Right now reparations is a wedge issue

David Brooks wrote a couple of months ago in the New York Times that slavery and racism are America’s original sin and that some form of reparations for that sin is spiritually necessary to heal the nation.

But when you talk what form compensation should take, and who should receive it, reparations ceases to become a means of spiritual healing.  It becomes a wedge issue.

It divides not only whites from blacks, but blacks from other people of color and blacks among themselves.

There is a new organization, American Descendants of Slavery, whose leaders insist that reparations go specifically to black Americans whose ancestors were slaves, and not to minorities in general or black people in general.

They argue that they have benefitted very little from diversity programs, affirmative action hiring, set-asides for minority small business and other such programs.

They point out, correctly, that white women, Hispanics and Asian-Americans benefitted much more than African-Americans and, within the black community, African and West Indian immigrants and their progeny benefitted much more than descendants of enslaved black Americans.

All black immigrant groups on average out-earn blacks of old American stock, and some black immigrant groups do better than the national average.  So they don’t need any special help, according to ADOS advocates.

Some of the things they advocate are:

  • Reinstituting the protections of the Voting Rights Act
  • A multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan targeted to American descendants of slaves (ADOS) communities
  • Legislation to triple the current federal allotment to historically black colleges and universities.
  • A health care credit to pay for medical coverage for all ADOS .

They also favor looking into making direct payments as reparations.

If you accept the argument for reparations for slavery, it is hard to deny the argument for limiting the benefits to those who are actually descended from American slaves.

The problem is that once reparations become large enough to be meaningful, they get in the way of doing what’s needed for

Suppose you enacted a multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan that focused on black communities, but was part of an overall infrastructure plan that benefitted everyone.  Would that be reparations?

Suppose you provided a health care credits that paid for medical coverage of all ADOS and also of everyone else.  Would that be reparations?

Or would reparations have to be something that minorities or black people or ADOS get, and that whites don’t?


Several Democratic Presidential candidates advocate what they call reparations,  They address issues of special concern to black Americans, but the benefits aren’t limited to descendants of slaves, or even to racial minorities.

Cory Booker’s “baby bonds” policy aims to help poor children by giving them a government-funded savings account which could reach $50,000.

Kamala Harris proposes tax credits for working singles and working families; a housing credit for those who spend more than 30 percent of their salary on rent and utilities; and doubling the size of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

Elizabeth Warren proposes universal government-supported childcare, noting that its absence affects black families in particular, and that underpaid childcare workers are disproportionately nonwhite. She proposes directly tackling the racial wealth and housing gap through legislation which would provide down payment assistance to first-time home buyers in communities formerly subject to redlining; create more affordable housing; and assist homeowners still underwater on their mortgages because of the 2008 housing crisis.

I would support all these programs, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them “reparations.”

Which raises the question:  How important is the word  “reparations”?  Does calling a a proposal “reparations” give it a moral meaning it wouldn’t have if it were called something else?

Would black American citizens be more inclined to vote for a policy such as “baby bonds” if it was called “reparations” than if it was called something else?  Would the “reparations” label make whites less likely to vote for it?

Is using the word “reparations”—which means that the United States owes a moral debt to the descendants of slaves—more important than the actual content of the legislation?

Margaret Kimberly of the Black Agenda Report wrote that reparations for slavery are clearly justified in principle and in international law, but it’s too soon to discuss reparations as a practical political proposal because there’s no consensus yet in the black community as to what reparations should be.


The minimum proposal is passage of H.R. 40, which retired Rep. John Conyers proposed for many years.  The resolution calls a commission  “to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”

It’s hard to object to appointing a commission to study a problem.  Maybe a commission could come up with good ideas that I can’t think of.

But right now I can’t imagine a reparations proposal that would not either be (a) a targeted transfer of income or wealth, in which case it would be strenuously opposed by everyone who didn’t benefit from the transfer, or (b) a broadly-based social welfare program, in which case it wouldn’t be reparations, or (c) a purely symbolic gesture, which also wouldn’t be reparations.

The political base for reparations is small.  Keep in mind that African-Americans are about 15 percent of the U.S. population and non-Hispanic whites are 60 percent.  While the white percentage is shrinking, the black percentage is not growing.  Hardly any Hispanics, who can be of any race, identify as black.

In terms of practical politics, the ability of African Americans to get what they need depends on forming coalitions with other races and ethnic groups.  Can they form a coalition to get reparations for slavery?  If not, is this the big goal they want to commit to for the long haul?

I think the best way to repair the harm done by slavery, racism and racial distribution is to be aware of it and to work for equal justice for all Americans.  I understand that by writing this, I create a moral obligation to work for equal justice myself.

[Update 6/11/2019]  ADOS opposes Elizabeth Warren’s plan for student debt forgiveness and free college tuition because everybody would benefit, even though black people would benefit the most.  

This shows how reparations can be used as a wedge issue.  Of course ADOS is just one organization.   There are more reasonable views of what reparations should be..


The Case for Reparations by David Brooks in The New York Times.

The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic (2014)  Not sure if this version is complete, but it’s still well worth reading.

Text of H.R. 40: Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act.

What Americans Think About Reparations and Other Race-Related Issues by Perry Bacon Jr. for FiveThirtyEight.

About ADOS,  Black Agenda. and The Roadmap to Reparations from the American Descendants of Slavery web site.

Reflections on the ADOS Movement by Roderick Graham for Medium.

Reparations Means Full Repair on the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) web site.   A different view than ADOS.

Scoundrels and Reparations by Margaret Kimberly of the Black Agenda Report.  Criticism of ADOS.

ADOS Shrinks Reparationist Politics to Fit the Cramped Horizon of Tribalism by Bruce A. Dixon for the Black Agenda Report.

Reparations for Slavery Have to Be More Than a Symbol by Briahna Gray for The Intercept.

Democrats and slavery reparations: where do 2020 candidates stand? by Hubert Adjei-Kontah and Oliver Laughland for The Guardian.

What does it mean when Democrats say they support reparations? by John Kruzel for PolitiFact.

Bernie Sanders Unveils ‘A Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education by Jessica Corbett for Common Dreams.

Why Do ADOS “Reparationists” Oppose Free College Tuition and Student Debt Forgiveness? by Bruce A. Dixon for Black Agenda Report.  [Added 6/11/2019]

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One Response to “Right now reparations is a wedge issue”

  1. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    The best way to implement ‘reparations’ with public support is to not call them reparations. Instead, simply frame it as social democracy and the public good, the very things more civilized societies already have.

    If applied equally and fairly, the populations that have historically been victims will benefit the most by making society better for all. Wealth has already been redistributed in our society, something right-wingers and authoritarians won’t admit. What we need now is to redistribute back what was taken, give it back to its rightful owners, that is to say the public.

    Individuals getting reparations for harm done to their ancestors is a too limited vision. It’s all of society that has been harmed. The public, the citizenry needs reparations for what has been stolen, exploited, and privatized; for all the costs externalized.

    That was the point Thomas Paine made with proposing a Citizen’s Dividend. It was compensation for public land and resources that had been privatized. It was a harm that didn’t happen once but with every generation born being denied their birthright of the Commons.


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