"The Reparations Question,"by Chester Hartman & Richard America July/August 1994 issue of Poverty & Race
How to make white America comprehend and come to grips with the legacy of slavery? Is this a necessary precondition t, dealing with, and perhaps ending, current institutionalized racism, segregated housing, school and employment patterns, and the prejudiced attitudes and behavior of individuals?
A deeply felt strand of thought and strategic thinking in at least a portion of the black community, and among some whites a well, holds that a program of systemic and large-scale reparations is an essential threshold step, for which precedents certainly exist in recent US and world history. On the other hand, the philosophical, political and practical problems of remedying past wrongs on the scale attributable to slavery, an institution that was formally and legally ended well over a century ago, are immense.
We decided to raise the reparations issue and its problems in the form of an interview with one of its leading proponent: economist Richard America. Accompanying our interview is a supportive commentary by Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, sponsor c a bill to study the legacy of slavery and propose remedies; and a strong but friendly dissent, with an alternative proposal, by Temple University sociologist Howard Winant.
In the September/ October issue of Poverty & Race we will publish a set of additional solicited commentaries by a range c thinkers and activists. We also will consider publishing additional comments by readers, and so encourage you to add your thought 40"N this controversial issue - Chester Hartman.
Chester Hartman: Let's start with a definitional question: How exactly would you define the reparations issue? Who is to be compensated, and for what?
Richard America: Reparations isn't the issue. It's a conceptual framework, a way of looking at a set of related issues. The issues are economic, political and social dysfunction and the management of a large complex multiracial society that's competing internationally less than optimally.
Unjust enrichment based on slavery and discrimination causes this dysfunction. The country will not have a bright future if the problems stemming from past economic injustice and inequity aren't solved.
To improve overall performance, by including people who have been excluded and exploited, we need to provide more than palliatives. We need to invest heavily in them. But the rationale for doing that .has been unpersuasive.
The real question is, what is the present value and distribution of the stream of income that has been coercively and wrongfully diverted from blacks to whites through slavery and discrimination to produce lopsided income and wealth distributions by race, and, in doing so, has robbed too many blacks of skills they need to perform effectively?
The top 20%, disproportionately white, receives 42% of earned income. The bottom 20%, disproportionately black, receives 5% of earned income. Wealth is even more maldistributed. A major reason for this skewed outcome is past injustice-slave labor in agriculture, manufacturing, many services and in infrastructure development-followed by exclusion, discrimination and exploitation. Common resource pools, produced by everyone's labor, were maldistributed, by white decision makers, overwhelmingly to whites, primarily in the form of education and training.
CH: Why are reparations so important?
RA: The country faces a set of complex interconnected problems. We label them as urban, racial, underclass, inner city problems. We talk about affirmative action, reverse discrimination and quotas. Actually we're talking about wealth and income redistribution, but without a sufficient intellectual and analytical basis.
The primary racial social problems are manifested in poor performance and poor quality in employment, education, housing, health, crime, municipal finance, and also in overall deficiencies in our competitiveness and productivity at a macro level.
Chronic racial injustices over generations help to produce these current defects. To remedy the big problems faced by the whole society, we need to correctly define them. But we haven't. That's why the debate is endless and circular. So reparations is actually a concept that's central to getting to consensus and to successful governance and management of long-term economic performance. It's a key public policy concept, so far unrecognized or unacknowledged. And it's also a tool for conflict resolution in circumstances of deep ancestral grievances between groups.
CH: How much money might be involved, and how might it be disbursed and used?
RA: Whites owe blacks $5 to 10 trillion. It should be repaid primarily through investment in human capital education and training over two to three generations. It should also be repaid through investments in targeted housing, capital formation, and business creation. CH: How did you calculate this figure? RA: The basis for the estimates are in work done by James Marketti, at the University of Wisconsin, and in an illustrative estimate done under a program at the University of California, Berkeley. The Berkeley work was based, in turn, on Lester Thurow's modelĄdeveloped in his 1969 book, Poverty and Discrimination. Both were published in my 1990 edited collection, The Wealth of Races.
These estimates add up to over $3 trillion, but they covered limited time series because of data limitations. They don't cover the entire period 1619 through 1994. They were intended to suggest estimating techniques that can be refined and further developed.
The estimates also don't take account of discrimination in investment in human capital in public education, K-12 and college. So $5 to $10 trillion would turn out to be an understatement.
CH: You've elsewhere suggested that the reparations issue is largely an accounting problem. What do you mean by that, and what accounting system do you propose?
RA: It's an accounting or auditing problem in the sense that the first order of business is to establish the accuracy of the claim. After that, the conversation will lead to practical constructive outcomes. But first a solid, fairly rigorous analytical basis must be built. Until then, the discussion tends to be rhetorical only.
The case must withstand scrutiny from economists and policy analysts. Then it will be adopted by political leaders and opinion makers in the media. The concept will make that step to broad respectability when the research is done and stands up.
It will then lead to useful results when it is embraced, ultimately, by most people as right and fair and practical. It will stand the same tests of debate in a democracy as any other concept or proposal.
CH: In May, Denny's restaurant chain agreed to a $54 million settlement with the Justice Department to compensate for and remedy clearly demonstrated patterns of racial discrimination, several thousand victims will receive a hefty cash award. And the State of Florida apparently will be making a large cash payment to a few survivors of racial violence against a black town that occurred over 70 years ago. In what ways do you se these recent events as moving us tow a massive reparations scheme of yP the t you advocate?
RA: The Denny's case and the Florida case have nothing to do with the repara-tions concept. Those are finite judgments based on specific fact situations with individual, identifiable parties. The broad reparations concept is more amorphous. It involves patterns and practices of 15 generations. These are scrutinized and found wanting by current ethical and moral standards that are applied retroactively.
