Do Reparations for Black People Make Sense?

Chris Lebron SAVE THIS

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In 1965, essayist and novelist, James Baldwin debated William F. Buckley–the prominent American conservative and founder of National Review–at Cambridge Union in the United Kingdom. The subject of the debate was whether ‘the American dream’ came at the expense “of the American negro.” Baldwin handed Buckley an embarrassing defeat and one of the most dramatic moments came when Baldwin established the essence of his argument against Buckley by claiming: “I picked the cotton, I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing.”

Baldwin’s claim is startling because he did no such thing. He never picked cotton or the rest of it, though he was only two generations removed from slavery on his father’s side. All the same, he was never enslaved. So why did Baldwin insinuate himself into slavery?

The answer can be found in the two-fold meaning of…

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23 comments

  • moore.eli

    I really appreciate this piece. I think there is also a series of questions for white folks like me about what we personally and collectively are called to do in order to make reparations. I know for a fact that my ancestors four or five generations back actively perpetuated and benefited from white supremacy and slavery. How do we take actions to make things right? What is the internal work, interpersonal work, and the institutional work to repair the past and transform its legacy? We must be asking ourselves and Black neighbors these questions and daring to make ourselves vulnerable by taking action.

    • laurabradshaw5

      Where cash is KING I believe white people owe black Americans cash. My family did not directly participate in the slave trade, at least to my knowledge to date, yet the money I will likely inherit feels quite tainted and I hope to divest myself of a fair portion. I hope by then there will be some sort of fund into which I can “pay it forward” into a broad spectrum sort of way. Another idea as far as the money goes is for Black American not to pay taxes for a couple of generations.

      As far as their “human due” I hope all white people will endeavor to become personal friends with a (at least) African American. I mean to the point of sharing meals and schlepping children. If white America could get over our defensiveness to the point that average African American would risk personal friendship….that might be a real change.

      • jessicarivers75

        I too wished that both could be “true” friends.

  • joanbstarr

    “Every American, from the farmer to the wealthy parent cheating their kids into elite universities, owes Black Americans for the very terms of their privileged existence.” <– Just sitting with that for a while and taking it in.

  • mail2

    A friend of mine and I were thinking that the appropriate answer for reparations for black people would be for us to not have to pay taxes ever again.

    • michael.c.walker

      While this would be nice, it took generations of a racist system to keep us down. It’ll take generations of a systemic boost to level the playing field. I.e. free college, free (all but mainly mental) health services, interest free home loans and 30% govt down payments, free financial planning, 100% lawyer reimbursement for generations (not a public attorney), and I could go on and on… But you get the point. I want reparations laser focused in every single area of oppression which black folks have endured.

    • shelle

      I agree!!! the amount of time we (black people) should be tax exempt is a minimum of 400 years…..
      In addition, every University that was built by slaves and profited in any form should give free tuition for a minimum of 400 years.

    • odomjerry

      I was thinking this was a good idea too but then you get back to the same questions of ‘who is black enough?’

  • renatehartman

    What white Americans did to and continue to do cannot be quantified by buying our way out of a guilty conscience.

    The enormity of what continues to be done wants me want to give up in hopelessness. A cowards response.

    Deep structural changes are required and this site is working toward that. I am quite willing to be an able spear carrier but need help from Black Americans to point the way in discrete steps that are important to them.

  • Christine

    I really enjoyed this piece. I believe that reperations should be two fold. First and foremost, getting at the root of the systemic racism in our nation and changing it. Second, would be some form of economic balancing. I thought the previous comments about tax-exemption and free college tuitions are brilliant.

  • Daniel.Gomes

    I wonder how difficult it would be to think of a dollar amount and be sure that each person got it. He mentions mixed-families, but what about people who moved here 10, 20, 80 years ago? Surely, they wouldn’t be entitled to the same amount of money.

    I wonder if there’s a different way, such as pouring money into areas and city centers hardest hit that would hire black companies to build more buildings to make more businesses which can hire more black citizens who can get a better paying job.

  • brian

    Chris, phenomenal article and I’m loving the comments so far.
    As a black man (psychiatrist in private direct pay practice) and entrepreneur, I would love an influx of cash as “reparations.” I calculated what I’ve grossed since I started working at age 16: ~1.5 million dollars. Using the accepted rate that black men make 72 cents for every $1 of a white man, I’m short $580,000. Handing me a check for $580,000 would go a long way in helping me scale my various companies.

    But Chris is right; the larger question is “what am I worth as a black person in today’s era?” That $580,000 doesn’t fix surreptitious “redlining” or help me break into the private groups who control hedge funds and funding resources. It won’t change the fact that credit cards companies, banks, and other loan companies charge us higher interests rates.

    So what do we do? As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that if you can’t change the market, then create a new market. If you can’t change the system, create a new system. Funding those new markets and systems would be a lot easier with $580,000. Just sayin’ 😀

  • jcarlinsv

    While Black People, second only to Native Americans, deserve reparations for past discrimination, practically determining who gets what reparations for which discrimination, is an impossible political problem. The solution is that since everyone can claim discrimination including that rich kids who didn’t get into Yale, provide reparations for all in the form of a Social Security Stipend for all adults sufficient to cover basic needs paid for by a Social Security tax on all gross income over the stipend, no deductions, no caps, and all income from any source formal, informal, legal or not included. (Don’t call it a UBI although it has all the advantages of one, but reparations for past discriminations of any type real or imagined.)

