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Reparations: How to Turn a Terrible Idea into a Good One
Make them voluntary
On July 4, 1854, William Lloyd Garrison addressed an abolitionist rally in Framingham, Massachusetts. Garrison had been denouncing slavery for decades, but on this day he put a new twist on his agenda. Blaming the Constitution for shielding the evil institution against the righteous wrath of democracy, he dramatically burned a copy of the Union’s charter, calling it “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” Garrison concluded his performance by proclaiming, “The only remedy in our case is a dissolution of the union!”
Garrison’s remedy—the secession of the free North from the slave South—was revealing then and is noteworthy now. It was revealing for what it said about abolitionist motives. Garrison’s plan would free no slaves, who in fact would be worse off in a country where slaveholders wielded even greater influence than they did in the United States of the 1850s. But Northern secession would soothe the consciences of abolitionists who felt complicit in slavery so long as they remained citizens of a nation that tolerated it.
Garrison’s call for Northern secession is noteworthy now, at a time when the idea of reparations for slavery is gaining new political traction. The Oregon state house of representatives recently memorialized Congress to press forward on a national reparations program. California convened a task force to study reparations and make recommendations. A striking thing about
these two instances is that neither Oregon nor California ever allowed slavery. Both states sent their young men to fight in the Civil War against the slaveholders of the Confederacy, with the result being the emancipation of the slaves. One can’t help sensing a Garrisonian influence at work here, with the goal being the assuaging of liberal consciences. Neither Oregon nor California has specified what reparations payments are supposed to accomplish for the recipients.
There is nothing wrong with conscience payments, per se. If they are voluntary and make the payers feel better, fine. The problem arises when the payments are not voluntary, but instead are demanded of those who don’t feel guilty.
Which is where the reparations issue currently sits with the American public at large. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in 2020 found that only one in five Americans supports tax-based reparations for slavery. The remaining four-fifths doubtless includes some who oppose slavery for practical reasons, but it certainly comprises millions who don’t feel guilty about slavery, at least not guilty enough to justify their being taxed to pay reparations.
The practical arguments alone against reparations are daunting. Who should receive payments? Who should pay? How much?
Advocates of reparations have often been unclear about whether they are trying to remedy the effects of slavery, primarily, or of post-slavery discrimination as well. If the former, effort ought to be made to distinguish descendants of slaves from black people whose ancestors arrived after 1865. Who would draw those distinctions? Or would payments be based on an honor system? Many people don’t know when their ancestors arrived—what about them?
If slavery is the criterion, should non-black slaves be included? Native Americans were enslaved by European colonists in America; should their descendants receive payment? Native Americans were also enslaved by other Native Americans; how does this fit with the program?
If discrimination other than slavery is the basis, perhaps the net should be broadened to include additional groups who have been discriminated against: women, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, gay people, immigrants, the disabled, the poor, the uneducated. If racial discrimination is special, then how about Native Americans, Latinos, and people of Asian descent?
Who should pay? Descendants of slaveholders? White people at large? Most white people even in the slave states didn’t own slaves; in America as a whole the slaveholders were a much smaller percentage of the population. Conversely, there were some black slaveholders; should their descendants pay? Many of the mixed-race people in America are descendants of both slaves and slaveholders. Would they pay, or get paid? (In practice, in a tax-based reparations program, everyone presumably would continue to pay taxes, but the reparations recipients would get more out than they put in.)
On the amount of reparations payments: How should this be calculated? Based on the value of unpaid labor forced from the slaves? What wage rate should be used? Would deductions be made for the living costs supplied by slaveholders? What interest rate should be applied for compounding since emancipation? What about slaves freed before the Civil War—George Washington’s slaves, for example, freed upon his death in 1799?
There is no end to these questions, and there will be no end to these questions should the principle of reparations be accepted. Fortunately, there is a simple answer to all of them—or, rather, a simple solution to the whole problem:
Make reparations voluntary.
