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Some Reflections on Reparations
Descendants of enslaved individuals deserve redress, but it’s the U.S. government that needs to make them whole
Whether reparation payments should be made to Americans who are descended from slaves is a fraught topic. But the moral issues at play are relatively easy to understand, as the following hypothetical situation demonstrates. Say Joe poisons Mary with an unusual chemical. This particular poison doesn’t do any immediate harm. Indeed, Mary suffers no physical or psychological harm herself at all—until she has a child.
The deleterious effect of this poison is on her offspring. It causes them and all their offspring to have a particular physical weakness. The weakness can be overcome, but only with great and intense effort. The effect of the poison does not decrease with future generations. Mary’s son Mike, his son Martin, Martin’s daughter MaryAnn (named for her great-grandmother Mary)—all are born with the weakness caused by Joe’s poison.
It seems reasonable to say Joe harmed not only Mary and Mike, but also Martin and MaryAnn and any of their similarly afflicted descendants. The harm Joe caused continues, even though it was initiated years prior. If that is right, it seems reasonable to conclude that if Joe were still around, he would be obligated to try to make Mary’s descendants whole.
Who Pays? Who Gets Paid?
The intuitions of this hypothetical are the basic building blocks of what seems to me an entirely reasonable argument that descendants of slaves are due reparations from the U.S. government for the harms caused by slavery. The same argument would likely support reparations from the federal government for redlining laws and from various state governments that had Jim Crow legislation.
I’m not arguing in this essay that anyone is due reparations from particular slaveholders. No slaveholders from the 18th or 19th century are currently living, and it’s arguably unreasonable to expect their descendants to try to make whole the descendants of the slaves they held. My claim here is only about the U.S. federal government. The government was an active participant in the slavery that prevailed in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unlike the slaveholders of those times, the federal government still exists. The perpetrator of the harms is still “alive” and thus can be called on to satisfy its moral obligation to make the victims whole.
Importantly, denying this claim—without somehow showing that the federal government was not an active participant in slavery—would mean denying that the federal government has any obligation created by its actions in the past. But that’s simply not true: International treaties, for example, though signed by prior government agents, are still valid today even when those individuals are no longer part of the government. Denying the obligation incurred by actively participating in slavery would seem to require denying the obligations of those international treaties. Without some clear explanation of a difference between the two scenarios, maintaining the obligations of the latter (created by past government action) entails maintaining the obligations of the former (also created by past government action).
One likely response to this argument is that, just as the perpetrators are no longer living, neither are the victims, so there is no one to make reparations to. Of course, none of the direct victims of slavery are still alive. But if we look at their descendants, we can use social science to determine how their lives would have been going if their ancestors had not been enslaved. And as philosopher David Boonin argues in his book “Should Race Matter?” the social science seems to suggest that their lives would have been much better than they are today. (The argument above is improvised from “Should Race Matter?”)
This is not to insist that the lives of descendants of slaves would be better if their ancestors had been left in Africa. But if they had come to the U.S. voluntarily and lived their lives freely, their descendants would be better off than they are. In this fairly simple sense, many African Americans are living less prosperous lives than they would have absent actions of the U.S. government. It is thus reasonable to understand them as living in a harmed state due to the government’s past actions, just as MaryAnn lives in a harmed state due to Joe’s actions, however many decades earlier they occurred.
If all this is correct, both an important perpetrator and some victims of slavery are still around, and the former could take action to make the latter whole. It seems reasonable to think this is obligatory, morally speaking. The federal government (or state governments with Jim Crow laws) is the perpetrator, and African Americans who are descended from slaves (or who were made to suffer under Jim Crow) are the victims who should be compensated in the form of reparations.
Many people immediately object that reparations would be unfair because they would be paid for by people who have no personal responsibility for either slavery or Jim Crow. They argue that it would be unfair to punish anyone today for actions taken by long-dead slaveholders. My ancestors, for example, came to the U.S. at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and settled in the northeast; they were not slaveholders or advocates of Jim Crow. Punishing me, then, would be unfair. This argument is, I think, entirely correct. Punishing someone who did no wrong is itself wrong.
But while most current U.S. taxpayers are not responsible for the crimes of slavery or Jim Crow, this is irrelevant to the issue here. Having to pay taxes to cover reparations is not a punishment. At least, it is no more of a punishment than having to pay taxes to fund the military, to pay for government employee salaries or to satisfy the requirements of international treaties. The government pays these things because they are debts it has incurred (rightly or wrongly). Taxpayers pay to fund the government, allowing the government to pay its debts. Period.
We may, of course, think the government should not have incurred certain debts. We may think the government should not have passed or enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, for example. We may think it ought not have entered into any number of treaties, passed any number of laws or expanded in any number of ways. The fact is, it did—and those debts must, morally speaking, be paid. I believe we should seek to prevent the government from accepting any obligations it shouldn’t (and I think there are very few it should), but once it accepts an obligation, it is an obligation and so must be satisfied. Claiming that the obligation was taken up illegitimately does not change that.
All that said, it might also be worth considering funding reparations by selling federal property, as Rachel Ferguson and Marcus Witcher suggest in “Black Liberation Through the Marketplace.” Those of us who believe such property should be sold off anyway would be happy with this suggestion, but it should also be clear that this course of action may not be enough to satisfy all the debts incurred by the U.S. government.
A second objection is more troublesome: Who should actually receive reparations? I think there are two good possibilities. The first is that all—but only—those who can be shown to be descendants of slaves (or victims of Jim Crow) ought to receive reparations. The second is that individuals within that group who can show that they are below some level of wealth ought to receive reparations. The first possibility strikes me as entirely reasonable, but I imagine a case can be made that the latter is also reasonable, since those above some specified level of wealth are already “whole.” A third possibility—to simply pay all African Americans—strikes me as less plausible because someone moving to the U.S. from Ghana in 2023, for example, doesn’t have a claim to the same status as those descended from people enslaved in the U.S.
As an administrative matter, anyone who either moved to the U.S. or whose ancestors moved to the U.S. less than 60 years ago might be automatically excluded from receiving reparations. Not being here as a result of recent immigration might be taken as evidence that the individual is descended from slaves (or victims of Jim Crow).
I’ll end with two worries. First, there is a significant issue in determining how to pay the reparations. My clear preference is to give direct one-time payments (or, perhaps, direct annual or monthly payments) to the victims, coupled with access to a financial adviser who could help them invest or combine their resources, perhaps with a goal of creating more communal and intergenerational wealth should they wish it. So, for example, the adviser could help them pool resources to establish community centers or businesses.
A different option would be to invest in communities where substantial numbers of the victims reside and so would benefit. This might mean the government building community centers and hospitals, for example. But I worry that this path would end up enriching many who were not victims—including government administrators, companies hired by the government to do the work and those who might buy homes in such communities after hearing of the plans. So this option is clearly inferior to the first, since it would not be as targeted to the goal and would misdirect resources. It would also seem to be a form of paternalism, justified by the claim that this is the best way to help the victims—who, presumably, could not handle the responsibility of direct payments. Better, in my view, to assume they do know what is best for themselves and to simply provide some financial advisers if the recipients wish for them.
The second worry is purely political. It’s a worry that has troubled thinkers such as Coleman Hughes and Glenn Loury. The worry is simply that any political party or movement that encourages the payment of reparations risks alienating too many, thus making the goal politically unfeasible. Here I simply admit to being troubled. The worry is real, but I would hope that the country could come together and realize it should live up to its moral obligations. Letting politics defeat that duty would be more than unfortunate: It would leave us little reason to have faith that America can be a moral leader, that our government can stand for good.