The Insider's guide to the reparations debate

Adam Chapnik
September 6, 2019

Most people, on both sides of the reparations debate, believed it would never happen. It would cost too much for any real politician to be on board, they thought. However, most of the top-tier Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have expressed some level of support for reparations to African-American descendants of slavery in America. Even more surprising, the sentiment has almost become a litmus test to secure the Democratic black vote. Every candidate who has appeared at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, The Root, and The Breakfast Club has been asked whether they would support reparations. While some candidates, have spoken about the need to “look into reparations,” others have made detailed policy proposals about cash payments to black Americans.

The wide array of proposals has made it clear that, as popular as the idea has become, there is still wide disagreement about what “reparations” even means. And even though most Democratic candidates say they would support the program in principle, it’s still unknown how hard reality will hit.

What are reparations?

After the end of the American Civil War, discussion of reparations began with the 1865 Special Field Orders No. 15, also known as “40 acres and a mule.” The order would have confiscated 400,000 acres of land along the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to be distributed in areas of no more than 40 acres to formerly enslaved families living in the area. The understanding was that ending slavery was not enough; that the wounds of slavery, like any other crime, needed to be healed by the hands of justice, and that a lifetime of disenfranchisement could only be corrected by the restoration of opportunities lost. The order, however, was reversed by President Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination and never reinstituted.

Despite Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s (D-MI) introduction of H.R. 40 (aka. The Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act) at every Congress since 1989, the US government has not seriously considered the idea of reparations since. H.R. 40 would “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”

However, the idea has never left the national conversation. Randall Robinson’s 2001 best-seller The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks helped to bring the issue of reparations back to national attention, enlivening debates throughout the media. However, the conversation could never overcome the clear obstacle of cost. In 1993, a Harper’s magazine article “put the reparations total at $97 trillion, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, ‘compounded at 6% interest through 1993.’” More recent estimates–from $6.4 trillion to $14 trillion–although smaller, are still daunting. Invariably, the conversation soon died out.

However, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ popular 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” found a way to overcome the obstacle of cost. Coates recentered reparations around the second half of H.R. 40’s purpose: to remedy “de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans” such as redlining and exclusionary government programs that have helped create a huge racial wealth gap. The subsequent rise of Black Lives Matter in 2016, including reparations in its policy platform, gave the issue even more momentum.

The newfound popularity of reparations is surprising, especially because of how much it breaks from any serious Democratic platforms of the past. However, many of the candidates who expressed support for reparations, to the dismay of many, seem to care more about passing the litmus test rather than about substantive policy. Others have introduced substantive but race-blind wealth-focused policies, such as “baby bonds,” proposed by Duke economist William Darity and economist Darrick Hamilton at The New School, that many–including Darity and Hamilton themselves–believe do not actually constitute reparations per se.

What are “baby bonds”?

Darity has called baby bonds “an anti-inequality measure designed to address the wealth gap.” As he described it, 

“This program would create public trust funds for all newborn infants that they could access when they reach eighteen. It’s simply universalizing the model that wealthy families already use–giving kids a trust that they can access at a certain age. The amount of the trust would be graduated based on the wealth position of the parents. And this would be a universal program–meaning that every child, regardless of how wealthy their parents are, would receive something–but those kids whose parents have less wealth would have greater amounts in their trusts.”

For example, Bill Gates’ child would get $50 in their trust, while a child born to parents who rent their home and have only $100 in their bank account would get $50,000 in their trust. The amount would be based on the wealth–and not income–position of the parents. This is because Hamilton and Darity’s work has shown that a family’s income can put them in the middle class without them actually ever building very much wealth. Darity has estimated the total cost of the policy from $60 to $100 billion per year but says that because the trusts don’t pay out until the child turns 18, it will actually cost the government less per year.

There are, of course, logistical obstacles baby bonds would face: families in need would surely take the money from the child when the trust pays out and use it for more immediate needs or for the child’s higher education rather than saving it for inheritance. And legal loopholes would likely arise that allow families to pull the money out of the trust earlier. At that point, baby bonds become child subsidies–which can’t possibly build the wealth Hamilton and Darity were hoping for–and then the question becomes, why not just increase child subsidies?

