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The term reparations refers to a concept and tool for providing monetary payments to members of aggrieved groups based on past wrongful actions against them or their ancestors. Reparations are used for addressing injuries and damages in relations among nations, ethnic groups, and other victims of sustained economic and sociopolitical injustice or military or police aggression. Examples include reparations paid to victims of the German Holocaust in Europe from 1930 to 1945 and Japanese Americans who were partially compensated for their internment and loss of property in the United States during World War II (1939–1945). Earlier reparations were paid by Germany to the Allies after World War I (1914–1918), but in a manner and intensity that probably contributed to reopened hostilities later in the century. The reparations concept is being thought of by some as a potentially useful tool for helping to resolve chronic ancestral grievances in many situations worldwide, including in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, South Asia, and elsewhere.
In the United States, the idea of reparations has gained strength as a way to remedy injustices against African Americans as a group, as well as Native American Indians and Native Hispanic American Indians. This latter debate over what many call reparations has often been a catchall for discussion of a wider range of concerns in social policy and the expression of other agendas. In that sense, some reparation advocates seek monetary damages for their ancestors’ pain and suffering, for their loss of language and African identity, and for the slave trade itself. The debate has also been characterized by imprecision, and the parties to the argument often mischaracterize, disregard, or distort opponents’ actual positions and beliefs. This was the case, for example, in the article “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea for Blacks— and Racist Too” (2001) by the conservative activist and media personality David Horowitz.
After Horowitz’s article was published, a sharp encounter ensued between Horowitz and several others involving the definition of “reparations for slavery” and whether it was justified or fair to white Americans currently living and paying taxes. None of the parties to the discussion, on either side, had carefully reviewed the literature or provided any original opposing or clarifying analysis. Thus, the entire episode primarily illustrated the tendency toward carelessness in thought and discussion on racial redistributive justice, even by most proponents. This encounter also underscored the highly emotional quality of much discussion of the subject of reparations, which brings to the surface fundamental, and long-buried and unarticulated, core racial concerns on all sides. The debate also raises questions about the political feasibility of reparations, whatever the term means. Is there broad support for a practical policy and program of explicitly redistributive and compensatory justice in the United States?
There is a growing scholarly analytical literature on the subject of reparations. Among the earliest articles was one by Robert Browne, published in 1972 in a special issue of the Review of Black Political Economy. This issue featured the first attempts to quantify the present value of the stream of benefits to whites from past wrongful takings under slavery, segregation, and discrimination. Much of that analysis was based on work done by the economist Lester Thurow in his 1969 book Poverty and Discrimination. Thurow developed a model, and using census data he established that white Americans gained approximately $15 billion in one year, 1960, from racial discrimination in the labor market.
From 1985 to 1990, the National Economic Association, an organization of African American economists and policy analysts, conducted sessions on reparations at their annual meetings. The papers presented at these sessions were published in The Wealth of Races: The Present Value of the Benefits of Past Injustices (1990), edited by Richard F. America. This volume included the work of William Darity, Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch, Warren Whatley and Gavin Wright, Larry Neal and Robert Browne, and other established economists, and carried quantitative and historically based analysis several steps forward. In a 1993 monograph Richard America continued to refine and develop the concept of reparations, focusing on unjust enrichment and the income and wealth-transfer effects of slavery and discrimination. In 2003 Darity and Dania Frank published a short but comprehensive summary of research to date. This volume refines the analysis and points to a new framework that can produce an even more robust analytical basis.
A common question raised about reparations is that if they are suitable for African Americans, are they not also appropriate for other aggrieved groups? Reponses vary widely. But the emerging approach with the deepest analytical grounding involves an analysis of wrongful taking and unjust enrichment, and findings of magnitudes of compensation based on historical auditing. This approach can be used for other groups with similar historical backgrounds, wherever appropriate.
What about popular opinion and support for or opposition to reparations for African Americans? Michael Dawson and Rovana Popoff (2004) found that 79 percent of blacks and 30 percent of whites in the United States favored an apology for slavery, but 66 percent of blacks and only 4 percent of whites favored monetary reparations to blacks “for slavery.” This finding may or may not reflect actual views on reparations when defined differently as “recapture of unjust enrichment” rather than reparations “for slavery.” That distinction is crucial. The question of reparations, in various forms, has become a serious public policy issue since it first emerged in the late stages of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Of course, as early as the American Revolution, some advocates of abolition were framing remedies that included some form of compensatory justice for freedmen and freedwomen.