Society in 1994 will say, we cannot in good conscience accept benefits produced by unjust means that we disapprove of. Some of these acts happened long ago, but they produced benefits that were transferred intergenerationally, compounded and bequeathed to us.
I believe society is ready to take that step. But ultimately it is a moral question: is it moral for the top 30-those earning over roughly $45,000, as a class-to accept such unjust enricments? And, if not, how can we remedy the injustice? Systematic, targeted income and wealth redistribution is the answer.
CH: Is there any contradiction between characterizing it as a moral issue, and the framework you earlier raised in terms of practical, global competitiveness?
RA: The concept is moral in the sense that even when it's shown convincingly that there is such a "debt," there is no power that can enforce collection, although creative legal theories may emerge. So it will be up to society to reflect on this new information and collectively agree to respond. It's a moral and practical matter. Practically, paying these reparations will help strengthen the economy and the social fabric. There's no contradiction.
CH: Another obvious analogy is the reparations payments Congress authorized several years ago to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. Why was this politically acceptable, and not reparations for slavery?
RA: Likewise, the Japanese case is not analogous. That primarily involved identifiable property owners able to step forward and assert claims to specific property, or to prove wrongs against them as individuals.
CH: How is it possible to make clear, credible connections between what happened generations ago, and was formally terminated 130 years ago, and present conditions?
RA: The connection between the past and the present is clear. It's not a connection so much between slavery and current conditions. It's a matter of a continuing process of wrongful, exploitative, coerced, and manipulated income and wealth diversion over 350 years, through various means.
The question is, is it moral to accept benefits produced by means that we now define as wrongful? Society will think it through and reach a consensus that it is not moral. Then a policy of reparations will logically follow.
CH: In a recent book review, Andrew Hacker wrote, "Whites are weary of being lectured about prejudice, .and they resent being told that they are responsible for racial segregation and discrimination." If that's true-and I think there's plenty of evidence it is-why is the white majority going to adopt the moral stance you think they will, simply by comprehending the historical patterns of unjust enrichment?
RA: Hacker and others will, in time, find it constructive to look at the racial problems they study and write about through the reparations lens.
CH: Who would receive the reparations? And in what ways do you distinguish between African Americans clearly caught in the intersectional trap of race and poverty-and assuming you can connect their current conditions to previous conditions of servitude-and the Colin Powells, Henry Louis Gates, Clarence Thomases and Ron Browns, who have been able to succeed wildly in America despite those previous conditions?
RA: Reparations should be paid primarily in human capital investment, along with some investment in hard tangible assets and in business capital formation. These are all benefits that would have been distributed more normally, today, but for the intervention of systematically exploitive and exclusionary practices.
Most of the investment should go to those in the bottom 30%. Some should go to institution building. These institutions, including in higher education and in business, would have grown up except they were consciously hindered in order to benefit competing white institutions and businesses.
CH: Are there ways America can come to grips with its shameful history and the persistent effects of that history other than with cold cash?
RA: The issue is the wrongful diversion of cash. Why would we look for any other remedies other than explicit income and wealth redistribution?
CH: How do you think this will fly politically? Will the majority white community ever accept this idea? And how will other racial minorities perhaps equally disadvantaged or historically maltreated-react? It's silly to play games of who was victimized more than whom, but Native Americans' claims as to unjust historical treatment and current poverty and racial discrimination have to be right up there along with the slavery imposed on African-Americans.
RA: Political acceptability will come as the concept gains intellectual adherents and demonstrates explanatory power. It helps explain why the economy malfunctions, why productivity and competi-tiveness suffer. It helps clarify the policy choices for remedying all those defects. We should invest in people what is theirs by right to put them in their "rightful place."
A large portion of the population has been willfully deprived-to the benefit of others-of income and wealth that it ought to have received and would have received in a fairly open and competitive situation. Most Americans will come to acknowledge the debt and agree to practical remedies. Indigenous and quasi-indigenous minorities, that is, Native Americans and African Americans, have a case for reparations.
CH: In a society that seems to have little understanding of or respect for history ("that's history ",is a current put down phrased how realistic is it to expect Americans to deal profoundly and responsibly with something that happened long, long ago-and that most white Americans legitimately can say had nothing to do with them or even with their relatives, since their ancestors arrived in the US well after slavery was abolished? What do you do with the response that in essence says, what's done is done, were got to look to the future and not to the past?
RA: The issue is not what happened long ago. The issue is the current unjust enrichment flowing from continuing injustices over many generations. All Americans in the top 30% are part of a class that benefits wrongfully from past practices that were instituted, in part, on behalf of future generations of whites.
CH: What kind of role do you see mainstream national civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, La Raza, Japanese American Citizens League, Native American Rights Fund and Urban League, playing in this effort?
RA: The NAACP and the Nation Urban League should make reparations the central concept in their strategy the next 40 years. Reparations is about economic development, and civil rights; for the next two generations, should be about economic development.
CH: How would a reparations pro gram fit into a larger civil rights agenda! RA:. Civil rights is, or ought to be about how to make median black income roughly the same as median white in come by the Year 2020. The concept o reparations is an inescapable public policy tool for reaching that objective.
Richard America is a Senior Program Manager in the federal government. His books include Developing the Afro American Economy (Lexington, 1977) the edited volume The Wealth of Races (Greenwood Press, 1990) and Paying the Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America (Praeger, 1993). Though views expressed are his own and are no to be taken as representing any institution or organization with which he is affiliated.
Chester Hartman is Director of Research at PRRAC. email@example.com
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