However, Booker is the only candidate so far to propose baby bonds.

Here is where the major Democratic candidates stand on reparations:

Sen. Cory Booker: Booker has introduced a version of H.R. 40 to the Senate, written by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). In addition, he has proposed a baby bonds program that “would give every child a savings account, with federal contributions to the account increasing as parental income decreases” (italics added). Interestingly, despite owing its inspiration to Darity and Hamilton, Booker’s proposal focuses on family income rather than wealth, making it less likely it could even succeed in its goal of narrowing the racial wealth gap.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: Gabbard co-sponsored the Rep. Lee’s version of H.R. 40, and would sign it if she became president.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: Gillibrand has expressed support for H.R. 40, saying at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, “This is a conversation that is long overdue.”

Beto O’Rourke: After wavering on the issue, O’Rourke also said at NAN he would sign H.R. 40 if he becomes president.

Former Vice President Joe Biden: Biden said in 1975, “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ‘60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race.’ I don’t buy that. I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” His current stance is unclear, but it shouldn’t be expected to be much different.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg opposes cash transfers as reparations, but at NAN said he would sign H.R. 40 if president.

Sen. Kamala Harris: Harris has supported reparations for slavery, but her later remarks have made it less clear what she means when she says reparations, as she has told NPR that “the term reparations ‘means different things to different people,’ and that allocating funds for mental health treatment would be one form of reparations.” She also “touts the LIFT Act, a tax plan that would provide a tax credit to working singles making $50,000 or less and families making $100,000 or less, expanding the safety net for the middle class.” However, it is unclear whether the LIFT Act would uniquely benefit black Americans. And among most reparations advocates, only race-targeted policies count as reparations.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren: Warren also supports Rep. Lee’s Senate bill, and has said during a CNN town hall, “it’s time for a full-blown conversation about reparations.” Still, Warren’s exact proposal is unclear. She supports the American Housing and Mobility Act, which would provide financial aid to first-time homebuyers in areas affected by redlining, but many believe it is not targeted enough to count as reparations.

Julian Castro: Castro has expressed support for a task force similar to H.R. 40, but has no specific policy proposals about reparations for black Americans.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar: Klobuchar does not support reparations, but has said “I believe we have to invest in those communities that have been so hurt by racism. It doesn't have to be a direct pay for each person, but what we can do is invest in those communities. Acknowledge what’s happened…. Making sure we have that shared dream of opportunity for all Americans.”

Andrew Yang: Yang’s candidacy is centered around his “Freedom Dividend” proposal to give every American who does not already receive government welfare $1000 per month, and he has said he does not support reparations per se because he says his larger proposal would suffice. However, he has many specific proposals targeted at black communities, from bolstering the endowments of HBCUs to investing in deteriorating urban infrastructure, and said he would sign H.R. 40 if he becomes president.

Marianne Williamson: Williamson proposed $100 billion in reparations or $10 billion a year to be distributed over 10 years for economic and educational projects, she told CNN in January.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Sanders has said he would support Rep. Lee’s bill. However, he opposes reparations, saying “there are better ways to do that than just writing a check,” and prefers programs that address economic inequality more broadly, and at a CNN town hall spoke about “putting resources into distressed communities and improving lives for those people who have been hurt from the legacy of slavery.”

When “moderator Wolf Blitzer pushed him for a more direct response… Sanders answered the question with his own question–one that is now hanging over the 2020 Democratic field: ‘What does [“reparations”] mean? What do they mean? I'm not sure that anyone's very clear,’ Sanders said.”

