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How We Can Finally Put the Reparations Question Behind Us

(By Stephanie Keith/The New York Times/Redux)

With that in mind, what I want to do below is to advance a proposal that, I think, lets everyone concerned out of this conundrum gracefully.”

In the latest installment of this nation’s long-running conversation about race and racism, the complex, confounding subject of reparations for slavery is the talk of the town yet again.

This time, its most prominent advocate is Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning lead author of The New York Times “1619 Project”—an effort repeatedly panned even by liberal fact-checkers and historians, which aims to convince Americans that their nation was founded in sin. For its proponents, the founding was not in 1776, when our ideals were forged in the Declaration of Independence, but in 1619, when the first slave ship arrived on our shores. Now, despite Jones’ having expressed rather questionable views of white people—those “barbaric devils” and “bloodsuckers”The New York Times recently featured her case to rehash much of the case for reparations that Ta-Nehisi Coates had notoriously made in The Atlantic in 2014. Other recent takes in favor of reparations have surfaced in The Washington Post, Forbes, MarketWatch, and USA Today, among others, with more where these came from certain to come.

The idea, in other words, is that talk of reparations is not going away anytime soon. With that in mind, what I want to do below is to advance a proposal that, I think, lets everyone concerned out of this conundrum gracefully.

It is important to understand first, however, that despite the proselytizing media’s effort to normalize the idea, reparations for slavery are wildly unpopular (enjoying a meager level of 26% support in the general population, with even 35% of African Americans opposed). The protests, thus far, have not changed that fact. As The Washington Post recently reported, “Some opinions about race haven’t changed since the protests began…Interestingly, Americans have steadily failed to support reparations for descendants of slaves. Throughout 2020, only around one-quarter favored reparations to African Americans.” 

Support is low for a reason—indeed, for multiple reasons. Reparations suffer from the problem that they are a morally dubious and utterly unworkable non-starter (i.e., who should be forced to pay? who should get paid? in what form?) that would have to be crammed down the throats of many white people (and many black people) who had nothing to do with slavery or its immediate aftermath. But still more problematically, there is a perfectly good argument to be made that reparations have already been paid in spades—or, to be more precise, in billions and possibly trillions of dollars.

Due to the brute fact of disproportionate black poverty, President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” entailed a massive wealth transfer from disproportionately white taxpayers to the disproportionately black recipients of welfare, AFDC, Medicaid, Food Stamps and other such programs. President Johnson himself acknowledged the racial character of the reforms animating his Presidency, famously stating in a June 4, 1965, commencement speech at Howard University, that:

“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. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” 

The Great Society made good on those principles, and the benefits programs President Johnson initiated—while counterproductively leading to dependency, the breakup of the black family and entrapment in a cycle of poverty—were exactly what would constitute reparations: a big, decades-long, still-ongoing wealth transfer from white Americans to black Americans undertaken with the full imprimatur of the U.S. federal government.

Add, on top of this, decades of race-based affirmative action and diversity hiring and the additional massive wealth transfer from whites to blacks entailed in the costs of policing of and free social services for high-poverty, high-crime black neighborhoods to keep residents safe and provide for their needs, and what you have is, again, a solid case that reparations have already been paid many times over. 

Her observation that “the racial wealth gap [today] is about the same as it was in the 1950s” only puts the nail in the coffin of her argument: More handouts will not help the very real plight of black Americans.

It is ironic that in all the over 8,500 words of Hannah-Jones’ plea for what amounts to more reparations, while she devotes many pages to the wrongs done to black Americans, she notes, only in passing, that President Johnson is the “architect of the Great Society” and yet says not a word about the fact that those very programs were already exactly what reparations might entail. Her observation that “the racial wealth gap [today] is about the same as it was in the 1950s” only puts the nail in the coffin of her argument: More handouts will not help the very real plight of black Americans. There are things we as a nation can do to ameliorate the issue. Near the top of my list would be ending the pointless, costly, crime-creating war on drugs that—in addition to losing out on the massive tax revenue we could be collecting from selling drugs legally—leads to so much needless gang violence and resulting suffering and imprisonment in the black community.

