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.