When it comes to deciding what counts as reparations, outlets from NPR to Vox have consulted Darity and Hamilton, who both agree that only direct compensation to black Americans can be called reparations. Regarding Harris’ LIFT Act and Booker’s baby bonds, Hamilton told NPR,

“‘Something that is economically inclusive but has a racial bent to it–those may or may not be good policies, but let's be clear: It's not reparations,’ he said. This isn't about quibbling over definitions, Hamilton added. Rather, there's the possibility that calling a policy reparations when it doesn't explicitly attempt to address past wrongs, amounts to putting a band-aid on a gaping, centuries-old wound. ‘That would be almost a worst-case scenario, to say we have addressed the race issue when in fact we have not done it,’ he said. A reparations policy would include not only compensation, but also an acknowledgement of specific wrongs and reconciliation, according to Hamilton.”

However, only Williamson, who has been polling near the bottom of the major candidates, comes anywhere near this with her proposal. Still, given that all the major candidates have promised to support H.R. 40, and given that support for reparations has grown so much in such a short time, it would be reasonable to expect proposals like Williamson’s to become more common, or that reparations might actually be near.

The debate over reparations:

It might be important to first frame what the debate over reparations–as Hamilton defined it–is actually about. Nearly everyone on both sides of the debate are interested in helping the poor. As Coleman Hughes puts it, “the debate… is not between reparations and doing nothing for black people, but between policy based on genealogy and policy based on socioeconomics. Accordingly, the burden on each side is not to show that its proposal is better than nothing–that would be easy. The burden on each side is to show that its preferred rationale for policy (either genealogy or socioeconomics) is better than the rationale proposed by the other side.”

What are the arguments for reparations?

Most of the arguments for reparations center around a narrative similar to the one Michael Eric Dyson summarized during a debate over “political correctness” against Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry:

“If you have benefitted from 300 years of holding people in servitude, thinking that you did it all on your own… ‘Why can’t these people work harder?’ Let me see… for 300 years you ain’t had no job! So the reality is for 300 years you hold people in the bands… you refuse to give them rights. Then all of a sudden, you ‘free’ them and say, ‘You’re now individuals.’”

Of course, the story can’t be taken literally. As Coleman Hughes put it, “his ‘you’ refers not to identifiable, living humans, but to groups of long-deceased individuals with whom he shares nothing in common except a location on the color wheel.” But it is meant to represent some idea that even after black Americans were recognized as people, they were given nothing–excluded from advancing, even–while their white counterparts had a chance at whatever opportunity they desired. Generation to generation, black Americans were forced to pass on these impediments, all contributing to the racial wealth gap we face today.

Such a wealth gap can only be lessened by a direct wealth transfer to those whose ancestors’ lives and prosperity were stolen from them. As Coates’ argues in “The Case for Reparations,” “the wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say–that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is 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.”

Some, such as Randall Robinson, have gone as far to say that slavery in America “has hulled empty a whole race of people with inter-generational efficiency. Every artifact of the victim’s past, every custom, every ritual, every god, every language, every trace element of a people’s whole inherited identity, was wrenched from them and ground into a sharp choking dust.” Blacks have been robbed of their wholeness and their agency. As Brown University economist Glenn Loury has summarized the stance, black Americans are “puppets at the end of a string… dangling there… waiting to be made whole.” It is only reparations that can do this.

What are the arguments against reparations?

As it can be imagined, there is a myriad of arguments against reparations, especially the one that Hamilton defines. Here are just a few:

Coleman Hughes, contributor to Quillette and The New York Times: To the economic argument, he writes,

“There are tens of millions of descendants of American slaves and many millions of them are doing just fine. As Kevin Williamson put it: ‘Some blacks are born into college-educated, well-off households, and some whites are born to heroin-addicted single mothers, and even the totality of racial crimes throughout American history does not mean that one of these things matters and one does not.’

“Williamson’s observation holds not only between blacks and whites but between different black ethnic groups as well. Somali-Americans, for example, have lower per-capita incomes than native-born black Americans. Yet they would not see a dime from reparations since they have no connection to American slavery. But should it matter why Somali immigrants are poorer than black American natives? Insofar as there is a reparations policy that would benefit the poor, should Somali immigrants be denied those benefits because they are poor for the wrong historical reasons? The idea can only be taken seriously by those who value symbolic justice for the dead over tangible justice for the living.”

