Generation after generation, Black Americans have been subject to brutal injustices and discrimination. Not only have these policies and practices exacerbated systemic racism, but they have prevented Black families from accumulating the same wealth as white Americans.
Economists estimate that enslaved people generated trillions of dollars in labor, but neither they, nor their ancestors, ever received any of the profits. Even after emancipation, Jim Crow laws and redlining prevented Black families from building wealth at the same rate as white families. On average, white families in America today are ten times wealthier than Black families. Wealth not only allows families to better weather economic crises, but it also leads to better health and higher educational attainment.
Reparations aim to acknowledge and redress these past wrongs through payments and investments. While reparations cannot erase historical injustices, they help institutions, such as governments, take responsibility for their actions and begin to address current inequalities.
Evanston, Illinois, recently became the first city in the U.S. to issue reparations to Black residents who were subject to historical racial discrimination. The Chicago suburb plans to use $10 million in tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales to fund reparations over the next ten years. The first installment in the ten-year plan will offer eligible individuals up to $25,000 for housing costs, mortgage assistance, and home improvement. To qualify, residents must have lived in or be directly descended from a Black person who lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969.
This local initiative is one of many current efforts to address past wrongdoings and discrimination against Black Americans. California recently created a task force to study reparations for slavery, and schools like Georgetown University are taking steps to compensate descendants of slaves.
President Biden has voiced his support for investigating reparations, and Congress may soon consider such a bill. H.R.40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act, would establish a study to investigate reparations at the national level. The bill was first introduced in 1989, but it will finally reach a committee vote on April 14, 2021. If passed, H.R.40 would consider the federal government’s role in establishing and maintaining the enslavement of black individuals and how systemic discrimination continues to manifest itself today.
Although many institutions are considering reparation programs, it remains an extremely controversial topic. An August 2020 poll found that while 80% of Black respondents supported a federal reparations program, only 21% of white respondents agreed.
Politicians have critiqued current attempts at reparations, including Alderman Cicely Fleming of Evanston. Fleming voted against the City Council resolution because she believes the program is “a housing plan dressed up as reparations.” While she supports reparations more broadly, she thinks Evanston’s approach is paternalistic and misguided. In her dissenting statement, she wrote that “it will be a travesty for Black communities around the US if [Evanston’s resolution] becomes our model going forward.”
There are also opponents of reparations at the national level. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued in 2019 that “none of us currently living are responsible” for the historical injustices against Black Americans and that “it’d be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.” He’s not the only one worried about logistics—many believe reparations are impractical due to the difficulty of tracking down one’s ancestry and determining how much one is owed.
Supporters believe that logistics and feasibility are no excuse, especially considering reparations have been implemented in the past. Indeed, the United States has issued reparations to many groups, including Native Americans, Japanese Americans, and Jews.
Ultimately, we can measure the economic value lost as a result of slavery, we know the size of the racial wealth gap, and we are able to trace ancestry through birth certificates and genealogical research. While it might be difficult and expensive to implement a reparations program, it is not impossible. As economist Andre Perry argues, “The damage was caused by failure. Policies should drive the remedy.”
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