And there are things black Americans as individuals can do to better their own lives, but none of those things, either systemic or individual, include hectoring white people about what horrible racists they allegedly are, aiming racialized epithets like “white privilege” or “white fragility” at them, tearing down monuments to Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson, turning American history into a simplistic, Manichean morality play of black heroes and white villains, painting #BLM slogans on city streets or, for that matter, giving every black person in America another few hundred or even another few thousand dollars by way of additional reparations. 

However, such protestations notwithstanding, the fact remains that there are prominent black voices still demanding reparations, and there are powerful white opinion-makers very eager for that to happen. There are also clearly many white people suffering from bad cases of “white guilt.” That malady is likely to be especially prevalent among the disproportionately wealthy and privileged progressive white elites in positions of power and influence, who might have gotten into elite universities as legacies, who might have had their own legacies handed to them through inheritance or their cushy or prestigious jobs passed along through connections. Their ancestors might even have been actual slaveholders or unrepentant discriminators. Such white people might feel—maybe even, in some small minority of cases, justifiably—guilty for what they have. Those feelings of guilt are prompting them to inundate the rest of us in a lot of talk about their “privilege” and the nation’s eternal “white supremacy.”

But even such talk, they feel, is no longer enough. They are now increasingly eager to reach into their pockets and part with a few (or more than a few) dollars to even out their balance a bit in the grand scheme of things. And there are also some black folks who believe that, if nothing else, such a gesture of reparations would be a big step in acknowledging America’s culpability for slavery, and who also would not mind seeing a few extra dollars coming their way?

With these constituencies in mind, I have a simple suggestion I am proposing in all seriousness: Why not let these guilt-ridden white people expiate their guilt, if they are so inclined? Set up a national reparations fund, declare a National Day of Reparations, say the first day of Black History Month, February 1, 2021, and then, on that day, allow anyone who feels the need to pay as much as they wish into that fund in order to atone for their real and perceived sins or those of their ancestors—anonymously, of course, so that it does not become yet another basis on which to signal one’s virtue or shame others. 

As for those who would benefit from the fund, this part must also be voluntary. That preserves the free choice and integrity of all of those many African Americans, including the 35% opposed to reparations, who do not consider themselves victims and do not wish to bear the insult of handouts.

But for the remainder, throughout the rest of that February, we allow any African Americans who wish to do so to file claims against our national fund. Which African Americans get to claim the benefits? Any. What do they need to show to make a claim? Nothing. This avoids messy fights about who can trace their lineage back to slavery, who might not be able to do so but can nevertheless claim discrimination on the basis of race and so on. But how do people claiming against the fund prove they are actually African American? Since even the existence of “races” is a matter of pseudoscience, there is nothing they could prove or need to prove. (Rachel Dolezal, feel free to dig in!) It is all a matter of trust. Unlike the anonymous nature of the contributors to the fund, however, anyone who wants to take from the public collection plate will need to aver their desire publicly. That will likely be enough to deter at least a good many of those who are obviously “unqualified.”

But be assured, when the National Day of Reparations comes, I will not be one of those reaching to dole out my pocket change. I came here with my family at four years old as a refugee from communism.

And here’s the part where we all reap the benefits of my proposal: When Black History Month 2021 ends, all our toxic talk of reparations ends as well. On March 1, 2021, everything in the fund gets equally distributed to all the willing participants. And we are done. In the course of one short month, it is all over. Reparations have been paid, and America’s original sin is expiated. Yet the integrity of all those black Americans who do not want any part of this is preserved. The freedom of self-determination of all those “white” people—and all those “other” people of every mix, color and ancestral origin, including the great multitude whose precise origins are lost to the sands of time —who do not feel like they had anything to do with this sordid history is preserved as well. The clamoring of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and all their white progressive acolytes can be put to rest. And all those white people who, for whatever reason, feel like they have been carrying the burden of a sinful history on their shoulders can finally take a load off and rest their tired legs. 

