The Case Against Reparations

The cover story on this month’s Atlantic is a very long piece from Ta-Nehisi Coates making the case for reparations to the black community. A lot of people are responding to Coates’ article without having read it. Conservatives are bashing it for demanding money, even though it doesn’t make any specific suggestions for what reparations would mean. Liberals are praising it for things it doesn’t say.

Although I frequently disagree with Coates, I’ve found him to be an illuminating and gifted writer. He often makes me aware of things I didn’t know about, gives a perspective I haven’t considered and has a keen appreciation of history. I read through the entire article and I found it to be illuminating, thoughtful and, in many parts, enraging. But while I agree with almost all his arguments, I disagree with the ultimate conclusion.

Buckle in. This will take a while.

The case, of course, starts with the original sin of slavery. Although this field has been plowed before, it’s always worth remembering that this was not some small institution confined to a few plantation owners. This was the single most important institution in the country:

The wealth accorded America by slavery was not just in what the slaves pulled from the land but in the slaves themselves. “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” the 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.

TNC makes the argument that much of America’s ante-bellum wealth was built on slavery. This isn’t refutable. What is refutable is that much of America’s wealth today is still based on that. The United States paid a tremendous price in fire, treasure and blood to rid itself of slavery. Over $10 billion spent, which be half a trillion today. 600,000 killed, including nearly one in thirty southerners. Entire families were destroyed, entire cities burnt to the ground. The survivors lost all their “wealth” when slavery was abolished and most had to sell their property to northerners just to survive. A huge amount of lingering southern poverty can be traced to the impact of the Civil War. Whatever wealth slavery conferred on America — and it was significant — it was completely annihilated in the war between the states.

TNC then moves on to an era that was only slightly less horrible for black people — the Jim Crow era:

In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state.

The state’s regime partnered robbery of the franchise with robbery of the purse. Many of Mississippi’s black farmers lived in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants. Tools and necessities were advanced against the return on the crop, which was determined by the employer. When farmers were deemed to be in debt—and they often were—the negative balance was then carried over to the next season. A man or woman who protested this arrangement did so at the risk of grave injury or death. Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system.

Lynchings, terror campaigns, full-scale robbery of law-abiding citizens. The State or a bank could assert that a black person owed them money and they had little recourse. Prices paid by and to blacks were determined not by the market but by whatever was decreed by a white person.

That’s been gone over before, too. But here’s where the article contributes something original and important: what happened in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when blacks moved north and found themselves being systematically looted when they had the temerity to try to buy a home.

… Ross was not really a homeowner. His payments were made to the seller, not the bank. And Ross had not signed a normal mortgage. He’d bought “on contract”: a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither. Ross had bought his house for $27,500. The seller, not the previous homeowner but a new kind of middleman, had bought it for only $12,000 six months before selling it to Ross. In a contract sale, the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, Ross would acquire no equity in the meantime. If he missed a single payment, he would immediately forfeit his $1,000 down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself.

There were no options open to black borrowers besides these predatory loans. Banks would not lend to them. When the FHA was set up to increase home ownership, it “redlined” black neighborhoods and made black people ineligible for federally-guaranteed loans. When black people went to court, the courts upheld the predatory “lenders”. Covenants were put in place that restricted blacks from certain neighborhoods. When black people bought houses in white neighborhoods without formal covenants, they would find themselves the victims of mobs who would throw stones or set their houses on fire. The ghettos of Chicago didn’t just happen; they were made. This legacy continues today. A black person who has an income similar to a white person has a much higher chance of living in a high-crime neighborhood or a poor neighborhood.

Remember that for most people, a huge percentage of their wealth is tied up in their home. When you force someone to buy a home at above market value on predatory terms then prevent them from leaving if the neighborhood goes bad, you are creating a wealth gap. And the compound effect of all of these crimes over decades is staggering.

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.”

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.

The thing is, even with all these things I fundamentally disagree with the conclusion: that America’s wealth and prosperity was largely built on things like slavery and discrimination. I would contend that America’s wealth was built despite these things.

