Truong: Payback Time

“Reparations” are no solution to racial inequality.

by Valerie Truong | 4/18/19 2:10am

Last Thursday, the students of Georgetown University voted in favor of a measure to impose a $27.20 fee per semester in honor of the 272 slaves once sold by the university. Proceeds from the fund would directly benefit the descendants of those slaves. This news comes just as multiple Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls have come out in support of reparations for descendants of slaves. While no major candidates have called for direct compensation, many have proposed reparations in the form of reduced monetary strain. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) has advocated for tax credits to middle- and working-class citizens of any race, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) came out in favor of free or reduced-price child care for low-income families. 

I laud the two candidates and others for acknowledging America’s history of racism, especially with regard to African Americans. But the candidates’ proposed policies are not reparations since they do not specifically benefit African Americans or any other racial group. Rather, as I see it, these policies are merely convenient incorporations of buzzwords and likely just a strategy to gain support from African Americans amid the early stages of a crowded campaign.

Since 1989, the House of Representatives has seen repeated introductions of H.R. 40. The bill would establish a federal commission to study how slavery and subsequent systematic racist policies affect African Americans today and prepare reparation proposals accordingly. Multiple Democratic hopefuls have voiced support for the bill. It’s possible that they genuinely want the bill to pass, but it seems likely that they’re using it as a political tool, dredged up from the garage of the House, to garner support. Indeed, the bill has received little attention in the past 30 years. Only when a few candidates jumped on the reparations bandwagon did other Democratic hopefuls rush to reparations as a quick one-word response to address America’s racial wealth gap and inequality.

Historically, the term “reparations” has implied a transactional act, something paid or done to compensate for some wrongdoing. A classic example is when West Germany paid Israel more than $7 billion in 2014 dollars as reparations for the Holocaust. Over the course of 12 years, Israel’s economy and infrastructure bloomed: its GNP tripled, and reparation funds played a significant role in the development of the country’s electrical grid and railways. However, German reparations to Israel are crucially different from reparations for slavery. The Israeli case featured one separate, sovereign state transferring money to another. When a nation gives reparations to its own citizens, however, the transfer occurs between individuals with a shared national identity. Germany might remain separate from Israel and offer reparations to the Jewish people, but Americans remain connected by bonds of nationality. Americans of different races cannot apologize for past wrongs and go their separate ways. They remain together as part of one nation, a nation in which they need to look beyond simple financial compensation and address the deep-set causes of racial inequality.

 I worry that the use of the term “reparations” by politicians will prove incendiary toward race relations in this country. Reparations very likely won’t make all citizens acknowledge the past. Instead, they may only lead to bitterness over having to pay for something that, as some may argue, present-day Americans did not directly do. If, as I fear, reparations only serve to foment discontent and anger between racial groups, then they hardly achieve racial equality. Instead, they would be symbolic policies whose costs threaten to drive resentment and perhaps even worsen race relations.

That said, the discussion around reparations, both at universities like Georgetown and in national politics, is a step in the right direction. But no matter what form reparations take, they cannot be a transaction in the typical sense. Symbolic reparations cannot be used as an excuse for failing to address racial inequality. Rather, our society must work to promote true racial equality, through anti-discrimination laws, equity in public education, race-based affirmative action and other concrete policies. Those measures, not symbolic reparations, are what the United States needs if it wants to make any real improvements in a country fraught with racial divisions.