Current Affairs

Why Reparations Should Be One Of Today’s Top Political Demands

There is no justice without reparations. Any debate should not be over “if” but “how.”

I am going to make a point so simple that it feels patronizing to even say it, because we all know it’s true, but I want to hammer you over the head with it so that we can appreciate its implications. Let us imagine a far-fetched hypothetical: One day a country arbitrarily divides all of its residents into two groups, A and B, and institutes a caste system. 2/3s of people are As and 1/3 of people are Bs. Bs have fewer legal rights than As. For 200 years they are enslaved. They are treated as less than human. They cannot own property. Meanwhile As are allowed to accumulate property and pass it down to their descendants. Over time, the legal hierarchy becomes an entrenched social hierarchy: As do not associate with Bs, and because As have most of the wealth and status, even after the enslavement ends, it is much easier on average for a child of an A to succeed than the child of a B. For an additional 100 years after the end of the enslavement, Bs are still kept from voting and the limited rights they do have are rarely enforced. They are kept out of prestigious occupations. Their testimony in court is ignored, and crimes can be committed against them with impunity. They are given meager access to public services, and little money to educate their children. They are outright prohibited from living in some areas, and in others they will be attacked and murdered if they dare to buy a house—if they can get a mortgage, that is, which frequently they cannot because banks do not lend in B-heavy areas. 

Here is the situation we find ourselves in: 200 years of outright enslavement, another 100 of legal deprivation of rights and caste-based terrorism, and 50 years of formal political “freedom” in which there are no codified legal differences between the way Bs and As are treated. What sort of society do you think we would be looking at?

We would probably be looking at one in which the 300 years of outright repression had created a monstrous kind of lingering inequality. Over time, A Group families would have accumulated and passed down far more wealth, as well as social connections. They would live in bigger houses. They would be the ones in charge of companies. And they would have almost certainly internalized a bunch of subtle prejudices about the B group that came from years of the B group being treated as inferior, prejudices they passed down to their children. We would have an entrenched social hierarchy that would probably take as many years to undo as it took to form. We would probably see that for generation after generation, the children of people who “used to be” legally in the A group were doing better than the children of those who “used to be” legally in the B group, for a myriad of reasons. 

We are talking, as you know, about the United States, and the way that actions taken in the past have affected what people possess and are able to do today. But discussed in the abstract, it should be quite obvious why “reparations” are compelling. A crime has been committed against the people in Group B: They have had their human rights denied. And that crime will have effects that linger for many generations. In fact, the effects may never go away without some effort to rectify the balance. If Group A has accumulated sufficient wealth and power during the period in which they were given unique legal advantages, then it may be quite literally impossible for Group B to ever “catch up,” presuming that Groups A and B are composed of people with roughly the same distribution of talents and energy. The children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of Group A will simply always have far more, because they are continuing to accumulate compounding advantages. 

The only way to fix this grotesque situation is to try to find some way to balance out the effects of the original injustice. One relatively straightforward measure that comes to mind is: make sure the average person in Group A and the average person in Group B have the same amount of wealth. After all, since we know that there is nothing different in the “nature” of the two groups, because A and B are socially-constructed categories, any significant difference between what the two groups have now should be presumed to have come about as a result of the crime that was committed by A against B. Eliminating the lingering wealth differences between the two groups should be a core part of repairing the damage done by the giant crime. And if that involves redistributing wealth from Group A to Group B, so be it: After all, the portion of Group A’s wealth that is greater than that of Group B does not exist because Group A deserved it but because there was a structure in place that ensured they would have more.

Let me be more clear about the real-world case: I do not think it is possible to have anything resembling a fair society without having reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. These are not historical bygones, they have produced a giant racial wealth disparity that is not going away. That wealth disparity was present the day slavery ended. It was present the day the Civil Rights Act was passed. And it is present today. It is not something that was created in the years since 1964 by Black “free choices”—it has been continuously present for hundreds of years. Without eliminating the wealth gap between Black and white—starting everybody off as “equal” as possible—we are letting our present social outcomes be dictated by the past. Even a racist like Lyndon Johnson was capable of understanding this simple point, famously saying:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Indeed you do not. And what’s interesting is, if you look at the cases made against reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, at least the more honest and intelligent ones, they seem to essentially admit that this is true. Because it’s such an obvious point that reparations are morally compelling and necessary in order to have a fair society—even on a strict libertarian “property rights” framework, a gigantic theft of wealth from one group by another is robbing people today of their rightful inheritance—those who oppose them tend to dwell on arguments that reparations wouldn’t be pragmatic or wouldn’t solve every problem. Because ultimately, if you think about it much, you realize that reparations are a perfectly sensible demand—in fact, more than that: They’re a necessary demand.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the most famous contemporary case for reparations, a compelling and comprehensive essay that draws clear links from the past to the present and shows how wealth has been accumulated across generations. Other cases have been made by William Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen and Randall Robinson. Mohamed Elnaiem reminds us that demands for reparations have been made since the time of slavery:

