Anti-Racism 101

21 Reparations


“The concept of reparations requires us only to use basic logic of which we were well capable in preschool. If one child steals something from another child, everyone knows they must give it back. If one child hits another, we all know that they must be stopped. If the teacher, school, and community were to create a system that not only allows one child to steal everything – but helps them steal, protects them from repercussions, makes it illegal for victims to react to the theft, makes rules that enable the stolen property to be inherited by the perpetrator’s descendants, etc. – wouldn’t it be obvious to everyone that this created system was immoral, and that not only should it be dismantled immediately, but that there would be restitutions to be made in order to bring the society back to rationality, to equilibrium, back to health, back to life?

For those who see the flaws inherent in capitalism, maybe reparations make intuitive sense. But even those who love capitalism and ‘free trade’ must admit that slavery, and the 400 years of institutionalized racism that included, is the very antithesis of these. Even from a libertarian alt-right perspective, it must be obvious to anyone educated in these things that what happened was not right, it was not fair, and that no significant efforts have been made to correct this most basic and horrific wrong.
To not see this requires serious blinders, and that is what our current system provides. Centuries of unpaid labor created and maintains the foundation of our country’s ‘strong’ economy. By hiding the violence that is done to people of color every day, and has been done every day for the past 400 years, white people can remain ignorant of the reality of the system that they have cheerfully and obliviously inherited.

For many years I unquestioningly swallowed the world of thought that goes: ‘reparations would be too hard, too complicated, too divisive, too impractical.’ The unspoken part of this is that we might as well not even contemplate the ethics or benefits of reparations, since they’re impossible anyway.
So instead what we do (those of us who even see we might have a race problem) is nibble away at the edges of racism, white supremacy and inequality. Doing this, of course we become frustrated that progress is so tiny, slow, or non-existent. I now see this as the only possible result we could get, as we continue to avoid the deepest root causes and close our eyes to the truest possible healing. Once dismissing the most basic, obvious, honest and rational answer, we are left wandering around puzzled that answers seem to be so elusive.

The answer is not at all as complicated as we’ve been brainwashed to believe. Yes the implementation would be complicated, but not any more complicated than building a subway system or a robotic surgeon or the international space station. Human beings are capable of doing very complicated things, we like doing complicated things.

But we fear reparations, not because it would be too complicated, but because white people don’t want to know about (or lose) the privileges we enjoy every minute of every day. We don’t want to know that slavery isn’t a thing of the past, we don’t want to know that we are not all born equal and that white people are way freer than are others.

Even if we don’t know much or anything about the situation, we have a hunch that we stand to lose something, and so we’d rather not spend another moment considering it.

It’s way beyond the scope of most people’s thinking, that reparations could actually make the world a better place for white people too, not just for people of color. As social animals, as communities and families, the illusion that some people can be happy at the expense of others is just that – an illusion. In fact, we are massively, globally, wildly confused about from where it is exactly that we get our sense of wellbeing and peace.

As Buddhist writer Pema Chodron says, ‘We all desperately need more insight into what leads to happiness and what leads to pain.’ If we deeply believed that reparations would make this world a better place for everyone, we would be fine with the complications. We would be eager to sink our teeth into this puzzle and find the best solution of many possible solutions. We would search for answers with the enthusiasm of a pokemon hunt, drawn into the discussion in the way we are drawn into facebook, dying to talk about it as much as we want to talk about the latest blockbuster movie. Overcoming obstacles and solving puzzles in order to make the world a good and healthy place for everyone is something we’d spend our spare time doing, stay up too late thinking about it, get so engrossed in we might forget to eat. Because riddle-solving, pain-fixing, better-world-making are the kinds of things that humans want more than anything.

I’m not sure who exactly convinced us of it, but we have indeed been convinced that making someone else happier will make us less happy, that more for us is always better, that we need losers in life in order to have winners.

Guilt doesn’t feel good, but walking backwards away from feeling guilty is not the way to go. Walking forward into the guilt, looking it in the face, seeing its message, honoring its leading is the way to bring oneself, and everyone around us by proxy, another step closer to the satisfying, comforting, peaceful, sane and happy world we all dream about.

