Reparations for slavery may never be approved by the courts, but we can focus on fixing the social structures that reinforce racial inequalities and are the enduring contemporary legacy of slavery.
Just before the election, the satirical web site The Onion ran a fake article that was purportedly written by Barack Obama. In it, the president supposedly promised to seek payments for African-Americans to compensate them for America’s history of slavery.
“I’m thinking $150,000 a person,” the President was supposed to have written “to right the wrongs of our past by contributing 10 percent of your paychecks over the next decade toward finally reimbursing black folks for all their ancestors sacrificed.”
Of course, the real Barack Obama said no such thing. President Obama has consistently said he does not believe in reparations for slavery. He even opposes the formation of a commission to study the issue.
Many Americans may be surprised to discover that the issue of slavery reparations is actually quite a serious one. After all, slavery ended almost 150 years ago. The United States has a black president. We supposedly live in a post-racial society.
But for African-Americans, the heritage of slavery still looms large over American society and their personal lives. Approximately 18 percent of all working-age African-American men are either in jail, on probation or on parole (exact figures are not reported). Over 40 percent of all African-American children are born into households that live below the poverty line.
African-Americans who are employed full-time make on average 29 percent less than whites who are employed full-time, and far fewer African-Americans are able to find full-time jobs. African-Americans are still routinely (even if illegally) denied employment, credit and housing based on their race.
What does all this have to do with slavery? Slavery is long gone, but the American society built on slavery never really disappeared. In fact, it almost didn’t disappear at all.
When the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery was first put to a vote in the House of Representatives in 1864, it did not pass. It failed despite the fact that only the northern states had representatives in Congress at the time.
When a second House vote was held in January 1865, the resolution that was to become the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by just two votes.
When the proposed amendment was sent to the states for approval, both New Jersey and Delaware initially rejected it. It may be hard to imagine today, but in 1865 even the northern states were not united in the decision to put an end to slavery.
Since 1865, there has never been a time of racial equality in America. Today’s patterns of racial inequality are directly related to the patterns of 1865, or for that matter 1765. Slavery may have ended in 1865, but the social structures put in place by slavery persist to this day.
Most calls for slavery reparations focus on using the courts to achieve financial compensation for the descendants of slaves. Whatever the moral merits of compensation for slavery, it’s safe to say that this is a dead-end strategy. Let’s face it: It is never going to happen.
Courts have consistently ruled that the descendants of slaves are not entitled to compensation. It’s true that legal theories change over time, and courts might one day be willing to award such compensation. But by that time American slavery will be so far in the past that it will be impossible in practice to identify specific descendants of slaves. It may already be too late.
A better approach to reparations for slavery is to focus on fixing the social structures that reinforce racial inequalities. These are the true contemporary legacy of slavery. Instead of one-time payments to individual African-Americans, we should endow African-American institutions to the same level as other institutions in our society. As much as possible, we should eliminate institutionalized inequality.
A good place to start would be the 105 historically black colleges and universities spread throughout the United States. Most have small endowments and little funding for research. These and other African-American colleges and universities could be re-endowed with a one-time federal grant of $100 billion or more.
America’s elite white universities have endowments that were built up over generations of giving from rich alumni. African-American universities don’t have this multi-generational legacy of resources. Four years ago we spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a temporary economic stimulus. A fraction of this amount could endow quality higher education for African-Americans for the next century.
Similar endowment programs could boost the resources of public hospitals that serve mainly African-American communities, museums that focus on the work of African-American artists, and other African-American non-profits. The performance arts could be included as well.
Historically white operas, orchestras, and ballet troupes have large endowments and publicly-subsidized buildings. Why not similarly endow gospel choirs, jazz bands, and step-dancers? If these institutions don’t have the cultural standing of the established fine arts, it is only because their patrons have historically suffered severe deprivation.
A stepping troupe with a multi-million dollar endowment would be a prestigious institution indeed.
Every two years, at the beginning of each new Congress, US Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduces a bill to establish a commission to study reparation proposals to compensate African-Americans for the harms they suffered under slavery. It bears the number HR 40 in recognition of the “40 acres and a mule” promise made to freed slaves during the Civil War. HR 40 has never made it out of committee to be debated by Congress.
That debate is long overdue. With the re-election of our first African-American president, the political barriers to debating reparations are gone. It’s now safe to rock the boat. America should take an honest look at its racist legacy and work to repair it. If not now, when?