Let people who want to pay, pay. They could contribute to funds managed by private organizations that state clearly how the money they receive will be spent. Such funds would provide benefit to the recipients; meanwhile they would ease troubled consciences.
Let people who object to paying, not pay. No one will be forced to pay a race-tax—for surely it will be called this, or worse. If the reparations funds demonstrate positive results, quite possibly some of the skeptics will be won over.
But the essential point is that the government will stay out of the race business. To those who object that the government was long in the race business, the appropriate response is that this is precisely why it should not get back in. The triumph of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was the banishing of race as a category enforced by law.
To those who say that American society is in the race business—that racism is systemic—the reply is that a tax-based reparations program would make matters worse. Human beings tend to categorize things; they likely will always do the same to people. But to give these categorizations the power of law is to repeat what was wrong about slavery and the Jim Crow system in the first place.
Most supporters of reparations consider themselves liberals, which ought to be surprising, in that nothing could be more illiberal than compulsory reparations. At the heart of the liberal project is a belief in individual freedom and responsibility, but compulsory reparations are rooted in the concept of collective guilt—“white privilege,” for the more fastidious. Not all illiberal roads lead to the Holocaust, but every genocide has begun with accusations of collective guilt. That’s not a road the American republic should start down.
At the level of everyday politics, compulsory reparations would be a gift to the most illiberal groups in America. White nationalists have long asserted that affirmative action amounts to racism against whites; but affirmative action touches relatively few: applicants to college, prospective government employees, and some others. A tax-based reparations program would touch everyone. Expect complaints against “welfare queens,” only this time directed at everyone with a black skin. In short, expect more Donald Trumps.
Further, if Democrats as a party should embrace compulsory reparations, Latinos and Asian-Americans might very well decide their interests lie elsewhere. Convincing the children of migrant farmworkers that their taxes should go to middle-class black people would be a tough sell, to say the least. Persuading Chinese-Americans, whose ancestors were forbidden entry to the United States until the 1940s, or the sons and daughters of refugees from the Vietnam War who arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs, that they are somehow responsible for an institution that ended a century before they ever got to America, would be no easier.
Making reparations voluntary does away with all this. The government might still issue, on behalf of the nation as whole, an apology to those who suffered under slavery and discrimination. Words aren’t everything, yet neither are they nothing, especially when spoken by the president of the United States. Then, voluntary reparations would allow individuals to make up their own minds about how to move beyond the apology.
The alternative would be to deepen racial divisions in this country for decades to come. Not everyone, apparently, sees this as a bad thing. Ibram X. Kendi, in How to be an Antiracist, asserts, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” For the moment this view is not widely held. But if it catches on, it will produce a racial balkanization in America more widespread than the regional version of the segregation era. Government bureaucracies—the like of which compulsory reparations would require—never pronounce their work completed. Samuel Gompers, founding president of the American Federation of Labor, was asked to summarize his policy for workers; he answered, “More.” And so it would be for the federal bureau of discrimination.
Voluntary reparations are already taking place. Georgetown University, a private institution, has pledged millions of dollars to benefit descendants of slaves sold by the college to pay debts in the nineteenth century. Princeton Theological Seminary and the Society of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic order, have taken similar steps.
In a voluntary program, no one would be required to accept payments, either. In that same Reuters/Ipsos poll, half of black respondents rejected the idea of a government reparations program. They doubtless had their individual reasons, but some probably shared a view articulated by Burgess Owens, a black congressman from Utah, in an essay titled “I Didn’t Earn Slavery Reparations, and I Don’t Want Them. Owens writes, “At the core of the reparation movement is a divisive and demeaning view of both races. It grants to the white race a wicked superiority, treating them as an oppressive people too powerful for black Americans to overcome. It brands blacks as hapless victims devoid of the ability, which every other culture possesses, to assimilate and progress.”
Voluntarism is the polar opposite of coercion, which was the essence of slavery. Nothing could be more fitting than voluntarism as the basis for the effort to repair slavery’s damage.