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Injecting Nuance into the Reparations Debate

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

“But when addressing a problem of justice, popularity is neither the sole nor the primary factor for adjudication.”

In a September article for Merion West, Solomon Green provided an eloquent and well-argued case against reparations for slavery. While analyzing every argument and minute detail would be excessive for our purposes here, Green’s essay, on the whole, offers both pragmatic and philosophical arguments against the idea of providing reparation payments to the surviving descendants of American slaves. As someone who also opposes race-based reparations payments, I can certainly sympathize with Green’s intentions. It is a cogent and well-considered case for restraint when addressing the politics of race in America. But there are a few misconceptions embedded within Green’s argument, which I’d like to address here.

Green’s argument starts off by addressing the technical complexities emerging from implementing reparations, namely the logistical difficulties of implementing such a policy today. He cites the complexities of ascertaining “guilt” and apportioning compensation, given the vast amount of time that has passed since the abolition of slavery. In the few instances when the United States government has implemented reparations programs to victims of discrimination or government wrongdoing (i.e. Japanese internment, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, etc.), those victims were usually still alive and, therefore, capable of receiving compensation for their suffering. Needless to say, the same cannot be said for slavery-based reparations; implementing a reparations program would require “innocent bystanders” to shoulder a disproportionate share of the cost. As Green and other conservatives have argued, millions of immigrants have immigrated to the United States since the end of the Civil War; from both a legal and a moral standpoint, taxing them for the crimes of long-deceased slave-owners borders on extortion. 

Moreover, given the multiracial realities of modern American society, any race-based reparations program would have to ascertain which descendants qualify for compensation. Millions of Americans claim to be “mixed-race,” sharing only partial black ancestry. The sheer complexity of adjudicating such “exceptions” alone dooms any reparations program, as well as imposing difficult questions of racial identity (and belonging) that conservatives and moderates (particularly of the “colorblind” sort) would rather avoid.

Nevertheless, there are a few problems with this rather conservative approach to the issue of reparations. The first is purely methodological, namely with regards to the supposed “impassibility” of researching how a potential reparations program would work. According to the pure language of H.R. 40, the congressional bill mentioned in Green’s article, the intent of the statute would merely be to establish a commission to investigate the issue of racial discrimination in the United States, as well as the potential effectiveness of a hypothetical reparations program. 

In other words, the potential infeasibility of reparations need not stop us from merely investigating the matter and subsequently weighing the costs and benefits.

Now, it may very well be the case that reparations are ultimately infeasible from a policy perspective; the difficulty of tabulating the costs of racial discrimination underscores this fact. Yet the mere difficulty of creating such a program does not automatically disqualify the federal government from researching the proposal. Similar government-sponsored research projects have been conducted before, most notably the infamous Kerner Commission, which investigated the causes of the race riots plaguing American cities in the late 1960’s and offered (in vain) policies to remedy the situation. In other words, the potential infeasibility of reparations need not stop us from merely investigating the matter and subsequently weighing the costs and benefits.

Ultimately, however, the more interesting argument that Green raises concerns the desirability of enacting reparations. Towards the end of his essay, Green highlights his main critique of reparations for slavery: that it would be needlessly divisive, inflaming already strained relations between the races and exacerbating political polarization in the country. Given the already-strained nature of race relations in America, polarized over movements such as Black Lives Matter and “political correctness,” adding another topic to the whirlwind is both counterproductive to the goal of “healing” race relations, while also ultimately reinforcing the concept of “race” as a descriptive demographic category. 

Hidden beneath this particular argument is the erroneous assumption, shared by many on the Left (as well as the Right), that the ultimate goal of civil rights policies is the harmonization of race relations between the black and white communities. The term itself serves as a useful catch-all phrase for racial issues, dealing with the (admittedly real) problems that emerge from racial polarization. From concerns about addressing social and economic disparities between the races to general consternation at the overall state of “race relations” in the country, this prioritization of “race relations” places too much emphasis on the need to “repair” relations between the races and place them in a position of “parity” when it comes to social and demographic indices, such as wealth accumulation and educational attainment.

However soothing this may seem to the white liberals (and conservatives) who fancy playing the role of racial referee, it is fundamentally incorrect. The ultimate end of reparations is justice, full stop. Justice—not racial healing or poverty reduction or any other elitist pet project. That is the only useful metric for judging the efficacy of any race-based reparations program. This justice-based perspective is superior because it acknowledges the moral and ethical case for reparations and/or other legal remedies to “repair” (i.e. “make whole”) the damages imposed on the victim(s)—in our case, the modern-day descendants of slaves. 

This extends to Green’s discussion of popular approval. Admittedly, proponents of reparations will have to address their program’s unpopularity among both white and black Americans. I have my own reasons for opposing reparations for slavery, though I will not air them here. But when addressing a problem of justice, popularity is neither the sole nor the primary factor for adjudication. Desegregation itself was highly unpopular at the time of the civil rights movement; “Impeach Earl Warren” posters and slanderous propaganda alleging collusion between civil rights leaders like Dr. King and Communists abroad were popular at the time for a reason—and not just among card-carrying Klansmen in the Deep South. 

The politics of race in America are complex and multifaceted, especially when dealing with something as sweeping as a reparations program for crimes committed nearly two centuries ago. Such a policy merits discussion and investigation—if not for its eventual implementation, then for explaining its infeasibility. At the end of the day, it may very well be the case that a reparations program for slavery will do nothing to address the injustices imposed by slavery, and both supporters and opponents of reparations will have to contend with that reality. In that case, the outcome should be respected by all for the historical tragedy that it is—tragic in the sense that despite two centuries of repression and half-hearted amelioration, the wounds caused by slavery may never fully heal.

Elie Nehme holds a B.A. in both political science and economics from Long Beach State and is currently working on his undergraduate thesis.

3 thoughts on “Injecting Nuance into the Reparations Debate

  1. Without a definition of justice (punitive justice is different to restorative justice for example) I don’t see how this advances the debate. I’d rather hear your reasons for opposing reparations.

    1. My reasons for opposing reparations are mainly based on the way it is proposed. Individualized payments to descendants of slaves (lump-sum or otherwise) is generally how I see it thrown around, and I think it both cheapens the impact of slavery while also being bad from a policy perspective. My preferred policy on reparations would be (A) a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to investigate all grievances on all aspects of racial discrimination from the nation’s Founding to today and (B) an anti-poverty program (i.e. some form of reformist socialism).

    2. In any case, We the People will have to decide what kind of justice we want to pursue when addressing this issue (which we should, as opposed to sweeping it under the rug). I personally favor some form of restorative/rehabilitative justice, but there are good arguments in favor of punitive justice.

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