no “statute of limitations,” in other words, can be used to dismiss a moral case that has never been dropped. The case is not new, and in the United States it started on the day after the Emancipation Proclamation, when the first slave demanded remuneration for all of the unpaid work they had done. 

It’s remarkable that reparations are considered a fringe or “unlikely” political cause, considering that conservative objections to the pro-reparations argument completely fail. Consider the replies by David Frum and Kevin Williamson. I don’t care for either man’s writing—the first is an aider and abettor of war crimes and the latter thinks women should be hanged for having abortions. But they are intelligent enough to realize there is no way to rebut most of Coates’ evidence. Williamson writes: 

The process of extirpating effective racism did not end in 1868 or in 1964; even assuming a zero racial handicap on a forward-going basis, we would expect it to take decades before the average economic differences between blacks and whites were to disappear. (If, indeed, we should expect them to disappear at all.) [Actually, probably 228 years or more] And the economic disadvantages imposed on African Americans did not end with slavery. Mr. Coates recounts, among other abuses, how black workers leaving the South for such communities as Chicago’s North Lawndale were systematically excluded from the formal banking system, in no small part by federal housing policy that denied FHA mortgage insurance to neighborhoods into which blacks had moved or were moving, leaving black would-be homeowners with few options other than the “on contract” purchase, essentially a rent-to-own scheme that was rife with abuse and dishonesty. Upwardly mobile blacks were fleeced by similar schemes for many years, and blacks remain to a disproportionate extent outside the traditional financial institutions — for instance, a quarter of unmarried black men have no bank account, and fewer than half of black households invest in stocks or similar financial instruments. The relatively hard time blacks have dealing with financial institutions has some truly perverse outcomes: Whites have more college degrees but less student-loan debt; white women are more likely to be homeowners than are black women, but they have smaller mortgages; blacks are less likely to be approved for credit cards, and they have more credit-card debt. While the median black household income is about a third lower than the median white household income, blacks’ median net worth is radically lower: about 5 percent of the median white net worth. The median net worth for a single white woman in her prime earning years is about $43,000; the median net worth for a black woman in her prime earning years is about $5.

So, unless we are racists who believe that all of this is the result of some inherent racial characteristic, these are all consequences of the history of American racism. We have a mountain of present-day effects of past crimes. Frum, similarly, could not refute what Coates adduced, and ended up concluding:

The great white lie America tells itself is that the passage of civil-rights laws in the 1960s and ’70s lifted the burden of the racial past. But racial subjugation imposed over 350 years could not and was not alleviated over a single generation. Today’s white Americans inherit financial assets and human capital accumulated over a long span of time—and very possibly by robbing or cheating victims of color.

Okay. So we agree that there is a tremendous lingering injustice, that it affects the lives of Black people in the here and now, that it is the result of racism, and that it has never been addressed. Surely, then, the only debate left to be had is not over whether reparations are due but over what form the redress should take. Williamson complains that any attempt to rectify the situation would involve a “system of racial apportionment.” Coates, in a thorough rebuttal to Williamson, pointed out that Williamson had already conceded that we have a system of racial apportionment: The current apportionment of wealth exists because of race:

Williamson says he is opposed to “converting the liberal Anglo-American tradition of justice into a system of racial apportionment.” He then observes that, in fact, that tradition, itself, has always been deeply concerned with “racial apportionment.” Thus within the second paragraph, Williamson is undermining his own thesis—if the Anglo-American tradition is what he concedes it to be, no “converting” is required. We reverse polarity for a time, and then we all live happily ever after.

So critics like Williamson and Frum, confronted with the weight of the evidence, have to admit that we live in a deeply racist society; that is, your race strongly affects the chances you’ll get certain life outcomes, and there is strong evidence that hundreds of years of racism, rather than inherent racial differences (as suggested by racists like Charles Murray), are responsible. (Not that we should concede that all racism is merely historical, since we know that plenty of present-day discrimination happens—see, for example, this Newsday investigation of housing discrimination among Long Island realtors, or the well-documented racial disparities in callbacks on job applications.

