Last month, at a televised event in Mississippi, Elizabeth Warren described some of the policies that she hopes will persuade voters to elect her president of the United States. One was a plan to scrap the electoral college system that helped Donald Trump land the job in 2016, but the event will probably be remembered longer for Warren’s call for a “national, full-blown conversation on reparations”.
She was referring to slavery, outlawed in America in 1865, front and centre in national political discourse in 2019.
The Massachusetts senator was answering a question about what a public apology for slavery would look like from a Warren administration. Her reply said a lot about how fast American politics is changing. In any other election cycle of the past century – including those dominated by Barack Obama – backing the idea of 21st-century restitution for the descendants of 19th-century American slaves would have marked her out as a fringe candidate. The idea isn’t new; it’s just never been regarded as remotely practical or fair.
Yet Warren is a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. Two others, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro, have also come out in support of reparations. It is entirely possible that the idea will sail into the White House with one of them, and with a following wind in Congress: Nancy Pelosi, the House majority leader, has said she would make time for a bill intended to start precisely the “national conversation” Warren has in mind.
This scenario is plausible even though plenty of Democrats, never mind Republicans, say it defies common sense. Most plans for turning the idea of reparations into reality involve a multi-trillion-dollar transfer of wealth from rich whites to poor blacks. Forcing mainly white taxpayers to fund such a transfer is bad politics for any party in a national election because about 80 per cent of whites have made it clear they disapprove. Even among black voters barely half want reparations, and many of those who don’t say it’s because the whole idea trivialises the suffering that slaves endured.
As to practicalities, who qualifies? Who decides who qualifies? How are those trillions to be collected? One proposal is to tax wealth passed from baby-boomers to their children at a much higher rate than now. But which of those children would willingly forgo an inheritance because of the legacy of slavery despite having nothing to do with it? As one Fox News commentator put it before being crucified on social media, that isn’t the American way. Except that it might be, soon.
For most of the past century it has been enough, politically, to put reparations in the box marked “impossibly complicated” and move on. But over the past five years a few simple truths have been brought into sharp focus, relegating practical complexities to secondary issues. The why of reparations has become more important than the how.
Among these truths:
- 154 years after the abolition of slavery with the ratification of the 13th amendment to the US constitution, the black-white wealth gap in America is still unsustainably wide. Measuring assets rather than income, the Federal Reserve found recently that for every 10 cents held by a typical black family, a typical white one holds a dollar.
- This wealth gap is structural – a function, mainly, of black exclusion from the great wealth creation engine of home ownership by generations of discriminatory zoning and mortgage regulations.
- Its roots are in slavery, such an essential foundation of the 19th-century American economy that slave labour accounted for 59 per cent of US exports in 1840 and by 1860 was the country’s biggest single asset.
These are some of the components of The Case For Reparations, a searing 16,000-word essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates published in The Atlantic in 2014. His argument echoed that of victorious Union leaders after the Civil War, who took it for granted that emancipation should include reparations of some sort. Slavery was expropriation (“armed robbery as a governing principle”, as Coates puts it), so righting the wrong of slavery must involve giving back the stolen goods.
Since that article appeared, African Americans’ anger over a police and criminal justice system seen as stacked against them has been harnessed by the Black Lives Matter movement. There are signs that white supremacy is on the rise and in a polarised field of Democrats hoping to replace him, attitudes to reparations have become a litmus test of seriousness about dealing with black poverty.
They are more than just a proxy, though. It is hard to read Coates’s essay and not feel the force of a deeper argument running through it – the one that says America will not be able to look itself in the eye until it accepts the need for restitution for slavery, not just atonement. Until then American patriotism is patriotism “a la carte”.
How to compensate slaves’ descendants will indeed be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be accomplished with cash transfers to selected individuals. Reparations could take the form of large-scale federal housing and job training schemes for low-income African Americans. The first step is to have the conversation, which is what the bill known as HR40, introduced to Congress every year for 30 years but only debated once, provides for. Passing it would not cost taxpayers a cent.
Megan McArdle, a critic of reparations, says they can work between nations (as Germany’s to Israel did) but not within them. How does she know? There is no precedent for what Democrats are considering. There are only the cautionary tales from countries that draw a veil over their past only to find they cannot see their future clearly either.
On a lonely hill above the East Siberian port of Magadan, a memorial stands to the victims of the gulag. It is unique in modern Russia, whose leader otherwise insists on general amnesia towards the atrocities of the Stalin era. America doesn’t deny the horrors of its slave-owning past, but it does have a problem facing up to their lingering after-effects. Elizabeth Warren is surely right when she declares, a short walk from the library where the Tougaloo Nine staged the Jackson library sit-in, that “ignoring the problem is not working”.
