reparations: just give people money

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s long piece making the case for reparations, which you should really find time to read in full. It’s interesting, though: I’m not that interested on the question that tends to stoke the most controversy about this issue, the moral claims of descendants of historical crimes to restitution for those crimes. There’s a standpoint that you sometimes hear that says, well, if there were any former slaves left alive, I’d support reparations for them, but there aren’t, and we don’t/shouldn’t confuse what’s owed people to what’s owed their children. There’s a long conversation to be had about that, but I find it a lot less interesting than the pragmatic case for reparations.

As Coates demonstrates, the case for reparations isn’t just a matter of making amends for slavery, but of addressing the continuing structural inequalities of black Americans. And I think you can endorse reparations from the standpoint of simply following through with a commitment that our country has made but never thrown real economic weight behind, closing the economic gap between black and white America. If you were to add up all of the programs, great and small, that are designed to help eliminate that gap, you’d find that there’s an enormous amount of money and effort and manpower going into it. And yet it’s such a mishmash, such a patchwork of disconnected programs, and so easily subject to waste, corruption, and neglect, that they can’t possibly achieve the kind of change that’s necessary to fix these historical disadvantages. So let’s simplify: let’s give black Americans money in order to close the economic gap that is the most direct and forceful instrument of their oppression. Let’s actually finish what we have purported to have started.

You sometimes hear, voiced with varying levels of ass-checking, people express impatience with the progress black America has made. (Most depressingly, this often comes from black politicians and celebrities.) But black America and white America have never been remotely near parity, not in wealth, not in income, not in education, not in a vast number of metrics that we associate with human flourishing. It’s like giving somebody a huge head start in a race, never coming close to giving the person left behind adequate help to close the distance, and then asking why they haven’t caught up.

Besides, think of what we would learn. The preliminary evidence is that just giving people money works. But I admit, the scale of what’s already been attempted has been small. Reparations would give us the most direct and powerful evidence of the efficacy of direct transfers since the (massively successful) implementation of Social Security. If reparations were paid out over time rather than in a lump sum, it could be a fantastic opportunity to learn how a universal basic income or similar mechanism would work at large scale. Closing the economic gap would go a long way to solving persistent sociological questions. We would see whether the “race science” crowd is right, and black people suffer from genetic cognitive deficits, or if my side is right, and structural economic inequalities cause performance gaps in education and other fields. My guess is that economic parity would lead to great improvements in a host of other quality of life metrics, like education, life expectancy, crime and incarceration rates, etc. We would also learn a lot about prejudice: do emotional and social prejudices cause structural inequalities, or the other way around? Can you attack those inequalities through attention to language and social taboos, or do you need direct economic change? Redressing the enormous black-white wealth gap would be a great moral good in and of itself, and it would also facilitate broader projects of social justice in the future.

Today’s structural inequality and yesterday’s historical crimes are deeply intermingled and can’t be extricated from each other. I’m not trying to sidestep the necessary and difficult conversation about the moral valence of communal restitution, which includes some sticky questions about who is responsible for what injustice. But I am saying that the moral case is only part of the equation, and that reparations have benefits for reasons of good governance and effectively addressing social issues we say we want to address.

Update: Pardon me for being preemptive, but I’m just going to leave this here.


  1. Reparations as the camel’s nose under the tent of socialism! I love it! (Although as a practical matter, I suspect it would be a terrible strategy)

    1. One of the vagaries of democracy: politics are always making the perfect the enemy of the good and the good the enemy of the OK. And vice versa.

  2. Good points on it being a gigantic, valuable natural experiment if we did it. In the scheme of things it wouldn’t be too horribly expensive, either – if you wanted to rectify the average wealth gap between black and white households (about $103,000) and just paid every black household that amount, it would be about $1.6 trillion. That’s not much if you paid it out over ten or even five years.

  3. The US Census declared that in 2010 15.1% of the general population lived in poverty:

    9.9% of all non-Hispanic white persons
    12.1% of all Asian persons
    26.6% of all Hispanic persons (of any race)
    28.4% of all black persons.

    I’d say reparations should be made to all of these people.

  4. Have nots (all of them) vs. haves. Singling out one group who suffered egregiously may be a form of justice, but it just plays into modern liberal identity politics–we’re divided and distracted enough.

    1. I dunno. Yeah, African Americans are one group, all right, but I’d find it hard to say that their experience can be lumped in with every other “liberal identity” group. Maybe we can argue where division and distraction might be created by singling out this or that group, but this case seems to be the top of the list for doing a form of justice, what with the massive violence, death, looting, and the like.

  5. One side note on the ethics of reparations: A significant number of white Americans willingly sacrificed life, limb, property and security to secure the legal emancipation of slaves. I’d propose that their survivors deserve at least partial credit on their bill for reparations.

    1. There’s no reparations bill that’s just for white people. Reparations would be paid out by the federal government, paid for by tax dollars. Tax dollars taken from rich black taxpayers, middle class Asian taxpayers, everybody.

      1. So why not a temporary “Descendants of the Union Army Tax Credit”? To exist for the five or ten years (or whatever) the new entitlement gets paid out.

  6. This racial thing is crazy: “closing the economic gap between black and white America”. What the hell does it even mean. Why don’t you close the economic gap between poor and rich America instead.

    1. What Mao said–there are some 20 million whites in poverty in America–guess they’ll be left to their bootstraps.

  7. “Why don’t you close the economic gap between poor and rich America instead. ”

    “The US Census declared that in 2010 15.1% of the general population lived in poverty…I’d say reparations should be made to all of these people.”

    The injustices of capitalism, such as they are, are related to white supremacy, but they are not the same thing. If the US did right by black Americans, there would still be unfair inequalities. But would you say, ‘let’s not give women the vote, because that won’t fix the injustices of capitalism’? The response to reparations that all the have-nots deserve better seems like a non sequitur .

    1. What the hell is this “white supremacy”? What planet do you live on? The US law specifically forbids discrimination on account of race, pretty much in all areas of public life.

      What you’re talking about is statistical imbalance, that only exists in your paradigm that divides people into black and white. You accept the framework of race competition (a wholly racist framework, I should add), and then you choose a team to root for in this meaningless competition.

      This is a tasteless worldview, no different at all from that of a white nationalist. In exactly the same way as philosemitism is not different from antisemitism. You’re essentializing this meaningless characteristic, the skin color. It’s crazy.

      1. “What the hell is this ‘white supremacy’?”

        Umm… “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy…”

        1. The civil rights act of 1964 became law 50 years ago. That’s when the license to characterize the US society as “white supremacy”, literally or figuratively, expired. 50 years ago. If you believe you have been discriminated on the basis of race, you should bring a lawsuit. A lot of people do, black, white, Asian, and others, I’m sure.

          That is it. That’s the necessary and sufficient remedy for racial discrimination of any kind. End of story. Everyone is equal, black, white, men, women, protestant, catholic, or wicca.

          So, with this in mind, how can you possibly justify the aversion to talking about the only meaningful inequality out there: class inequality? Instead of splitting the exploited group of people into black and white, men and women, and pitting each subgroup against each other.

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