 Everyone who looks at this country with open eyes, i.e., who becomes “woke” or “awakened,” realizes that this is the case. Ben Shapiro recently recorded a video “rebutting” evidence of systemic racism, but while, supposedly, he’s arguing that systemic racism doesn’t exist, in parts of the video he says that, well, of course racism has created present-day economic outcomes, who could think otherwise? 

“It should not be particularly surprising that discrimination in the past has impact on the income of people who are living in the areas that were denied loans [through redlining], that shouldn’t be a major surprise, but that is not the only disparity obviously… If history does make a difference, then if you are denied loans in a particular area, and if there’s less money in those areas, and as crime goes up and property taxes kick in there’s not enough money to take in and schools get worse, obviously that’s going to continue to have effects in that particular area.”

Here Shapiro is actually showing a remarkable awareness of “knock-on” effects: Stripping people of the ability to accumulate wealth makes crime go up, richer people leave, there’s less money for schools, then poor schools lead to worse life outcomes and more crime, and so on for generations. But while he waves it away as “obvious” it actually flatly contradicts Shapiro’s belief that people’s successes and failures are their own fault. Clearly there are massive systemic forces shaping people’s contexts that they have absolutely no control over and that distribute advantages unequally, a fact that he is forced to admit when he watches a video on systemic racism. 

Generally, then, conservatives don’t like to get into arguments with sociologists about the presence or absence of racial inequality, because the statistical evidence is so voluminous. Instead, they move quickly to a pragmatic argument over the feasibility of pursuing racial justice. As usual, conservative arguments tend to boil down to one or more of the following: The thing you want is impossible, the thing you want will jeopardize the stability of society, or the thing you want will “hurt the very people you’re trying to help.” Frum titles his article “the impossibility of reparations,” and argues that reparations cannot actually repair the damage that was done. Let us hear him out [warning—this gets kind of racist]:  

Young black Americans spend on average 4.5 hours more per day with electronic media (notably television, video games, and other forms of online entertainment) than do their white counterparts, for a total in excess of 13 hours. While all young people spend a lot of time in front of screens, black youth watch far and away the most television: almost 3.5 hours per day, or an hour and a quarter more than young whites. Almost 80 percent of black youth say they “usually” eat meals in front of a TV. The disparity is growing wider, not narrowing, as more forms of electronic media become available. The disparity shrinks, but does not disappear, with education and income. The best predictor of how much TV a child will watch is not whether he or she lives in a single or two-parent family. It is not family income or wealth. It is race: Even the most advantaged black youth spend 90 minutes more per day with electronic media than do their white contemporaries. It won’t surprise you to hear that heavy use of electronic media correlates with all kinds of bad outcomes, from obesity to poor school performance. (Across all races, only about 16-20 minutes per day of screentime is connected to schoolwork.) It’s not difficult to draw a chain of causation from the exploitation so stirringly described by Ta-Nehisi Coates to the TV-dependence of black youth in the 2010s. In this case, however, detailing the cause does not reveal the remedy. To realize their full potential, those kids must watch less TV. No plausible government program can shut down their devices for them. That decision—like almost every decision that leads to self- and collective improvement—must come from within families and within individuals.

Frum says that while Coates successfully refutes the idea that racial disparities are the result of Black inferiority rather than the product of a centuries-long crime, Coates nevertheless “advances an error that also does harm: that black Americans can build their future by debunking white Americans’ illusions about their past. It does not work that way. Racism may have turned the TV set on. Anti-racism won’t turn the TV set off.”