What would America be like today had there been no Jim Crow, no racial covenants, no KKK, no redlining, no slavery. Let’s posit, for the moment, that black people would be in far better economic shape and have more wealth. Would that mean white people were poorer? Would it mean America was poorer? No. American would be richer. Anti-poverty spending would be lower, crime would be lower, white flight and the massive expenses of commuting might never have have happened. White businesses would have 10% more customers, 10% more business partners, 10% more distributors. White customers would have 10% more businesses. White workers would have 10% more employers. Slavery didn’t build America. The South may have been rich on paper before the war but conditions in the South were appalling. John Adams described it as so poor it was like visiting a different country. To this day, the South is poorer than the North. Past institutionalized racism and the economic destruction it wrought is a huge reason for that. There are parts of the South were half the population is black. Imagine if that half were prosperous. Redlining and contract mortgage didn’t build Chicago, it nearly destroyed it.

Racism did make black people poor, yes. But it does not follow that it made white people rich. It made specific white people — like slave owners or contract lenders — wealthy. But the overall impact on the country was a huge negative. It’s like the thieves of the recent financial crisis. They got rich. But the country suffered.

Think about what happened when women entered the work force. Our economy surged. Our wealth increased. For men as well as women. If black poverty vanished overnight, black people would obviously be the biggest beneficiaries. But white people would benefit too.

Still … it’s hard to read TNC’s compilation of events and not conclude that black people spent the better part of two centuries being systematically robbed and abused by their government and by their society. It’s hard not to be weighted down by the sense of injustice. So does that justify reparations?

Well … in some cases, yes. I do not object to reparation paid to specifically wronged individuals by the specific people or agencies who did them harm. It’s the same reason I didn’t oppose reparations to Japanese people who were interred during World War II. Those claims were paid out on a case by case basis to people who were wronged, not to same vague group who was wronged by some other vague group. I did not object to reparations being paid to the families of Tuskegee victims or the survivors of the Rosewood riots.

But what about larger reparations? Would that not rectify some of our country’s racial wrongs? Well, that hinges on one of the biggest problems with Coates’ article: it basically ends its argument in the 1970’s. In doing so, it ignores one additional huge atrocity visited upon the black community — the War on Drugs. The War has turned inner cities into war zones. Black drug users are far more likely to be busted and far more likely to go to prison for being busted than white drug users. Black kids are more likely to get arrested for crimes and more likely to get harsh punishment for them.

But more importantly for this specific argument: we’ve been doing reparations for a while now. We haven’t call them “reparations” specifically, but the aim was to ameliorate the damage of two centuries of racism. And the results have ranged from nothing (when black people have been lucky) to disaster (when they haven’t been). Johnson’s War on Poverty was cast in explicitly racial terms. The result, many believe, was a small reduction in poverty at the cost of the death of the African-American family.* Urban renewal and “job creation” efforts have been heavily targeted at inner cities. The result of these policies was the wholesale destruction of inner city economies to the benefit of wealthy outside interests. A few years ago, racial discrimination by the Department of Agriculture was addressed with the Pigford settlements. That “worked” in that the only negative effect was some corruption.

(*Liberals like to jump up and down because poverty fell from 20% to 12% after the Great Society and black poverty fell from 40% to 25%. This ignores two things: the biggest reductions were at the beginning and right after Bill Clinton’s much-hated welfare reform, and; poverty rates fell faster in the years before the Great Society. Pre-1960 data is difficult to pin down because the government only began officially measuring poverty in 1959, which allows liberals to claim the Great Society cut poverty while ignoring everything that happened before then. The best numbers I can find indicate that poverty fell from 30 to 20% between the post-war era and the Great Society and black poverty went from 70-80% down to 40%. Whatever the exact numbers, it is clear that poverty was already plunging when the Great Society was foisted on us.)

Moreover, TNC hinges his argument on housing policy. But the last forty years saw a huge push to revise our housing policy and make credit easier for the poor and minorities to obtain. The result was a financial crisis that made things far worse for poor people and minorities, that destroyed what little wealth they had … again. TNC notes that subprime mortgages were heavily targeted at minority communities — even for those who had good enough credit to get prime loans. That’s true, but subprime was a small section of a massive swindle, aided and abetted by our own government’s “ownership society” policies. And Wells Fargo, for one, did pay reparations for that. And should have.

