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Reparations — the idea that a decent society must accept responsibility in the present for injustices perpetrated in the past — have been imagined in various ways through the course of American history. But until now, the idea of reparations for the crime of slavery, as well as for its long aftermath of racial subjugation, has run into objections — both principled and practical — that have shut down any effort to turn the idea into reality.

First, we must contend with the kind of questions that have stalled such efforts in the past: What connection should one feel to acts committed or omitted before one was born? How can the cost be calculated of living at the mercy of a person who claims to own you, and of knowing that the same will be true for your children and their children? Even if one could compute the cost, who would fund the reparations, and to whom should they be paid? Would they be subject to means-testing and paid on a graduated scale? Who would decide who qualifies?

Years before the first shots were fired in the Civil War, Black writer and abolitionist Martin Delany called for a “national indemnity … for the unparalleled wrongs, undisguised impositions, and unmitigated oppression” endured by Black people since the first enslaved Africans arrived in the 17th century.

After the war, the idea of money reparations began evolving into the idea that the federal government should provide formerly enslaved persons with grants of free land. That might sound like a radical plan out of Mao Zedong’s China or Fidel Castro’s Cuba — but there were precedents in 19th-century America. In 1862, on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, which had been captured by Union forces early in the war, the federal government granted to former slaves free housing, modest wages and basic rations in exchange for cotton cultivation on small plots of land. Three years later, Gen. William T. Sherman issued his famous Field Order 15 assigning ownership of hundreds of thousands of abandoned acres along the coast from Charleston to Florida to some 40,000 former slaves.

But these were wartime measures. As soon as peace returned, the “poetry” of the idea, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, collided with “prose” reality. With the return to power of a federal administration friendly to the White South, promises to the freedmen were revoked, property returned to former Confederate landowners, and the dream of Black homesteads “melted quickly away.” Toward the end of his life, Frederick Douglass bitterly remarked that “when the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living.” But America’s slaves were “sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends and without a foot of land upon which to stand.”

This, too, proved to be a dream deferred. After federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877, Black children were subjected to what can only be called a terrorist campaign. Parents who dared send their children to school were fired by their White employers. Teachers and students were beaten. Schools were torched. And even when terror abated, Black schools were grossly underfunded. By 1950, in Mississippi, Black public schools received approximately $32 of state support per student while White schools received roughly four times as much.

But around the middle of the 20th century, propelled by two historical events, the reputation of reparations began to change. The first event took place abroad: the campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe, led by Germany. The second took place here in the United States: the movement to secure basic civil rights for millions of Black Americans.

It is always dangerous to go down the road of analogies. There are no scales by which to weigh the worth of Jews sent by rail to the gas chambers versus Africans sent by sea into oblivion. In thinking about history, differences are always more salient than commonalities. Yet the fact that post-Nazi Germany was trying to own up to its crimes was not lost on those who, in the 1950s, began to press the United States to do the same.

The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the Government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.

Construing such a “settlement” in monetary terms was encouraged not only by the German precedent, but also by homegrown efforts in the United States. In 1946, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission as a mediator between Native Americans and the federal government. Since then, from Alaska to North Carolina, several billion dollars have been paid out by federal and state governments in settlement of land claims; it’s a big-sounding number but, in aggregate, it amounts to less than $1,000 per person.

Today, some advocates of reparations propose distributing trillions of dollars to everyone who can demonstrate descent from an enslaved ancestor and who, for some designated period, has identified as Black. Heartfelt as they might be, such purely monetary approaches face overwhelming obstacles: competing claims by other groups, rivalry and discord among prospective beneficiaries, not to mention the mind-boggling price tag attached to any meaningful attempt to give back what was taken away.

At stake in all these efforts is what might be called the sins-of-the-fathers question, addressed by authors from Sophocles and Aeschylus to Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Faulkner. Edmund Burke, in the wake of the French Revolution, decried the idea of holding individuals responsible for what he called a “pedigree of crimes” committed in the past by some class, party or sect to which they may belong. But Burke also wrote that society “is a partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” If history confers on people in the present neither credit nor blame for what happened in the past, what kind of partnership exists across time?

Our nation is badly overdue in facing this question. But seeking a consensual answer is like wading into quicksand. I suspect that most people believe both the nay and the yay of the matter — that no one living today is to blame for the sins of the past, but that everyone has a responsibility to help redress them.

In pondering what this might actually mean, I came upon a book, “Reconsidering Reparations,” published a few months ago by a young scholar at Georgetown University, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, who speaks of reparations not as payback or getting even or settling scores but as what he calls a “construction project.” “What if building the just world,” he asks, “was reparations?” He means, I think, that we must proceed with full awareness that the dire challenges of our time — climate change, disparities in health care and education amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, gun violence, state violence in the form of bad policing, misused and inequitable incarceration, to name just a few — all have disproportionate effects on persons left vulnerable by history, notably but by no means only Black persons. This version of reparations does not gloss over penalties exacted in the past by racial cruelty, but it looks to a future in which human dignity will count for more and more and race will count for less and less.

King shared this view. Back in the 20th century, when our politics were positively congenial compared with today, he understood that targeted reparations solely for Black Americans were a political impossibility. He correctly predicted that “many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights,’ which seeks special consideration to the Negro … and does not take into sufficient account of their plight (that of the white worker).”

But this did not dissuade King from the principle of redress itself. On the contrary, he envisioned something more daring, more ambitious, and more inclusive — an idea of reparations that was not post-racial but cross-racial. “It is a simple matter of justice,” he said, “that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.”

Today, a great many White Americans feel as demeaned and discarded as Black Americans, and just as forgotten. In the grim metrics of poverty rates, infant mortality and maternal deaths in childbirth, Black Americans and Native Americans continue to hold the lead. But in the distribution of suffering, as measured by other markers such as opioid addiction, alcoholism and suicide, the racial gap is closing.

This multiracial reality can be addressed only with a multiracial response of the sort envisioned by King. Beginning with a robust defense of the right to vote, such a response must include subsidized housing for low-income Americans; improved access to health care; investments in public transportation; expanded child tax credits; preschool and wraparound services for all children of the sort that affluent families take for granted. It must include renewed investment in community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, tribal and regional public colleges, where low-income White students as well as Black, Hispanic and Native American students are likely to enroll. At elite private colleges, it should mean less dependence on the blunt instrument of standardized testing, and more bridge programs for recruiting and preparing children from low-asset families, White as well as non-White. All this might sound like a fanciful wish list, and a partial one at that — but it is no departure from the American creed of equal opportunity, in which both parties profess to believe. I have no doubt that a racially inclusive approach to repairing our society stands a better chance than any effort that is racially exclusive.

This content was originally published here.

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