The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd has plunged us into a new era of institutional anti-racism. The prevailing narrative is that the country remains a fundamentally racist and white supremacist society that has yet to come to terms with its original sin and must be held accountable by eliminating all racial disparities of outcome. To this ongoing discussion, Nathan J. Robinson has contributed a long essay in his magazine Current Affairs restating the case for reparations on behalf of black Americans.
What was once a fringe perspective has become increasingly mainstream in the wake of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s widely debated 2014 essay on the topic for the Atlantic. The reparations issue has become emblematic of the broader debate around race, encapsulating all of the moral and political dimensions that make it so complex and heavy. To what extent does racism continue to hold blacks back? Can an entire racial group, whites, be held responsible for the sins of the past? What does racial justice really look like, basic fairness or socio-economic parity? These are the questions Robinson tackles in his essay.
Robinson begins with a thought experiment: What if we took two groups, A and B, deprived B of resources while allocating every advantage to A, allowed those respective advantages and deprivations to compound for generations, before changing the law 60 years ago so groups A and B were treated the same, and then weighed out the results today? We’d expect group A to find itself ahead of group B on virtually every socio-economic metric, and it would necessarily require a massive restructuring of society, involving a major redistribution of wealth and power, for these groups to be on a level playing field. Robinson sums up this point by reminding us of former president Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous adage:
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
He then considers the arguments against reparations and offers a rejoinder to each in turn. Conservative objections to reparations, he argues, mostly involve the questions of practicality, pragmatics, and precedent. Either it can’t be done, it won’t help the people it intends to, or doing it will destabilize society. To Robinson, this is all evasion. As he sees it, the fact that almost all critics of reparations admit that historical racism impacts blacks today are conceding the basic premise of the pro-reparations argument. If we are acknowledging, to paraphrase Robinson’s thought experiment, that it’s wholly unreasonable to expect group B to have the same outcomes as group A based on history, the opposition is left with no logical or moral ground upon which to stand.
Robinson goes on to address some of the deeper criticisms of the reparations movement, those that have less to do with feasibility and more to do with its underlying ethical problems. He pulls a quote from Coleman Hughes’s testimony before Congress in which Hughes argues that reparations will turn American citizenship into a transactional relationship between guilty groups and victim groups that ultimately corrodes our sense of togetherness as a nation.
Robinson believes there is no need to look at things this way. Instead, we should approach reparations as if we were settling a dispute in court. We are simply “trying to make amends and make sure that someone does not accumulate unjust advantages at the expense of another.” Reparations are not an attempt to make up for the sins of the past, but rather a way of ensuring a more equitable future, so that a black baby and a white baby “do not have radically different life outcomes as a result of the injustice that was done to the dead that came before them.”
His essay broaches a few other points that regularly crop up in the reparations debate. There is the question of basic fairness: How would compensating blacks for historical oppression relate to the problems faced by poor whites or poor members of other groups? On this, Robinson has little to say other than that, on paper, whites who are low on the economic totem pole shouldn’t be touched one way or the other by a reparations program, and that other policies could be instituted to address the broader issue of poverty in America.
He then lists disparities between blacks and whites and offers these as evidence of how far we have to climb before true equality is reached. So long as there remains a black/white wealth gap, wage gap, health gap, incarceration gap, homeownership gap, education gap, or gaps in policing outcomes, we’ll know we haven’t gone far enough. Robinson concludes that the reparations discussion is not about tallying up the racial debt in monetary terms, but attempting to understand what would constitute “wholeness” moving forward. If historical racism were like a knife in someone’s back, as Malcolm X once put it, simply taking it out is not enough. We must set about healing the wound.
To anti-racist activists like Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates, achieving racial parity of outcome would mark the culmination of America’s healing process. To their mainstream critics, who are mostly conservative and liberal humanists, overcoming the moral stain of anti-black racism would be shown by the declining significance of race in public life and national discourse and by the overall improvement of social conditions for the country as a whole, regardless of whatever racial gaps persist. These visions are diametrically and irreconcilably opposed, but it’s important to understand precisely how and in what ways.
Robinson’s essay is useful both in its articulation of basic anti-racist logic and in its confusion about the views of those who reject it. His argument can be broken down into four parts:
- A historical wrong was done.
- The injury of that wrong determines present outcomes.
- Healing that injury means closing racial gaps.
- Reparations would entail anything that would achieve this, namely the implementation of race-conscious policies.
Robinson is under the impression that opponents of reparations concede points one and two, and it is only on the question of what should be done to achieve point three and whether that would entail point four that disagreement emerges. But this is not the debate. It is only on point one that the critics readily agree. Points two through four remain contested, and for good reasons.
Although it is very difficult to deny that systematically racist historic practices such as redlining—the racially selective distribution of housing loans whereby blacks were methodically denied good credit—account for some degree of racial inequality today, it is not obvious how much it can account for. Nor is it obvious what other factors are involved in perpetuating inequality, and considering that we can’t change the past, whether the historic discrimination alone admits of clear solutions or is in any way relevant to formulating policy.
