The subject of reparations for descendants of slaves has been lingering on the fringes for decades. Now it’s an issue that will be debated through the coming election cycle, and probably beyond. I don’t think it’s something you can be for or against. There are too many questions yet unasked and unanswered.
In the emerging conversations I listen in on, reparation is assumed to mean monetary payments to living descendants of slaves. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. However large a total payout might appear to be, the amount going to any one person would likely be small, not much more than a token. But it would be enough for decision makers to claim they and the nation have now been absolved of all responsibility for past sins, and it’s time to get on with life, leaving obsessions with civil rights behind. Moreover, it puts the focus on slavery itself, and ignores the post Civil War history of overt Jim Crow in the South, and more subtle but no less onerous versions of it in the North. The war ended in 1865. It took another hundred years for the nation to enact the civil rights legislation of the 1960s that legally ended subjugation of black Americans. Even now, over fifty years later, we have not seen the full ripening of the fruits of that legislation. Government sponsored infrastructure projects, zoning, and banking practices herded black families into ghettos, denied them public services, limited their ability to save and invest, and fenced them off from access to benefits offered to the white community. It’s not ancient history. Much of it came in the post WWII years. It created the structures we live with today.
For these and other reasons, I believe reparation needs to be defined in ways that address systemic changes to the way our nation is run. It’s more than restoring the Voting Rights Act and overturning Citizens United, although they’re important. Other items on my reparation menu include: strict laws on redistricting to avoid gerrymandering; massive infrastructure investment in historically black neighborhoods; federal urban renewal grants with restrictions that inhibit resegregation of gentrified neighborhoods; public-private partnerships dedicated to massive development of mixed use low and middle income housing; serious enforcement of existing laws and regulations intended to combat exploitation of the poor and minorities (payday loans, mortgage redlining, etc.); major investments in rural and inner city public schools; teaching a respectful, but more honest version of American history; institution of a one or two year national service requirement that could be satisfied in the military or some form of civilian service.
Obviously these are incomplete thoughts with many weaknesses. The point is that I don’t think we can get off with a handful of dollars shoved into the pockets of descendants when real reparation requires repairing the broken parts of the way we do things. The kind of reparation I believe is necessary will spill over to the benefit of others. It won’t accrue to descendants alone. The usual whining will be heard from those who have benefitted from years of state and federal largesse that they have been left out. Others will harrumph about pandering to the poor, or enriching the undeserving with someones else’s money. To be sure, we are not responsible for the mistakes of generations past. But we are responsible for our own mistakes, and it would be a huge mistake not to bend to the task of fixing what has been broken by hundreds of years of policies that boxed in, segregated, disenfranchised, and short changed the descendants of American slaves, among others we’ve treated with equal contempt.