The New York Times
By John McWhorter — June 22, 2023
Reparations Should Be an End, Not a Beginning
For a long while, reparations for Black Americans has been more a debate topic than a reality. But of late, the reality may be catching up with the debate. Since last year, Evanston, Ill., has been granting $25,000 payments to be applied to housing to Black people and their descendants who were discriminated against during the redlining era.
This year, the program has been extended to enable grantees to take simple cash payments. In San Francisco, a task force has suggested that eligible Black people receive onetime payments of $5,000,000 each; a statewide task force has proposed a somewhat more modest plan with a sliding scale of payments topping out at $1.2 million. The New York State Legislature has passed a bill that would create its own commission to consider reparations, and there will doubtless be more such proposals nationwide.
I’ve never been a fan of the idea of reparations. I know that various groups of Americans have been granted reparations in the past, such as the descendants of Japanese Americans placed in internment camps during World War II. And I certainly believe that Black Americans have deserved reparations. It’s more that I have questioned the idea of what I would regard as new reparations. I see us as having already been granted reparations on multiple occasions.
Affirmative action can be seen as an enormous reparations policy, although the term is rarely used in that context. In the late 1960s, welfare payments were made easier to receive and maintain at the behest of organizations such as the National Welfare Rights Organization, in what we would now call reparation for past injustices. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, if we rolled the dice again, could well have been called a “Reparation Act,” linking banks’ requests for mergers and new branches to their assisting the credit eligibility of people in lower-income neighborhoods.
And there are, of course, thorny questions that prevail in any discussion of reparations: If payments are to be made to individuals, what would qualify a person as Black and discriminated against? (William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen’s “From Here to Equality” has a proposal for this.) If payments are to organizations, which ones could we designate as best for Black people and on what basis? (The pioneer analyst of the subject, Boris Bittker, raised this question decades ago.)
But one does not wish to ossify. I’m not interested in contrarianism for its own sake; I seek what is good for Black people. And if 77 percent of Black people approve of something — as a recent Pew poll suggested — I had better have solid grounds to oppose it.
If your opinions never evolve, you’re either not paying attention or not genuinely interested. One example: School vouchers looked very promising for Black kids 20 years ago, and I used to speak up for them despite it making me seem as though I were a Republican. But they do not seem to have had much effect on achievement in the long run, and my enthusiasm has decreased. There’s a reason I haven’t devoted a newsletter to vouchers lately.
Opposition to reparations would make sense if they were actively harmful — for instance, by encouraging a sense of dependence or entitlement — but that seems unlikely of a one-time dispersal. It would also make sense to oppose reparations if the funds seemed likely to go to waste, such as those given with insufficient directives as to what they were to be used for. But the most common idea now, largely sparked by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s landmark 2014 article in The Atlantic, is to focus on housing assistance specifically to compensate for the redlining era, decades in which residents of “Black” neighborhoods were denied mortgages, insurance and other benefits that lead to homeownership.
This newer focus is different from simply sending a check in the mail for racial injustices writ large that were suffered in a distant past. Redlining was not all that long ago. It played a major role in the wealth gap that exists between white and Black people today. And being able to afford better-quality housing would be of concrete and immediate benefit to Black people, enabling them to escape many of the manifestations of inequity based on race.
So I am open to experiments with this new conception of reparations. I could imagine supporting them with articles, talks, podcast appearances and the like. But I would do so only under an impression of a general consensus that these reparations would also offer a form of closure, a signature turning of the corner in American race relations.
Brilliant work by Black intellectuals such as Barbara Fields and Adolph and Touré Reed has long argued that fixing today’s America will require a focus on class rather than race. After reparations, it would be time to stop sidelining this work. Racism and inequity would not disappear. Policies that address those issues and help Black people succeed would of course continue, but they would focus less on race than on specific economic needs, such as fostering jobs that don’t require a college degree, giving preferences in admissions and hiring based on socioeconomics, rethinking the War on Drugs and teaching reading via the phonics method that science has demonstrated to be the strongest tool.
In a scenario such as this one, reparations would serve not only as a compensation for past injustice but also as the start of a new, class-based orientation toward the nation’s progress on race. Is such a compromise possible, as opposed to a continuation of the mantra that “America doesn’t want to talk about race”? I have my doubts. But I would be happy to be proved wrong.