Last week, Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced companion bills to both houses of Congress designed to establish a national task force to address the issue of slavery reparations. In a statement to the press, Sen. Booker stated their hope was that the legislation would “finally begin to right the economic wrongs of persistent racism, white supremacy and implicit racial bias in our nation.”
Some critics of the legislation immediately cited the manifold complications endemic to any reparations policy: Who would pay for the plan? All taxpayers, or just the descendants of former slave owners? Who would benefit? Any citizen with any traceable amount of slave ancestry, or only those with an extensive family history with slavery?
Of course, these are presumably the questions the task force will be designed to solve and without the findings of that hypothetical body, these criticisms, as fatal as they may seem, are merely speculative. Even if I accept the unlikely scenario that a task force would smooth out the the program’s initial wrinkles however, I am still unlikely to support it.
In his book “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates argues America needs “an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.” His solution is reparations—payments to the descendants of slaves for the labor their ancestors were forced to do. Certainly any form of racial healing that takes place in America would be an incalculable blessing to this country, but does anyone believe that a signed check could serve as a bandaid for so deep a wound? Coates seems to think so, but I do not believe his solution would heal much of anything.
The implicit idea behind reparations is that money and property have been systematically deprived from slaves and their descendants, and while this has certainly been true historically and may be true in some ways today, it does not capture the full evil of slavery. It seems that reparations advocates believe that only an economic settlement will heal the wounds of slavery because, presumably, slavery was primarily an economic injustice.
While these problems have economic implications, they are not economic in nature. Certainly the cruelties of slavery and discrimination were attacks on the dignity of human beings as humans, not merely as workers. Larry Neal, an economist at the University of Illinois, calculated the total sum of lost wages—including centuries of interest—to be 6.5 trillion dollars, as if slaves were simply workers we forgot to pay for 200 years.
Frederick Douglass, himself an escaped slave, had a different take on slavery. According to Douglass, “I didn’t know I was a slave until I found out I couldn’t do the things I wanted.” In other words, the defining characterization of slavery was an absence of liberty. Douglass understood that slavery is not primarily a material or economic situation. It is a spiritual situation. It was not by taking the wages that were rightly due to him that he went on to make a life for himself. It was the assertion of his own liberty that he made by escaping from his situation.
Of course, the motivation for one man to enslave another is almost always economical, but the offense is spiritual. Were we debating this issue at a time when slaves were still living, perhaps paying those individuals their lost wages might mitigate part of the disrespect that was inflicted upon them, but the world in which slavery’s tangible economic effect could be felt is gone. In its place is a world trying to grapple with questions about its past. Does anyone honestly believe today that these enduring questions can be answered by a pay-out?
Even setting aside the moral and logistical problems, the idea of reparations is objectionable. Certainly Coates is right to state that “what is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt,” but will a one-time payment of back-wages accomplish this? I agree that we should all be looking for ways to heal these historical wounds. In 2008, the House of Representatives issued an unprecedented apology for the treatment of black Americans during the slavery and Jim Crow periods. As time goes on, we will find new and meaningful ways to both atone for the past and move into a better future, but we will need to explore options that do not calculate the hardships of generations of Americans in dollars and cents.