  • denise.alden

    I’m with Shelle: 400 tax-free and tuition paid years is a start. I’m also in favor of many kinds of reparations, by many different kinds of institutions, ie government, academic, religious.

  • odomjerry

    Reparations probably need to be defined and executed differently than direct monetary stimuli. Just from a logistical standpoint, waiting on a government designed by slaveholders and still inhabited largely by the same mentality (not to mention the outright white supremacists) to make any large strides toward accountability for past national crimes when we still haven’t even achieved true equal representation in the present seems like trying to climb Everest in a Hoveround. Think of all the crimes against humanity that the US has committed throughout history (Native Americans, Japanese internment camps, Tuskeegee, etc. etc.) and how many of them the government has been able to even admit, much less atone for.

    This seems like something that might best be, at least for now, addressed on an individual basis by empathetic whites. Whites can at least take the initiative in supporting black businesses whenever possible. Before you go to Amazon, go to webuyblack.com or research black companies elsewhere. Research black businesses in your area and go there first. Put your money in a black bank or at least a local one that is supportive of blacks. Get involved / start a movement in your local area to combat racist policies in elections. Basically just get creative and make something happen. White people have privilege that was (/is) granted by the blood and oppression of blacks (and other minorities). Think of that privilege like currency that can be spent on … reparative change. Grassroots movements have a way of snowballing into large-scale reform. Who knows? Maybe we don’t even need the government for this. Maybe we just need to make a collectively concerted effort to do this ourselves. The government will follow the national consciousness.

    Buy black. Pay attention. Get involved.

  • isus66739

    I agree with the ending statement of “the whole thing.” Only I believe the whole nation is also owed to the Native Americans, from whom every bit of the land this nation exists on was stolen. This land is Native American’s and this nation is Black American’s. I am a white settler, living on this land because of a system of white supremacy. I am committed to following black and indigenous and people of color’s lead, dismantling my complicity to white supremacy, seeing and speaking about past and present truths, and living by honoring and being grateful to the people of color who are the original inhabitants and builders of this nation. I don’t think it’s up to me or any other white persons to decide what reparations to give. The only thing I think it would be good for us to give is to give up control: I think it is up to us to give whatever is asked of us.
    Also, the system of capitalism is a system of exploitation. The whole system of capitalism must be dismantled for the cycle of exploitation not to continue or be replaced by exploiting another group. The systems of white supremacy that perpetuate racism are the same ones causing climate change and the instability of much of life on Earth.

  • jessicarivers75

    I’ve always thought of reparations in the form of money. I’ve never considered it could also be in the form of treatment. All black americans have been poor for so many generations. It would take a long time to catch up to where we should’ve been; even after slavery. If we had the pass to get up easy; I think all of black america would be on 1000% to catch our families up to the wealth of white america. As for the treatment, well america conditioned themselves into this mindset or beliefs, and would have to condition themselves out of it. Now that would take a few generations to see us a “true” equals.

  • iamskyyblue

    Great article. I have had mixed feelings about just giving cash. Cash that will ultimately return to our oppressors. We still have displaced beliefs, we still aren’t taught the proper knowledge of black history in schools, and so many other things that just giving cash won’t fix. Reading some comments, I agree with not being taxed and free education. It just really makes you think about how many things need to be repaired in order for reparations to make sense.

  • solartechjohn

    A land set-aside option should be part of the package. Just like they recently scaled-down some national monuments to make room for their friends in the energy business, they should re-open portions of the millions of choice acres in the US national and state parks to development by our people. I know a lot of folks would trade some reparations cash for “a piece of the rock.” (not to say we SHOULD have-to trade)

  • dsim002

    I don’t think money is enough. I think reparations should include MONEY AND 1-5 additional amendments that can insight POSITIVE systematic changes to benefit black Americans. Examples of amendments that I believe would be helpful is Police Reform, LGBT rights, or Environmental Justice. Give them a check and give them like 5 amendments (with no revisions, no Republican senate can tinker with it, AS IS) to implement to IMMEDIATELY. If the amendments include funding for the government program, then they take it out of the budget to do it. It’s the government’s job to MAKE IT HAPPEN, not the victims. The amendment is the highest body of law so it’ll overrule any state legislation (aka, if there is anyone who wants to fight it, they can’t). We can get an well known organization like NAACP or ACLU, to submit, review and double check these additional amendments to the government; and the average folks can give their inputs through these non-profit organization or online where everyone can see what’s polling. This is a better idea of reparation because the goal is to move the scale back towards equality and we can’t do it with money alone. It comes with systemic changes in culture, policies and ultimately people. I can’t force people to stop being racist (even though I want to) but we can create policies that incentive this behavior.

  • Jimmy

    We absolutely deserve it, but how do you do it? Do you give us all a check? If so, how much should it be? IMO, you can’t give everybody money. It’ll only end up back in the hands of white folks. It’s like giving people fish, but not teaching them to fish. After the fish is eaten, what next? We should be taught to fish… for free. Meaning? For starters, free access to education in any sustainable field we want to learn (and not just music, TV, and other frivolousness). Those who want to learn will thrive. Those who don’t, no more excuses. We have to stop enabling bad behavior in our community.

    And even if we get reparations, what about the institutional racism in the justice system, the financial system, the educational system, the healthcare system, corporate America, the media, social norms, property/neighborhood valuation and gentrification, etc, etc.? Reparations isn’t gonna mean much if that’s not fixed.

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