The idea of paying reparations for slavery has been around since the Civil War. It has gone dormant for long periods but has never gone away, because the toxic legacy of slavery never went away. Now we seem to be in a period of resurgence: After percolating first among academics, and then among journalists, it has entered the political arena in a major way, with two Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sens. Kamala D. Harris and Elizabeth Warren, endorsing some form of reparations for America’s original sin.
There are a lot of objections that can be raised to reparations, starting with the price tag, which would run into the trillions. Slavery was a great moral wrong, but its primary victims are now dead and cannot be given recompense. Their descendants still live, of course, but how do you justify taking money to pay them from the descendants of immigrants who arrived long after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery? And how do you identify who exactly is entitled to payment, especially given the later influx of immigration from Africa and the Caribbean?
Yet these objections are addressable — not perfectly, but well enough. The biggest problem is the sociological one: How do we pay reparations and still call ourselves “one nation”?
To see what I mean, consider Victorian nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton, who was presented, upon the occasion of his 21st birthday, with a bill from his father for all the expenses involved in his raising. Most of us feel indebted to our parents — and yet, most of us will still think an itemized bill for that debt is pretty outrageous. Mr. Seton apparently thought so; he supposedly paid the bill and never spoke to his father again.
Anthropologist David Graeber relates this story in his book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” He also suggests the reason for our inchoate revulsion. This kind of accounting is appropriate only to certain kinds of market exchanges, the kind we undertake with strangers. Such exchanges are purely transactional, rather than relational; once they are done, you have no further obligation.
Importing market logic into a longer-term, less impersonal relationship makes no sense, and in fact, it tends to sunder those relations. Which is why you don’t try to make up for all the times you punched your little sister by laying a check on the table at Thanksgiving.
Which in turn suggests the reason that reparations can be appropriate between nations, and disastrous within them. Germany can offer Israel money in partial recompense for the wrongs of the Holocaust, because Germany and Israel are two independent entities. For the United States to do the same for the descendants of slaves would be to imply that afterward, we will be going our separate ways, with no special obligations on either side. And indeed, conservatives can sometimes be heard tepidly endorsing reparations in just this sense: a one-time payment, and then nothing more owed — no affirmative action, no “national conversation on race,” nothing.
That is the only conception of reparations that could possibly be politically viable. It would also be utterly toxic, ultimately widening divisions that we’re trying to shrink. And the benefit is likely to be smaller than the heroic price tag suggests; the economic evidence from lotteries suggests that one-time capital transfers do very little to improve the long-term welfare of recipients.
But the United States will still have an interest in that welfare, as it does in the welfare of every U.S. citizen; it will still have a duty to enable identifiably disadvantaged minority groups to enjoy the same opportunities and quality of life as the rest of the country. Writing a sort of psychological quitclaim for those more nebulous, but more enduring, obligations would be disastrous on every level.
To their credit, Harris and Warren seem to recognize the inadequacy of cash transfers as either policy or politics. They’ve endorsed the idea without providing specifics, and what vague indications we do have mostly consist of reframing general policies, like income-based tax credits, or universal child care, as a form of reparation.
And yet, in the end that’s worse. The one thing that can unequivocally be said in favor of reparations is that at least they would constitute a formal apology, the only kind of apology that could even begin to approach the scale of the original wrong. Saying that you’re going to apologize by allowing African Americans to sign up for your universal child-care program, along with everyone else, trivializes one of the most monumental injustices in American history. Along the way, it also erodes the common bond that should entitle African Americans to far more than they have ever gotten, simply because these are Americans, and this is America, and we can do better.