It requires quite the leap of faith to draw a straight line from discriminatory housing policies of the mid-20th century to the pervasive and self-replicating violence and poverty afflicting many inner city black communities today. Many of these patterns didn’t fully manifest until well after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. For example, the rates of black single parenthood recorded by the likes of E. Franklin Frazier and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—a phenomenon highly predictive of criminality and other antisocial behaviors—remained relatively stable during slavery and Jim Crow before increasing in the mid-20th century.
Nor can historical determinism explain why racial progress occurred over periods when racism was considerably worse than it is now. The black poverty rate per household halved between 1940 and 1960 from 87 percent to 47 percent according to the conservative economist Thomas Sowell. And in his short 2017 book False Black Power, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jason L. Riley has pointed out that the employment rate for black males quintupled over the same period. Post-slavery, meanwhile, blacks made a historic leap in literacy rates. It is never fully explained why racist attitudes have been in dramatic and measurable decline for 60 years while racial disparities have remained more or less the same, if not worse in some respects.
There are many reasons besides oppression why a group of people might experience socio-economic progress or regress, whether it involves broader societal forces—such as globalization, industrialization, immigration, automation—or deep-seated cultural factors such as attitudes towards education and family life. The social construction of group identity, the ways in which a group of people conceive of themselves, can be equally as important as external factors in determining outcomes. Although discrimination against Asian Americans continues, they out-earn white Americans in terms of household income by about 20 percent. That data point alone should cause a thoughtful analyst to doubt that racism necessarily explains inequality. There is no shortage of ethnic minorities throughout history who achieved astonishing success in their society despite whatever negative attitudes the majority held toward them, such as the Chinese in Malaysia or the Lebanese in colonial Africa.
These conflicting visions about the nature of inequality represent divergent views of history: as a top-down power play between different groups determined by oppression on the one hand, and as a bottom-up cultural story of human development on the other. Nevertheless, even if it’s true that visibly identifiable minority groups can succeed without the largesse of the majority, that racial progress in America has been less linear than often thought, and that racism is not always the primary source of disparity, doesn’t the uniquely brutal history of black Americans at the hands of whites carry enormous weight into questions of inequality today? And wouldn’t accounting for that history mean closing the recurrent racial gaps we see in the country?
The reality is that virtually no two ethnic groups in history have ever achieved equal outcomes on all measures, anywhere, ever. Equal outcomes and proportional representation are the exception, not the rule. It may simply be the case that whites and blacks, not to mention the array of various ethnic groups in America that get little mention in this conversation, will never be equal on all fronts, just as Asians and whites may never be equal on all fronts. It’s worth asking why, if life has been materially improving for every group over time, one group’s relative success over another should be considered an injustice?
Racial gaps are not a good way to measure progress. It is better to compare outcomes in the present with those in the past, and to set clear and measurable goals for the future while proposing policies and cultural changes intended to attain those goals. For instance, instead of positing that progress means eliminating the racial wealth gap, why not try to double black American income by expanding the earned income tax credit or instituting a federal jobs program in low income areas, policies that are entirely colorblind and class-based? Or how about halving the black homicide rate through preventative policing practices, community reinvestment, and ending the drug war? The problem with measuring progress in terms of gaps is that, if all we’re doing is comparing groups to other groups, there’s no need to keep track of specific trends that more directly correlate with actual quality of life. All we have to do is look at comparative outcomes, ascribe racism to the inevitable disparities we see, lament reality for not conforming to our hopes, and enjoy the moral capital of being on the “right side of history,” even though nothing really changes.
The final part of the pro-reparations argument is that race-conscious policies are preferable to universalist economic reforms. Although Robinson, a democratic socialist, is clearly in favor of robust social safety nets and wealth redistribution, such measures are apparently not sufficient to make up for the intergenerational impact of anti-black sentiment in American life. But if the argument for reparations is that blacks are disproportionately represented on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, then, in theory, they would disproportionately benefit from policies intended to help the poor. It is unclear why race-conscious programs are necessary. Why use race as a shorthand for other inequalities if those other inequalities—in income, wealth, geography, single parenthood—are more predictive of life outcomes than race?
Many social democrats, including Bernie Sanders, are reluctant to acknowledge the conflict between economic and cultural leftism out of political expediency. The moral logic of retributive justice and collective guilt is distinct from the humanist impulse to help as many living people as possible in the present regardless of their particular identity. That both positions are grounded in a sense of injustice means very little when it comes to developing solutions and implementing policies. It is incumbent upon proponents of reparations and other race-based policies to make the case for why race is a better proxy for addressing inequality than pure socio-economics. This case has yet to be decisively made.
We can take steps toward a society in which white and black babies are not born with “radically different life outcomes,” while steering away from a society in which, to quote Thomas Sowell, “a new born baby enters the world supplied with prepackaged grievances against other babies born the same day.”
Samuel Kronen is an independent writer interested in culture, politics, and identity. You can follow him on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.
Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash.