Universal Programs, Not Reparations, Are Needed To Counter Racism’s Effects

The racial wealth gap is real and pernicious, but reparations are not the answer.

Zaid Jilani and Leighton Woodhouse

Universal programs such as expanding Social Security would disproportionately benefit black and Latino families. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In his famous essay on reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates invoked the policy as a way of settling with old ghosts.” But, while it is always valuable to reckon with the crimes of history, we believe public policy should focus on weakening the structures of racially stratified, intergenerational poverty that persist in present times. It may sound counterintuitive, but the best way to do this is not through reparations but through universal, race-neutral programs.

A universal approach to reducing poverty would address the full spectrum of economic pain in America without separating Americans into categories of deserving and undeserving poor.

There is a clear moral case for restitution to the descendants of slaves. But while certain racially targeted programs have helped level the playing field — affirmative action programs and legislation like the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 come to mind — universal programs to address poverty are more equitable and less divisive.

Consider the fact that the average household wealth of African Americans and Latinos is actually very similar. Cash transfer programs aimed only at African Americans would create significant inequality between America’s two largest ethnic minority groups, which would inevitably foster resentments. And while a smaller percentage of whites live in poverty than African Americans or Latinos, the demographic represents the largest total number of individuals in poverty, which is surely worthy of redress.

A universal approach to reducing poverty would address the full spectrum of economic pain in America without separating Americans into categories of deserving and undeserving poor.

One of the main sources of inequality in the United States is de facto racial segregation. For years, research has shown that segregation leads to worse educational outcomes for black students, which correlates with lower incomes, reduced financial literacy and higher incarceration rates. Desegregation efforts are credited with narrowing black-white educational achievement gaps, particularly in the South, yet many school systems in America remain stubbornly segregated.

Lawmakers could look to zoning reform or busing as ways to ensure racial and socioeconomic diversity in public education, to ensure that the deleterious effects of school and neighborhood segregation are not falling disproportionately on the shoulders of black children. But these policies need not be race-specific.

Wake County, N.C., embarked on an ambitious school integration plan in 2000. The county, acutely aware of political challenges that have hemmed in the ability of local governments to desegregate by race, decided to integrate students based around socioeconomic status instead. The integration of the nation’s 15th largest school district appears to have worked: One 2012 paper found that Wake County had one of the smallest black-white test score gaps in the country, relative to areas with similar expectations based on demographic factors.

Wake County’s example suggests that policy based on socioeconomic status, rather than race, can be less politically polarizing while effectively reducing racial disparities.

Only 26 percent of Americans support a program of cash-based reparations for the descendants of American slaves. But a clear majority supports some kind of expansion of Medicare that would be available to all Americans, and an expansion of Social Security—both of which could help close the racial wealth gap. The policies would benefit African Americans, who are disproportionately uninsured (11 percent, as compared to 7 percent of white Americans) and have lower average savings at retirement ($20,000 per family, as compared to $112,000 per white family). But the policies would equally benefit other racial demographics. Latinos, for example, are uninsured at an even higher rate (19 percent) and have even smaller retirement nest eggs ($18,000 per family).

Another policy that could help reduce the wealth gap is championed by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) as well as some reparations advocates. Booker’s race-neutral baby bonds plan would provide every newborn American with a guaranteed amount of government seed money when they turn 18, no matter their race or background.

It is unclear that a race-based program could actually settle with old ghosts,” but it would certainly create new specters that would haunt us in the here and now.

This piece is a response to The 2020 Candidates Are Dodging the Reparations Question.” For a response to this piece, read, Write Black Americans a Check Already.”

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Zaid Jilani and Leighton Woodhouse are coproducers of the podcast Extremely Offline,” which brings people from dueling political tribes together for constructive conversation.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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