As to Robinson’s psychological argument, Hughes writes, “For one thing, it’s not true that blacks have inherited psychological trauma from historical racism. Though the budding field of epigenetics is sometimes used to justify this claim, a recent New York Times article poured cold water on the hypothesis: ‘The research in epigenetics falls well short of demonstrating that past human cruelties affect our physiology today.’ (For what it’s worth, this accords with my own experience. If there is a heritable psychological injury associated with being the descendant of slaves, I’ve yet to notice it.)”

Furthermore, if the psychological injury were inheritable, this author himself or even his own father would know it. This author’s grandfather lived as a Jew in occupied Belgium during WWII, his brother was killed in Auschwitz, and he experienced several traumatic scenes, but he and the rest of his family managed to escape the Nazis. This author’s grandfather certainly carried the trauma of his childhood with him, but this author’s father inherited none of that injury, nor did the author himself.

Hughes also points to the fact that, quoting Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, “probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders.” As Hughes writes, “And that’s to say nothing of the traumas of war, poverty, and starvation that would show up abundantly in all of our ancestral histories if we were to look. Unless blacks are somehow exempt from the principles governing human psychology, the mental effects of historical racism have not been passed down through the generations. Yes, in the narrow context of American history, blacks have been uniquely mistreated. But in the wider context of world history, black Americans are hardly unique and should not be treated as such.”

Boris I. Bittker, author of the first extended treatment of the idea in 1973, in “The Case for Black Reparations”: John McWhorter writes about Bittker in his own polemic:

“Writing when the Black Power movement flourished, Bittker soberly based his prescriptions upon a conception of black Americans as a people holding a diversity of opinions. ‘Who is to decide,’ he asked, ‘whether a group that claims to be the vanguard is really only a body of stragglers because the army is moving in the opposite direction?’ He came to the conclusion that reparations ought to be paid only to blacks who endured segregated schooling, this being in his view the only case that could be productively argued on a principled legal and moral basis. He rejected the distribution of payments on the basis of ‘blackness’ alone, on the grounds that it would encourage a revival of the arbitrary conceptions of race that were used to justify slavery; and he distrusted the distribution of funds to any particular set of black organizations, on the grounds that it was difficult to know which groups could justly claim to represent all blacks. Bittker was struck by the diversity of African American life: ‘Among American blacks today, differences in economic status, geographical origin and current location, outlook, organizational ties, and educational background are powerful centrifugal forces that black nationalist groups have not succeeded in neutralizing.’”

John McWhorter, Columbia University linguistics professor: McWhorter believes that reparations for slavery have already happened, and are happening now. He writes:

“If I were assigned to develop a plan for black reparations, here is what I would do. I would institute a program supporting poor black people for a few years while stewarding them into–which is currently in operation. I would have the government and private organizations channel funds into inner-city communities to help residents buy their homes–which is what Community Development Corporations have been doing for years, working under-publicized miracles in ghettos across the country. I would give banks incentives to make loans to inner-city residents to start small businesses–which is what the Community Reinvestment Act has been doing since 1977. I would make sure that there are scholarships to help black people go to school–which are hardly unknown in this country. I would propose that affirmative action policies–of the thumb-on-the-scale variety designed to choose between equally qualified candidates–be imposed in businesses, where subtle racism can still slow promotions. Most importantly, I would ensure that black children had access to as good an education as possible. I do not believe that blacks should be left simply to pull ourselves up by the proverbial bootstraps. Our grim history is real. Yet so, too, are the reparations that we have already secured in the form of all these government programs and government monies.”

Furthermore, McWhorter has said he worries that if reparations ever happen, it won’t be enough, but the rest of America will say to blacks, “You’ve got yours. We don’t owe you anything any longer.” Black Americans face more than just a wealth gap. From lagging schools to high rates of crime and incarceration to geographic marginalization, much of what black Americans face cannot be healed by cash transfers alone. McWhorter wants real solutions, not just symbolic gestures.

