Universal, race-neutral policies are insufficient to repair the past and ongoing harms of racial injustice. Whether or not reparations are “divisive,” they are the right and necessary thing to do. Indeed, the moral act is frequently divisive. Opposition to slavery was divisive.
Reparations for native black Americans must fulfill three objectives: The U.S. government must admit its wrongs (acknowledgment), restore the injured parties to the condition they might have attained had the harm never occurred (redress) and reach an agreement with the injured that the debt has been paid (closure).
The historic harms against black Americans are many — from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. The recipients of reparations should be those who can establish they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States, and who identified as black, African-American, Negro or the equivalent for at least 10 years before the reparations program begins. This is the group that most directly bears the cumulative effects of centuries of oppression.
One major effect is racial wealth disparity. Data from the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances indicates that the mean black net worth per household was $138,000, while mean white net worth was $934,000, a difference of close to $800,000.
Zaid and Leighton point out that the Latino-white wealth gap is similar. Its causes, however, are not the same. We encourage Latinos (or any group) to develop their own claim for reparations, if they so desire, based upon their unique historical relationships to the U.S. government. But these claims should not be collapsed onto the black American claim.
Nor can universal programs (such as “baby bonds”) substitute for reparations. For one, they are not near enough to erase the $800,000 wealth gap. And the specific injustices toward black American descendants of the enslaved require a specific process of acknowledgment, redress and closure.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have said that reparations, if undertaken, should be something other than “cutting a check.” However, other injured groups have received reparations in the form of direct payment, including Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated during World War II and Holocaust victims and their families. We wonder why, when the subject is native black Americans, there is a sudden aversion to “cutting a check.”
We agree that a reparations fund, once assembled, may be used for a variety of purposes beyond payments to individuals, including institution building (e.g., payments to historically black colleges), neighborhood improvement efforts, or subsidies for higher education or business development. But funds used this way may miss their intended targets; funding for a historically black neighborhood, for instance, may end up primarily benefiting white families due to gentrification.
Ultimately, a sound program of reparations for black Americans must include a substantial direct payment to each eligible recipient. (At least some of this payment, too, should take the form of illiquid assets that can build long-term wealth.) The nation must “cut the checks.”
Finally, we come to closure. If a comprehensive program of reparations eliminates the racial wealth gap and other legacies of slavery, legal reforms undo housing, pay and other ongoing discrimination, and no new race-specific injustices arise, native black Americans will make no further race-specific claims on the U.S. government. Only then will the accounts of American history have been settled.