The journey from ignorance into awareness is a confronting and painful one. We resist pain and awakening whenever we can. But when that resistance is no longer working, and as we step closer to awakening, as we overcome the humiliation of ignorance and embrace a wider, more clear view, hopefully we will discover that healing, restoration and resolution are worth it.” -Amy Childs

Excerpts from “The Case for Reparations” by Ta Nehisi Coates, published in The Atlantic magazine, 2014:

Indeed, in America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife. We believe white dominance to be a fact of the inert past, a delinquent debt that can be made to disappear if only we don’t look.


Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. 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 brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are 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.


One thread of thinking in the African American community holds that these depressing numbers [poverty, crime, unemployment, etc.] partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior. (In 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, responding to violence among young black males, put the blame on the family: ‘Too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of, and then we end up dealing with your children.’ Nutter turned to those presumably fatherless babies: ‘Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.’) The thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance.


Yale historian David W. Blight has noted. ‘Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy.’ The sale of these slaves—‘in whose bodies that money congealed,’ writes Walter Johnson, a Harvard historian—generated even more ancillary wealth. Loans were taken out for purchase, to be repaid with interest. Insurance policies were drafted against the untimely death of a slave and the loss of potential profits. Slave sales were taxed and notarized. The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.


In a time when telecommunications were primitive and blacks lacked freedom of movement, the parting of black families was a kind of murder. Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy—in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family. The destruction was not incidental to America’s rise; it facilitated that rise. By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy. The labor strife that seeded Bacon’s rebellion was suppressed. America’s indispensable working class existed as property beyond the realm of politics, leaving white Americans free to trumpet their love of freedom and democratic values. Assessing antebellum democracy in Virginia, a visitor from England observed that the state’s natives “can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves.”


‘The Jim Crow South,’ writes Ira Katznelson, a history and political-science professor at Columbia, ‘was the one collaborator America’s democracy could not do without.’ The marks of that collaboration are all over the New Deal. The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farm workers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net ‘a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.’


The federal government is premised on equal fealty from all its citizens, who in return are to receive equal treatment. But as late as the mid-20th century, this bargain was not granted to black people, who repeatedly paid a higher price for citizenship and received less in return. Plunder had been the essential feature of slavery, of the society described by Calhoun. But practically a full century after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the plunder—quiet, systemic, submerged—continued even amidst the aims and achievements of New Deal liberals.


Speculators in North Lawndale, and at the edge of the black ghettos, knew there was money to be made off white panic. They resorted to “block-busting”—spooking whites into selling cheap before the neighborhood became black. They would hire a black woman to walk up and down the street with a stroller. Or they’d hire someone to call a number in the neighborhood looking for “Johnny Mae.” Then they’d cajole whites into selling at low prices, informing them that the more blacks who moved in, the more the value of their homes would decline, so better to sell now. With these white-fled homes in hand, speculators then turned to the masses of black people who had streamed northward as part of the Great Migration, or who were desperate to escape the ghettos: the speculators would take the houses they’d just bought cheap through block-busting and sell them to blacks on contract.


From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people. But Billy Brooks Jr. had a father. Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder. Adhering to middle-class norms is what made Ethel Weatherspoon a lucrative target for rapacious speculators. Contract sellers did not target the very poor. They targeted black people who had worked hard enough to save a down payment and dreamed of the emblem of American citizenship—homeownership. It was not a tangle of pathology that put a target on Clyde Ross’s back. It was not a culture of poverty that singled out Mattie Lewis for “the thrill of the chase and the kill.” Some black people always will be twice as good. But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast.


Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy. President Lyndon Johnson may have noted in his historic civil-rights speech at Howard University in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But his advisers and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.

After his speech, Johnson convened a group of civil-rights leaders, including the esteemed A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, to address the “ancient brutality.” In a strategy paper, they agreed with the president that “Negro poverty is a special, and particularly destructive, form of American poverty.” But when it came to specifically addressing the “particularly destructive,” Rustin’s group demurred, preferring to advance programs that addressed “all the poor, black and white.”