With so many Democratic candidates for president exuberantly promising to sign H.R. 40 if it sat on their desk, it is easy to believe that, even if reparations don’t happen by 2024 or 2028 or even 2032, they will happen. Because if it has taken so much just to push through a bill to consider the idea, no one will be happy if the committee's conclusion is that reparations aren’t necessary. Promising to sign H.R. 40 is more than just promising to consider reparations; promising to sign H.R. 40 is about promising to support reparations.

However, McWhorter has added more recently (his previous statements are nearly 20 years old now) in a conversation with economist Glenn Loury at Harvard University, that, as someone who descends from a black slave, he would receive payments if reparations happened, and is not completely opposed to the notion–he might even support it. But McWhorter has a condition for his support. As he said in a several minute monologue:

“America should hold the feet to the fire of the people who are espousing [reparations] with the following requirement: If this wealth gap is redressed, and the people who have asked for it–the people who are saying we need to have a conversation about it–and especially after they have or haven’t gotten to office–the people who are claiming they are so interested in this issue, must allow, if the reparations happen, that America has turned a corner. They must allow that it means that America has redressed the sins of the past. They must allow that America has come to terms with race (that doesn’t mean that they have to pretend that racism doesn’t exist), but that has to be celebrated lustily and honestly, looking America into the eye.

“All of the people with three names… have to be able to say, ‘Yes, if there were reparations, then something has really happened.’ Because I sense in my gut, that, if reparations did happen, the people with three names would immediately be on MSNBC, they would immediately be in the Atlantic, in The New Yorker, saying ‘Reparations is a beginning, not an end.’ People who were coming into the punditocracy biz would muse about how it’s ‘problematic’ to suppose you could solve these problems just with money. ‘400 years of torture and they’re solving it by just giving us a check.’ No, no, I will not be behind it if that’s what it is. And the possible repost… that ‘it’s not that anyone thought reparations were going to be anything but a beginning.’ No, no, no, that’s not why we’re gonna have the reparations.

“Because the question is, if after the reparations happen, you’re going to be just as angry and teaching the same classes and saying the same things on TV and teaching future generations of black people to be just as aimlessly recreationally angry as you are, then why do it? What was the purpose? Why not do the sorts of thing that actually would help especially poor black people be less poor? Why not espouse those things, and then maybe have the reparations as a certain token kind of event afterwards to put a cherry on the sundae, in which case if you want to say it didn’t really matter it won’t matter because we will have already done things that have actually helped.

“Now, this is why I call this an object lesson. Because I think that if we actually put it to the people in question, to be able to look us all in the eye and say that reparations meant that America had finally done this thing we call ‘coming to terms with racism,’ I think we would watch extreme discomfort. There would be lots of word salad. There would be lots of ‘but-but-but-but-buts,’ there would be lots of so-many-footnotes that they may as well not have pretended not to agree. We would watch people very uncomfortable with the idea that we could ever get past all of this nastiness.

“And when we see it, we’ll see something that I’ve been arguing for about four years and will not argue here, which is that a lot of the way we’re trained to think about race is more about emotion and advocacy and identity than actual political engagement. We need to start calling people on that. It needs to be a clear meme. These people need to be put on the defensive: Are you being a parishioner or are you being somebody who’s interested in change? Because being the church lady does not help poor black people in any real way.

“Reparations is going to be especially interesting to me because I’d like to use it as a way to know whether the people who call themselves advocating for black people are actually interested in anything changing. The tragedy is I don’t think they are. The reparations issue is uniquely posed to reveal the problem, especially to those of you who are on the fence about race issues, whose views have not hardened… and are looking for a way of actually solving these problems. And you can see that the world is imperfect, that the things we’re being told by the usual suspects don’t actually seem to be constructive.”

Learn more

New Republic - Against Reparations

Quillette - Reparations and Ta-Nehisi Coates's Pyrrhic Victory

The Atlantic - The Case for Reparations

Adam Chapnik

Adam (’22) is the Senior Politics Editor. He is a Political Science major with a Mathematics correlate. He is the President of the Vassar Post-Pasteurization Alliance and is also involved in the Vassar Debate Society. He is originally from Boston and enjoys watching films, reading, and hiking.