Take a look at this article, which uses hilarious Length of the Mississippi arguments to figure out what slaves were owed. It then suggests several possibilities for reparations including the idea that money be made available for investments in businesses. But we’ve tried that. You can look the desolate economies of our inner cities to see the result.

And that brings me to my conclusion: my main problem with reparations is that I don’t think it will solve anything. Giving black people a bunch of money may provide a temporary infusion of cash. But it will not solve the problems that truly plague the black community — poor education, few job opportunities, mass incarceration, broken families. When affirmative action first sprang up in college admissions, I predicted it would fail because it did not address the real problems that were lowering black admissions to college — broken families, poor public schools, high crime. It attempted a fix at the back end, like curing lung cancer by giving someone cough medicine. Affirmative action has faded but what has sprung up is almost worse: a massively leveraged financial system which encourages more and more people to go to college but leaves many of them worse off financially (and, as usual, blacks are getting the worst end of the deal.)

Let’s look at other instances of reparations. Presidents Reagan and Bush eventually paid out reparations to Japanese Americans interred during World War II. TNC cites the precedent of Israelis who demanded reparations from Germany and got them. That may sounds like a precedent for reparations for blacks. But … does anyone think that the prosperity of the Japanese-Americans or Israelis was created by reparations? Does anyone think they would currently be poor without them? Israel grew before reparations and grew after them and still has a strong economy 50 years later. Even with most generous assessment, reparations contributed only 15% to their economic growth over the decade of reparations and that at a time when Israel had minimal infrastructure to build wealth with. That is not nearly equal to the chasm that exists in our inner cities.

In both cases, the reparations were a moral judgement, not a way to ameliorate poverty. Paying reparations might make some feel better. It might assuage some lingering white guilt. But in the end, the impact of it on the black community will diminish and disappear. Just like when we sink billions of dollars into public schools. Or when we sink billions into “big projects” and “job creation” in our inner cities. We’ve tried this. Unless you are talking about the most extreme reparations (such as the suggestion by one wag that the government simply give money to black people every year to make up the difference in income between them and white people), this will be a temporary infusion that will go away very quickly.

The solutions to black poverty — to poverty in general — are far more complex. Black poverty may throw its roots in racism. But it has been compounded over the years by government malfeasance and cultural decay. That can not be fixed with money. We’re already spending hundreds of billions trying to. It can only be fixed by giving people the means to make money — through education and opportunity — or by stopping doing the things that hobble them — crony capitalism, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. That will take time, possibly generations. It will involve changing the way we do things in many ways. But that would be real reparations, not another liberal silver bullet.

In any case, you should read Coates’ article. Not because of the conclusions he reaches but because of the relentless documenting of the African American experience. It is long and depressing but a must-read. The racial history of this country does not define us. Nor does it justify whatever policy some Lefty think tank comes up with. But it should not be forgotten.

(TL;DR version: there is no question that economic destruction has been visited upon the black community by institutionalized racism from the early days of this country up to the present day. However, as is often the case with liberals, TNC correctly identifies the problem but identifies the wrong solution. Reparations, even if you accept the idea of collective guilt, aren’t working and will not solve the problems that ail black America.It will only put them off. Again.)

Comments are closed.

  1. Xetrov

    I look at reparations in two ways.

    Show me the black person alive today who was a slave, and he/she should get some cash.


    I’m all for reparations, provided it includes a one way boat trip to their choice of central African country and a renunciation of their US Citizenship.

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  2. Seattle Outcast

    I have only one thing to say about reparations: go fuck yourself, and the horse you rode in on.

    If I move to Japan, am I responsible for what they did three generations ago to Korean and Chinese women? Of course not, and neither is anyone born after the war. Quite simply, I refuse to be held responsible for what other people did. Slavery has existed since the dawn of mankind, and still exists today. It’s a crime that should carry an automatic death sentence, but don’t come whining to me for a handout to apologize for something I didn’t do.