For & against
“They had been the only cultivators, their labour had given it all its value, the elements of its fertility were the sweat and blood of the negro so long poured upon it, that it might be taken as composed of his own substance. The whole of it was under a foreclosed mortgage for generations of unpaid wages.”
Brigadier General Rufus Saxton of the Union army, describing slaves and land liberated by his troops in coastal South Carolina in 1862
“We can see in the movement for reparations more of a political than a financial cause. It is an effort to reinvigorate the old struggle for civil rights by appealing to an issue on which it is possible once again to assert a profound moral unity. But this campaign to relive the present through the past will surely fail. We do not face slavery or segregation. There is no support anywhere in this nation for a return to either practice. The effort to place reparations front and center ignores that time has shifted the locus of our current concerns to a new set of issues that will not be resolved by reliving the horrors of an early generation in some collective or official capacity. We have to live life going forward. We cannot make collective amends for all the wrong in the past. But we can create new and unnecessary hurts by trying to remedy past wrongs. A divisive campaign for reparations will undercut the efforts that we all want to make a stronger, more vital, more productive and more caring nation.”
Richard Epstein, Boston University Law Review, 2004
“Why after 135 years? Ask the US government. Why have you taken 135 years, and you still haven’t paid your debt to the people you kidnapped and brought to this country… and [who] worked for hundreds of years without pay, which built the wealth of this country? Yes, the slavers are dead and the slaves are dead, but the wealth created is alive and well and multiplying, and being transferred from one generation to the next, year after year. And we say that it must go to the rightful heirs… This country is based on inherited wealth, and we the descendants of Africans are asking – demanding – that we are paid our just due. We talk about this country being built on Christian principles. It was built on genocide and theft and slavery.”
Dorothy Benton Lewis, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, at a debate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001
“I’ve been traveling round the country for the past few years studying America’s divides – urban/rural, red/blue, rich/poor. There’s been a haunting sensation the whole time that is hard to define. It is that the racial divide doesn’t feel like the other divides. There is a dimension of depth to it that the other divides don’t have. It is more central to the American experience. One way to capture it is to say that the other divides are born out of separation and inequality, but the racial divide is born out of sin.”
David Brooks, New York Times, 7 March 2019
“Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorised. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalised them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies and black wealth were rightful targets remains deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have stepped away from the long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But we are still haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, June 2014
How could it work?
At the end of the American civil war, General William Sherman is said to have promised every freed slave “40 acres and a mule”. But land put aside along a stretch of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts to honour this pledge was not transferred. It was restored to white former owners under President Andrew Johnson (a Democrat), and interest has been accruing on the notional debt ever since.
In the 1990s several academic studies offered different ways of calculating this debt. All were too complex to be practical. Some were also morally questionable, critics said, since they viewed the problem from the slave-owners’ point of view rather than the slaves’.
In 2015 the German-born scholar Thomas Craemer simplified the subject in a paper in the Social Science Quarterly in which he put the cost of reparations at between $5.9 trillion in 2009 dollars (based on wages foregone for 12-hour working days for all slaves over five from 1776 to 1865) and $14.2 trillion (based on the same wage rate but for 24 hours a day since slaves were permanently deprived of their liberty).
Craemer assumed average annual interest rates of 3 per cent from 1776 onwards. He divided the tallies by the number of US citizens identifying as black or African Americans in the 2006-08 census. Each recipient, he calculated, was due around $140,000 or $336,000 depending on the scenario used after subtracting their share of the total debt, for which he suggested they were liable along with everyone else “as debtors (Americans) as well as claimants (slave descendants)”.
Even the lower number would wipe out the average wealth gap between black and white US households of $107,000 in 2009 dollars. But at 41 per cent of GDP (or nearly 100 per cent using the higher number), it would be unaffordable as a lump sum. Hence the preference of Ta-Nehisi Coates and others for federal grant schemes – of land, housing or both – in lieu of cash.
How to weigh in
- The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA, +1 601 885 3081) was set up in 1987 to “broaden the base of support for the long-standing reparations movement”.
- N’COBRA is one of 40 organisations to support the passage of HR40 through Congress to start a national conversation about reparations. Others include the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Baptist Convention and the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.
- The Hoover Institution at Stanford University maintains an online archive of writings on reparations, most of them against.