That HR 40 [Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act] has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?

One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.


Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office. The laments about “black pathology,” the criticism of black family structures by pundits and intellectuals, ring hollow in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America’s relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer.

And this destruction did not end with slavery. Discriminatory laws joined the equal burden of citizenship to unequal distribution of its bounty. These laws reached their apex in the mid-20th century, when the federal government—through housing policies—engineered the wealth gap, which remains with us to this day. When we think of white supremacy, we picture Colored Only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.

On some level, we have always grasped this.


The politics of racial evasion are seductive. But the record is mixed. Aid to Families With Dependent Children was originally written largely to exclude blacks—yet by the 1990s it was perceived as a giveaway to blacks. The Affordable Care Act makes no mention of race, but this did not keep Rush Limbaugh from denouncing it as reparations. Moreover, the act’s expansion of Medicaid was effectively made optional, meaning that many poor blacks in the former Confederate states do not benefit from it. The Affordable Care Act, like Social Security, will eventually expand its reach to those left out; in the meantime, black people will be injured.

‘All that it would take to sink a new WPA program would be some skillfully packaged footage of black men leaning on shovels smoking cigarettes,’ the sociologist Douglas S. Massey writes. ‘Papering over the issue of race makes for bad social theory, bad research, and bad public policy.’ To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying. The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same. The lie ignores the fact that closing the ‘achievement gap’ will do nothing to close the ‘injury gap,’ in which black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.


We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling ‘patriotism’ while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.


The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them. John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed.

But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

“According to The New York Times, many Germans are not even aware that their country, after paying $89 billion in compensation mostly to Jewish victims of Nazi crimes over six decades, still meets regularly to revise and expand the guidelines for reparations. The mission is to reach as many of the tens of thousands of elderly survivors who have never received any form of support. “ -Joy Sewing

When considering what sort of reparations are appropriate, it is important to keep in mind that the institution of slavery did not just set back black people—it also greatly enriched white people. It is not just that when slavery ended, black people were starting from farther behind—white people were starting from farther ahead, having reaped enormous profits for hundreds of years by stealing the fruits of black people’s labor. If the public refuses to calculate the cost of slavery on human lives and souls, at least calculate this: money was stolen. Lots of it! Broadly speaking, white Americans today have benefited from a great infusion of wealth that slavery provided to their ancestors, and black Americans have lost out on that wealth to at least the same degree (if not more, given the opportunity cost of all the wealth-building activities that slaves never got the chance to undertake).” -Hamilton Nolan

The map’s creators say they envision an equitable distribution of land and resources in the country. According to the nonprofit Urban Institute, the wealth of White families was seven times greater than that of Black families in 2016. Penniman cites data from the USDA Census, which show that about 95 percent of farms are operated by White farmers.

This map will catalyze the voluntary transfer of land and resources to people of color as a means to rectify this injustice,’ she says. -Jean Willoughby

“Remember, your whiteness is not located solely in your individual body or your home. It is an entire structure and mode of operation that all non-white people are subject to. So for me reparations isn’t only about how many individual white people can help Black people, but more so how can white people really leverage what whiteness has afforded them as a means to offset the disadvantages Black people face.” –Imani Inami

“I think a lot of [allies] get disappointed when they find out what we need most is their money….”

“While we need bodies, and voice-uplifting, and listening, and ‘tough conversations,’ we have to remember what we’re actually attempting to address and restore.

I encourage Black women to speak up and request compensation and reparations. I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s not a ‘hand-out.’ It’s not shameful to acknowledge the systems that have robbed us for centuries. It’s not ‘shady’ or exploitive to confront those who have benefited from your disenfranchisement. You’re not the one who has anything to be ashamed of. Remember that.

We can’t get back the 500+ years we lost. And since we’re forced to live under a capitalist system, the primary means of restoring Black autonomy and liberation is through land, resources, and accumulated wealth. So unless you got 40 acres and a mule out back I suggest you help some Black women lead the movement and uplift the next generation.” –Didi Delgado

Other resources