This sounds to me a lot like Hillary Clinton’s silly line “if we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” Frum argues that Black children watch too much television and thus do poorly in school. Because he is a racist who thinks watching too much television is an inherently Black thing to do, he suggests that this is something in Black culture that needs to change (not considering whether maybe if we made life less stressful for Black parents, a seeming “cultural pathology” might turn out to have policy solutions). But even if reparations do not ensure that children will watch the appropriate amount of television… what of it? What does that have to do with the question of whether an unpaid debt is owed? Can you imagine a company trying this defense in course. “Your honor, we admit that we polluted the lake and poisoned the town, and that thousands of people got cancer. But can paying to restore the lake ever truly solve all the problems this caused? Can it bring back the children who died? Can it restore the joy to their mothers’ eyes? It cannot!” Frum concedes that the thing he sees as a uniquely Black problem is still probably the long-run result of “exploitation,” but simply concludes that reparations won’t fix it. The only trouble is that this is an argument for doing more than just reparations. Frum writes:

The government of the United States could trace the genealogy of every white family and send a massive bill to the descendants of every slaveholder and every slumlord who did business from 1619 through 1968. It could redistribute that money in a princely lump sum. But that money won’t change unhealthy dietary patterns, or enhance language skills, or teach the habits on which thriving communities are built.

Hah! So we need to do reparations plus massive investment in healthy food and good schools. Fine by me! In fact, it’s funny: You see this a lot in arguments against reparations. Critics suggest that the debt is too huge to possibly pay, and would need to go to groups besides Black people, and that therefore we should pay nothing at all. In Graham Hillard’s “The Other Case Against Reparations,” he writes: 

Pay them to African-Americans today, and you will soon be called upon to pay them to others. (In this, if in nothing else, Elizabeth Warren is ahead of the curve.) Compensate one generation, and you will confirm your debt to the next. Reparations will not mend us, restore us, or bring us together. They will only divide, embitter, and impoverish. We can’t afford to pay them. We can’t even come close to it. But even if we could, we shouldn’t.

What next, compensating Native people for crimes committed against them? Compensating the people of Iraq for destroying their country? Compensating the victims of climate change? Once again, it’s worth thinking about every argument in terms of how it would sound if it were made in a courtroom as part of a case. “Your honor, I say to you, what next? If my grandfather’s estate has to pay ALL his creditors before his inheritance is disbursed to me, are all past crimes to be put right? Where does it end?” In fact, conservatives are certainly correct to fear that the goal of creating a fair society is not reached through reparations alone. But the fact that we “can’t even come close” to perfect justice does not mean that steps toward marginally increases justice should not be taken.   

A more serious argument than “reparations won’t break up the big banks” is that collectively redistributing wealth across racial groups is inherently unjust. Here are some conservative arguments that there is no ethical case for this doctrine of “collective guilt” which punishes people for the crimes of their ancestors:

  • “Reparations are an ethical disaster. Proceeding from a doctrine of collective guilt, they are the penalty for slavery and Jim Crow, sins of which few living Americans stand accused. An offense against common sense as well as morality, reparations would take from Bubba and give to Barack, never mind if the former is an insolvent methamphetamine addict or the latter a dweller in near-pharaonic splendor.”  — Graham Hillard, National Review
  • “Let’s pretend for a moment that the reparations issue makes a modicum of sense. There’s the question of responsibility. More explicitly, should we compensate a black person of today by punishing a white person of today, by taking his money, for what a white person of yesteryear did to a black person of yesteryear? If we believe in individual accountability, we should find that doing so is unjust. In other words, are the tens millions of Europeans, Asian and Latin Americans who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th and 20th centuries responsible for slavery, and should they be forced to cough up reparations? What about descendants of Northern whites who fought and died in the name of freeing slaves? Should they pay reparations to black Americans? What about non-slave-owning Southern whites—who were a majority of Southern whites—should their descendants be made to pay reparations?” — Walter E. Williams
  • “What we should do is pay reparations to black Americans who actually grew up under Jim Crow and were directly harmed by second-class citizenship—people like my Grandparents. But paying reparations to all descendants of slaves is a mistake. Take me for example. I was born three decades after Jim Crow ended into a privileged household in the suburbs. I attend an Ivy League school. Yet I’m also descended from slaves who worked on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. So reparations for slavery would allocate federal resources to me but not to an American with the wrong ancestry—even if that person is living paycheck to paycheck and working multiple jobs to support a family. You might call that justice. I call it justice for the dead at the price of justice for the living. I understand that reparations are about what people are owed, regardless of how well they’re doing. But the people who were owed for slavery are no longer here, and we’re not entitled to collect on their debts. Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims. So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent. Not just that: you’ve made one-third of black Americans—who consistently poll against reparations—into victims without their consent.” — Coleman Hughes, Testimony before Congress 

Let us make a few points. First, as Coates pointed out in reply to Williamson, we have already had a massive redistribution of wealth from one racial group to another, and the question is whether we are going to take steps to undo the damage it caused. There is no world in which racial redistribution does not happen, only a world in which we try to undo some of it and a world in which we don’t. 

