads people to complain about what folks will do with the money?”
Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive grassroots organizing network, argues that reparations proposals that don’t include direct financial compensation are both paternalistic and misunderstand the concept of restitution in the American legal system.
“Their ability to decide how they want to invest in their lives and be repaid for this harm shouldn’t rest in a body that doesn’t represent their community,” she says.
Still, direct payments are likely to be particularly controversial: Even politicians who have expressed support for reparations have dodged or declined to give details about whether their support extends to direct financial compensation. It’s not a stretch to suggest that that hesitation is, in some cases, a direct result of racist thinking — namely, that black Americans, unlike, say, Japanese Americans, can’t be trusted to spend their restitution wisely. “What is there about the recognition of a justice claim among black Americans that leads people to complain about what folks will do with the money when they don’t complain it about in other cases of reparations?” Darity asks. “Nobody asked the Japanese Americans what they were going to do with their $20,000.”
A sizable body of research, however, demonstrates that, for black Americans, a career, an education, even a decent income, is no guarantee of wealth. A 2018 report found that the median net worth of black households with a college degree ($70,219) was less than the median net worth of white households in which the head of household had not even completed high school ($82,968). Black Americans also face higher unemployment rates at every education level.
“What I’ve learned from studying this is that, with education and job training, there’s not a silver bullet or an equalizer,” says Hanks, the workforce policy expert. “There are benefits to training and higher education, but these things don’t close income gaps. They don’t close employment gaps, and they don’t close the wealth gap.”
Whatever the case may be, one thing’s for sure: We’ll never know if we don’t try.