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  3. Hal_10000 *

    Xetrov, SO, he’s not just talking about slavery. He’s also talking about the discrimination and plunder that occurred in the 20th century. As I indicated, I don’t have a problem with reparations paid to the *specific* people who suffered because of contract lenders or discriminatory federal policy. I oppose a more generalized reparations.

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  4. Hal_10000 *

    Also, I should addend that he doesn’t actually call for reparations per se, but for HR 40 which would look into these issues in detail, some of which TNC is the first to really report on. Kind of like a reconciliation committee. That could look at specific damages that Party A did to Party B, rather than what vague Group C did to vague group F.

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  5. Xetrov

    What will happen if you open up that can of worms Hal? The sue happy nature of too many people today would go over the deep end. My great- grandfather was screwed out of some land by your great-grandfather, so you owe me money.

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  6. Hal_10000 *

    I’m not talking about great-grandfathers here. I’m talking about specific people who are still alive or whose immediate families are, such as the settlements paid out to the families of the Tuskegee victims or to the interred Japanese.

    Ultimately, I think any effort in this leads to kind of collective guilt which I don’t believe in and never have. Once you start going down that path, you’ll never stop. I’m Jewish, so do I deserve some compensation for anti-semitism? Let’s say you’re part Cherokee. Boy did your ancestors get screwed.

    History is what it is. We shouldn’t forget it and I’m moved by what he dug up on housing policy, which was completely new information to me and to a lot of people. But you can’t get buried in it and let it completely inform the future. That way leads nowhere, as we’ve seen for the last forty years of racial policy.

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  7. richtaylor365

    Since we are trying to right our past societies ills with money, why stop with just reparations for black people? What about the native Americans? Didn’t they get screwed as well? What about the Chinese in California? Tell me, what ethnic peoples came to America and did not get screwed? You think the Italians, Swedes or Germans coming in to Ellis Island had it any better?

    What are we talking about here, just slavery? You know, don’t you, that black people owned slaves as well (are black folks going to pay themselves reparations?), you know that only a small minority of southerners could afford slaves, right? I’m sure you are aware that slavery existed in Africa way before the first slave was brought to America ,where do you think the Spanish, Portuguese, French and English learned about slavery and the wealth involved in dealing in slaves?

    Gee, you would think that if the South was so “rich” in slave wealth, they should have won the war in a matter of weeks.

    Since we are talking about more than just slavery, let’s open up that reparation wallet for the white folks as well, how about the white kid that did not get into college because of affirmative action and race preferences, who does he sue? What about the cop or fireman that studied his ass off for the Sgt’s job that he wanted (and was better qualified for) that ultimately went to a minority because a slot needed to be filled. What about the small business owner that does not get the government contract (even though he is the low bidder) because race and racial quotes needed to be filled? What line do these folks stand in for their handout?

    And since we are really going off the rails, including all sorts of other injustices to ante up for, what about the latest white victim of the knock out game, he gets a concussion and and permanent ill health, does he get money paid by the black community, the kid’s parents or grandparents (they sired the young thug), they should own up to their handy work, right?

    And since we are totally entering the land of OZ, where is my reparation since I have had to pay onerous taxation to house a larger than normal black population in the prison system (time to break out that those irrefutable stats about African American’s being less than 20 percent of the population yet account for more than twice that amount in murders, property crimes and crimes of violence)?

    Yes, most of this is absurd, because the entire topic is absurd.

    What would America be like today had there been no Jim Crow, no racial covenants, no KKK, no redlining, no slavery.

    Impossible to say, and any conclusions drawn would be wild speculation, totally unprovable. You might be able to make the case that there would be less African Americans here,, But even that is iffy. They (those that immigrated), like every other immigrant that came here, came because they wanted their shot at the American dream, would they want that any less than any other ethnic group? I doubt it.

    I see this entire exercise as yet one more push to perpetuating the victim mentality that has already done enough harm in the black community. If solving poverty was easy, surely the trillions of dollars already thrown at it would have eradicated it or at least mitigated the numbers somewhat, none of that has happened. Under this president (you know I would go there) the poverty numbers have risen, black unemployment (both adults and youth) has risen, dependents on government subsistence, at an all time high, food/gas/basic living expenses all higher, bottom line this president has hurt the black community.

