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.”

Zaid Jilani and Leighton Wood­house are copro­duc­ers of the pod­cast Extreme­ly Offline,” which brings peo­ple from duel­ing polit­i­cal tribes togeth­er for con­struc­tive conversation.
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