Second, I don’t think it is the case that reparations imposes “collective guilt” or “collective blame” on white people, or that they make every Black person into a “victim.” There is no need to see it that way. If I receive a giant inheritance, and it later turns out that the inheritance was accumulated fraudulently and I am asked to make redress to those who were victimized to produce the fortune, I am not being “blamed” for the fraud. I am not being found guilty of anything. We are simply trying to make amends and make sure that someone does not accumulate unjust advantages at the expense of another.

But why should people today be compensated for something that happened to their ancestors? Well, we could note that if their ancestors had not been continuously robbed for centuries, they would have received an inheritance—Black families receive five times less in inheritances and gifts than their white counterparts. Think back, though, to our opening scenario, in which we posit an abstract caste system composed of A and B groups. The argument here does not even need to be that the people in Group A, post-abolition, “owe” Group B a debt. The argument can simply be: Caste systems are wrong. If we have had a caste system, and are trying to eliminate it, but there are lingering effects that mean one’s “caste” is still greatly affecting one’s life chances, then it is justified to redistribute wealth across castes to “equalize opportunity.” In other words, you do not need to believe that today’s white people have some kind of debt, all you need to believe is that equal opportunity is a morally compelling principle. Many conservatives, of course, insist they care a lot about equal opportunity, but because they do not support reparations, it is clear that this is false. Equal opportunity is actually a very radical doctrine and it will take a massive restructuring of society (as well as the elimination of borders) to get us anywhere close to it. 

The argument that reparations would take from poor white people to give to rich Black people is simply mistaken. Whether that was true would depend entirely on how one structured the program. There’s no necessary reason why poor white people should pay anything at all. As for giving to the rich, as Coates points out, this is like saying that whether a tort claim should be paid out depends on how much money the victim has. But I do think it’s true that reparations cannot be one’s sole policy. “Bubba” deserves justice too, and we should pursue reparations as part of a broad agenda that cares about justice for all. A good leftist is capable of holding multiple ideas together in their heads at the same time, and just as Martin Luther King fused a racial justice agenda with a peace agenda and an anti-poverty agenda, we can fold reparations into a full suite of policies that would address different kinds of unfairness.

It’s funny to me looking at Hughes’ testimony, because he actually concedes that at least some kinds of reparations are due. After all, there are plenty of living people who were deprived of opportunities under Jim Crow segregation, suffering immense harm as a result of growing up under outright white supremacist governments. So even he concedes that we’ve got a substantial population of people who deserve financial redress. 

It may sound superficially compelling to say that reparations are “justice for the dead” but injustice for the living, but this is wrong. The entire point is justice for both presently-living people and people not yet born: We are trying to ensure that a Black baby and a white baby do not have radically different life outcomes as a result of the injustice that was done to the dead that came before them (and that will be done directly to them as they grow). The question is: How do we fix something that is clearly broken?

Here we get into the “practical” criticism of reparations, but I don’t think it’s as compelling as its critics say it is. Of course, it’s true that reparations are difficult, because in one sense the task is impossible, just as there was never any possible way to make up for the Holocaust in monetary terms. No amount would have been sufficient to right the wrong that was done. But the wealth gap, for instance, is a very real number. It can be shrunk, if we’re committed to it. If we’re not, it will persist. Reparations do not have to take the form of writing checks to individuals; there are plenty of ways of shrinking racial inequalities that do not involve simply handing out cash. We will of course need to have a public debate on the right solutions, but the first step is at least being clear on what the broad goals are. 

Another “practical” anti-reparations argument you may hear a lot (which seems to me quite weak) is that reparations are not supported by the majority of Americans. This argument comes from both left and right:

  • “That reparations are a hopeless cause, supported by only a quarter of Americans, makes them more of an affront to reason rather than less, for it illustrates the enthusiasm with which Democratic politicians will bang their heads against the wall in an attempt to purchase votes.” — Graham Hillard 
  • “How can you imagine putting together a political alliance that can prevail on this issue? And if you can’t, and I certainly can’t, then what’s the point in trying to hang so much on that issue?… How can you expect people who wouldn’t get anything from this to sacrifice for it?”  — Adolph Reed, Jr. 

But Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in a reply to Reed, makes what I think is the crucial point on this: “It’s not really good enough to say that we should be opposed to reparations because it’s hard. All issues connected to race in this country have been difficult to assemble coalitions around.” The question always is: Does justice demand it, not “does a public opinion poll support it”? Popular opinion was often strongly against the actions of the civil rights movement, but popular opinion isn’t everything. The goal is to move public opinion, as Black Lives Matter has been doing very successfully lately. Every movement for justice has started out marginal and faced very long odds. People have said the same thing about many goals that have ultimately been reached: It’s impossible, you can’t win. But nobody knows what the limits of the possible are, which is why—while it’s important to monitor how well you’re doing with the public, to see if the cause is advancing—it’s better to focus on achieving what’s right than what’s popular. 

Reed makes a point that I think needs to be addressed, suggesting that reparations are in part a nonstarter because they would require people to “sacrifice” without “get[ting] anything.” First, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that people only operate out of self-interest; I believe in the possibility of human solidarity and mutual aid, and think that while getting people to make sacrifices for someone they do not know is hard, it’s what we have to do whether we like it or not. But I do also think it’s important to make sure that reparations are part of a socialist politics that is good for everybody. The reparations part of the left’s agenda is indeed focused on racial justice. But we care about good healthcare for everyone. There needs to be an agenda for disability, for the elderly, for LGBT people, for Native people, and yes, for poor white people too. Everyone who has needs that could be met and aren’t, everyone who deserves something they have not been given, is part of the left coalition. The reason that reparations are a feasible political demand is that they are only part of what we do, and we need to make it clear that left politics are not, as critics would have it, efforts to punish one group to help another, but instead are an effort to ensure “liberty and justice for all.” It’s a collectivist creed in which everyone counts.


“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made.” 
— Malcolm X

How will we know when we have gone “far enough”? Well, it’s very easy to imagine some preconditions. We can see what would not be far enough. We won’t have gone far enough so long as there is:

This is a pretty easy basic set of goals: So long as we have not met them, we can be sure that we still live in a “systemically racist” country. Conservatives, of course, scoff at this, and they try to explain away systemic racism with arguments like: Well, the incarceration rate, or the rate of police killings, is a result of crime rates. To which there are several answers, first and most important of which is: Even if this is statistically accurate, unless you are a racist who believes in genetic inferiority, why are there differences in crime rates? To this, conservatives usually grumble about “choices,” but why are individuals making those choices? A child growing up with incarcerated parents, or parents who have had to work long hours at punishing service sector jobs, may well grow up to make bad choices, but to then blame “bad parenting” or “cultural pathology” for the result is morally disgusting. We know what the real cause is, because it has been with us for centuries. 

I live in New Orleans, and if you look at a racial map of New Orleans, places that were Black a century ago are Black today (except the neighborhoods that have gentrified) and the places that housed rich white people then house rich white people now. At local restaurants, the tendency is to see white people at the “front of house” and Black people back in the kitchens. The divides have existed as long as the city has been here. There was not some magic moment in 1964 where the wealth/power hierarchy ceased to be the product of racism and began to be the product of choices made by Blacks. We are still living in the world that was created by racial terrorism, and we will be living in it for a long time even if we take radical steps to reverse it starting now. 

If we are wondering how we can pragmatically approach reparations, first let us recognize what the question is. The question is not: Should we push reparations as a political issue? That is like asking the question “Should there be justice or should there not be?” Of course we should push reparations. The “political impossibility” argument is less and less persuasive now that radical ideas like police abolition have gone within months from fringe to mainstream. We do not know what is possible if we make the case well and put effort behind it. The only serious question is: What form should reparations take? If writing every Black American a check is sub-optimal, how do we get to the point where there is equality of wealth, and being born Black does not create statistical disadvantages? The question of reparations is not about tallying up a debt in monetary terms, it is about figuring out what would constitute “wholeness,” what would make for the genuine equality that has been denied for so long, and then demanding that. There will be many perspectives on what this would look like, but let us at least begin with a firm consensus that there is a giant racial injustice in this country that needs to be rectified somehow, and until it is, the United States of America has no claim to moral legitimacy (if it ever did). Malcolm X’s formulation offers a useful guide: Removing the knife is not enough. It is time to heal the wound. 

Image by Getty Images.

More In: Politics

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Spreading Sweetness and Light! Current Affairs takes on hellfire, why teens love socialism, the magic of Motown, and the legacy of Huey Long. Cover art by Aleksandra Waliszewska.

The Latest From Current Affairs