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  8. Hal_10000 *

    I agree with a lot of that, Rich. I thought the article worth engaging since the arguments it gets into are a lot more complex than the standard “give us money” reparations article we tend to see. And a HUGE section of the liberal blogosphere is going crazy over it. But as I said, I ultimately find it unconvincing for many of the reasons you cited in addition to the ones I wrote about.

    The fundamental flaw in TNC’s argument is his belief that the racism that made blacks poor made America rich. As I argue above, I don’t see that this is the case. Racism made America poorer. For everyone.

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  9. richtaylor365

    The fundamental flaw in TNC’s argument is his belief that the racism that made blacks poor made America rich.

    That faulty premise only works if there exists only a finite amount of dollars/wealth so that if one person accumulates more it must mean that it was taken away from someone else. Wealth is created, not taken away from one and given to another. America would be far richer (and much better off) if all of its citizens ( or as many as a free market system allows) were wealth creators.

    Racism made America poorer. For everyone.

    Yep, totally agree, poorer in many ways. Not only has it robbed many Americans of their ability to create wealth and prosper, but it has made the nation poorer resulting in a crippling dependence and higher than necessary taxation. We as a society would be much better off if more of its citizens could realize their potential, could become producers and not consumers, could earn their keep, pay taxes and be productive citizens with “skin in the game”.

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  10. Seattle Outcast

    He’s also talking about the discrimination and plunder that occurred in the 20th century.

    Don’t give a shit. It wasn’t me that did any of it.

    Know what? The world is full of oppressed people that were handed a shitty deal – it’s pretty much the default position of the human race. I’m not taking the hit for something that I didn’t personally do, and I’m pretty much sick of people blaming everyone else for their problems without first taking a good hard look at what they might have done, or not done, to be in their current position.

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  11. Section8

    The fundamental flaw in TNC’s argument is his belief that the racism that made blacks poor made America rich.

    If this is the case then why not just go back to it again? The good of the whole. It’s the same argument used for higher taxes, tougher regulation, and a host of laws suppressing liberty. Since morality has no bearing on what it takes to help the government “boost” the economy (at least that’s the liberal view) then this should be no different.

    As far as reparations, you correctly pointed out hundreds of thousands died trying to correct wrongs, the nation of Liberia was set up for a place for freed slaves to go (mostly through private hands). It’s not as though nothing has been done, but of course this all has to be ignored to push this narrative. I don’t think there’s a white skinned American that isn’t completely aware of past injustice. In fact, the guilt is so deep that regardless of the fact that black on white crime is more than a 10 to 1 ratio and has gone on for years, it’s hardly whispered in the mainstream since we can’t talk about that. That would be racist. Yes I’m aware we’re talking government backed injustices, but given the ratio seems to not be changing, the government doesn’t seem to care much to reduce the problem.

    If folks really want things to change, then it’s going to take work and planning. More black owned banks in the inner cities, and more black owned businesses, and if they don’t want to sell to anyone but the people in their community, I’m fine with that, but this current call for more handouts hasn’t worked, and isn’t going to work, and as far as injustice, that’s the biggest one for the last 50 years, and sadly much of it is championed by those who are hurt most by it.

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  12. Hal_10000 *

    S8, that’s a good point. A friend of mine used to say that the three biggest travesties visited upon black people were slavery, Jim Crow and the welfare state.

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  13. West Virginia Rebel

    I think there’s more of a case for American Indians to get reparations than any current descendants of slavery. Who would pay? The descendants of slave owners themselves? Of those who were involved in the slave trade (which was a lot of people, including the aforementioned insurance companies)? The majority of the people alive today are descended from immigrants who came to this country after slavery was abolished; some of them (particularly the Irish) were treated no better than blacks.

    The main problem today is the culture of dependency, which tells blacks and others that they can’t get out of their circumstances on their own, that they need the white liberal’s burden. That’s the current face of racism.

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