In his 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehesi Coates asserts the United States owes the descendants of slaves for the theft of their labor and subsequent policies that impoverished black Americans as a class. He quotes the Pew Research Center that “white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do.” Whites are more likely to inherit and to grow up with privilege.
Coates argues that this is due to American policy since Colonial times intended to keep blacks at a level below which whites will not fall. One example is from the New Deal. Social Security and unemployment insurance originally excluded farmworkers and domestic labor, denying 65 percent of blacks nationally and 70 to 80 percent in the South. The inequity was eventually corrected, partly because of the NAACP, but it diminished black fortunes.
Lester Thurow made this analogy in Zero Sum Society: A black person and a white person are running a race. For a while, the black runner carries a brick. Then somebody takes the brick away and the black runner speeds up, but the white runner is too far ahead for the black one to catch up. For Coates, the analogy is a credit card. White people have mostly stopped running up the card, but they still have to pay for the things they’ve bought.
How would the nation make reparations—pay off its debt to descendants of slaves—and how much would that cost? In the 1970s, Yale Law professor Boris Bittker suggested, in The Case for Black Reparations, that we could arrive at a price tag by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference between black and white per capita incomes. He came up with $34 billion (in 1973 dollars) per year for one or two decades. Figured this way, the price tag has gone up to $184 billion per year—$4 billion more than the 2015 budgets for science, energy and the environment, international affairs, and education, combined.
A sixth of the budget for 20 years is daunting. Payments that big would devastate the nation’s, if not the world’s economy, and those Americans who believe slavery did Africans a favor—by introducing them to Christianity and the English language— would never allow it.
It would also limit our ability to address environmental and energy problems. And leave the continent’s original human occupants wondering about their contribution to the economy.
Coates must be aware of these difficulties, and in interviews, he sounds less-than-hopeful, but he wants to have the conversation anyway.
One avenue for beginning that conversation is Congressman John Conyer’s HR 40, which seeks $8 million for a commission to “acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865.” The commission would “examine the institution of slavery, subsequent 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.” The bill has yet to reach the floor for debate.
Slavery contributed greatly to the American economy. Coates writes that white America’s “parameters were caged by technology and the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of sea for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled the expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.” In other words, slavery paid for the establishment of the American economy, which perpetuates itself by even worse rapine.
You have to wonder where the money went. To all Americans, one benefit of the discussion would be finding out. There are Americans for whom the idea that there is a debt owed to the descendants of slaves is ridiculous. This would also be an occasion for them to be heard and understood. Since this issue impinges on other ones, including the environment, treatment of Indians, and equitable distribution of wealth, it would force attention there, too.