But be assured, when the National Day of Reparations comes, I will not be one of those reaching to dole out my pocket change. I came here with my family at four years old as a refugee from communism. My family brought to these shores nothing more than a grand total of $300 because that is the entire sum the former Soviet Union allowed you to bring with you back in those days. My ancestors suffered through centuries of oppression and misery under the tsars, the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, the havoc wreaked by two world wars in which my great-grandfather lost a leg, from which my grandfather came back a wrecked alcoholic, and in which my grandmother’s parents and siblings died of starvation in the Siege of Leningrad, only to then endure the daily hardship of life in a totalitarian communist state.

When I got to the United States, I had no inheritance, no trust fund, no years of accumulated wealth, no family history in elite American universities, and no other tangible connections or privilege of any sort. In fact, growing up at the height of the Cold War, I was routinely mocked and derided as a “commie” by my elementary school classmates. I did not benefit from government handouts or affirmative action. I went to an ordinary public school in an ordinary middle-class town. I worked my way to Yale University and, following that, Harvard Law School. Everything I have, I earned. My conscience is clear.

Among us “white” people, there are thousands upon thousands of stories like this. We have nothing to do with anyone else’s real or alleged oppression. So please do not be surprised when the day of atonement comes, and we do not offer so much as a penny for our—or anyone else’s—sins.

Alexander Zubatov is a lawyer in New York, as well as an essayist and poet. 

3 thoughts on “How We Can Finally Put the Reparations Question Behind Us

  1. Interesting concept – worth a try, but I imagine that proponents of restoration would not accept it. I believe that the sin of slavery was wiped away by the death of over 600,000 Americans during the Civil War. On the other hand, Jim Crow laws and a century of segregation were also a blight on our national history. But, I believe that reparations are not the answer. I believe that what American society owes our poor and all of our citizens – no matter what their color – is an opportunity to get a good education and an opportunity to get a good job – if they are willing to work for them. Society should provide those opportunities. They are the two key essentials to a sustainable solution to the reparations issue.

  2. This is a great idea. Unfortunately, the whole goal of the protest movement and those screaming for reparations is to FORCE something unwanted down the throats of those who don’t want it. Having the satisfaction of imposing a program of reparations that the majority of America has no choice but to implement is all part of the program, without which the resentful ne’er-do-wells will never be satisfied because they won’t have the pleasure of making those who are more successful than they are suffer for their sin (of success).

  3. Hey, yeah, and while we’re at it, let’s let volunteers pay for America’s wars. After all, many people are against waging wars of choice, and don’t want the cost of them shoved down their throats, right? Or what about bailouts for giant companies? Surely it would be more fair to have only those Americans who feel sad about the companies pay to rescue them. These examples are of a bigger point that your suggestion misses completely: it is not individual whites today who owe anything to blacks, but our country, America, that (arguably) owes a debt. Reparations are put forth as a way for the nation to reckon with its historic and current racial issues. The fact that you or others alive today had nothing to do with slavery or its aftermath doesn’t mean that you can remove yourself from the actions of your country, and only take what you want (just as you generally can’t choose which taxes to pay or for what purpose). As to the idea that America’s racial debt has already been paid, why don’t we apply that more generally: maybe America need not pay its debts to Chinese creditors because the debts have already been paid through theft of intellectual property, the “Wuhan” virus, etc — ? And maybe we should check to see what public benefits have been used by American holders of US Treasury bonds before they are paid anything upon redemption –? (And you do know that public benefits are not just cash, housing or jobs for the poor, right? They also include mortgage interest deductions, public schools and universities, public infrastructure, pollution abeyance, national defense, low capital gain tax rates, and a multitude of other giveaways, many of which go predominantly to the well-off/non-black.) And for the sake of argument, even if you are right that welfare policies for the poor have disproportionately benefitted blacks, the fact that they are available to all the poor does nothing to rectify the historically unequal treatment of blacks: poor whites were not systematically subject to enslavement, disenfranchisement, discrimination, and terror. I’m sorry that you also had it rough in life, but your parents chose to come to America and make it their/your home with all its flaws. I fail to see the comparison to American descendants of slaves.

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