The concept of reparations varies according to the worldview of those in the debate. There are three broad views. For some, reparations primarily mean compensation for the slave trade. A second view is that reparations are owed to current generations for the pain and suffering of their collective ancestors—for crimes against humanity. A third view of reparations is narrower and seeks to recapture, recover, and reclaim unjust enrichment that resulted from wrongful takings under slavery, segregation, and many forms of discrimination from 1619 through the present. The focus in this entry is on this third definition.
The idea of unjust enrichment is key, and functions as a useful framework for understanding chronic poverty, poor educational performance, substandard housing, high unemployment, and low income and wealth accumulation among African Americans, as well as persistent black-white disparities in health care, business investment, and competitiveness. These conditions all derive, significantly, from the processes of wrongful taking and unjust enrichment. In addition, these conditions can be measured because they all include a measurable, historically based component. The processes of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and discrimination were all mechanisms that transferred or diverted income and wealth from blacks as a class to whites as a class, producing unjust enrichment. Reparations, in this view, constitute the proper basis for a well-founded
program for rational compensatory public policy. Unjust enrichment and reparations are ways to understand chronic social distress in a long-term historical context. Slavery and discrimination operated in many forms, in every aspect of American life, for 350 years, and this explains much of the current dysfunction. Social problems derive largely from the extraction or confiscation of black property and income by white decision-makers, for white benefit, in millions of daily microdecisions.
The cumulative effect of those wrongful takings produces current unjust enrichment and a range of conditions referred to as affluence and poverty. This situation helps explain the problems we objectively see on the ground, but this fact has been absent from policy discussions. The reparations concept inserts these ideas into the heart of policy analysis, and changes the way problems are viewed and the way policy and programs are created.
There has been widespread and consistent white discrimination against blacks. This behavior has been outlawed in the United States since 1965, but policy analysts and social scientists have not failed to note the full longterm consequences, especially the unjust enrichment. Explicitly accounting for the ways in which black and white ancestors behaved puts a spotlight on the transferred income and wealth. The concept of reparations, and the associated framework of wrongful taking and unjust enrichment, provides a public policy framework for examining objective reality by quantifying and taking into full account historical context. In this way, it is a new or, at least, improved paradigm—a new or improved way of viewing the world. There has been massive, systematic exploitation and confiscation. And those practices—slavery and discrimination—produced wrongful benefits that have been passed on, transferred intergenerationally, to the present.
This analysis points to redistributive justice—recovering monies wrongfully taken through restitution—as the general remedy. That is what reparations mean in public policy terms. Other analysts emphasize payment for pain and suffering or for crimes against humanity. And still others have focused on a form of reparations as a means of laying the groundwork for atonement and reconciliation; they emphasize healing.
But reparations of the kind described here focus on improved public policy analysis, in which national tax and budget priorities are informed by the concept of unjust enrichment, and, by implication, reparations. Thus, social spending becomes a tool for explicitly making restitution.
The amount of reparations owed would equal the net present value of the sum of the deviations from “fair” standards in prices, wages, rents, employment, interest, and investment in education, plus all other affected transactions between whites and blacks. This is an overly simple but illustrative form of the model that leads to a grasp of the dimensions of the wrongful taking and unjust enrichment that produced the need for reparations. We can audit the actual patterns of labor, trade, and investment relations long after the fact. We can also posit a set of “fair” wages, occupational distributions, employment levels, prices, rents, interest rates, educational expenditures, taxes, profits, and returns on investment. We can then estimate the deviations from those “fair” standards. And we find that those deviations resulted, in part, from force, manipulation, and coercion. Then we aggregate, compound, and adjust for price changes over time. That produces a “bill” that represents the financial basis for redistributive justice. We can then negotiate the bill, and reach rational, feasible, make-whole settlement agreements that will restore African Americans as a class to their rightful place. These actions are reparations. Clarifying that will help clarify policy choices in education, housing, employment, and every other controversial sector. The remedy is income and wealth redistribution in capital injections, or grants, in housing equity, quality education, and business equity, targeted to rectify the injustice.
Reparations are a way of looking at complex policy issues that can be rationally applied to understanding, defining, and solving chronic social problems in housing, health, education, employment, and business and community development. Without this historical framework, public policy cannot effectively address these problems.
- America, Richard F., ed. 1990. The Wealth of Races: The Present Value of Benefits from Past Injustices. New York: Greenwood.
- America, Richard F. 1993. Paying the Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Browne, Robert, ed. 1972. Review of Black Political Economy. Special Issue on reparations.
- Darity, William A., and Dania Frank. 2003. The Political Economy of Ending Racism and the WCAR: The Economics of Reparations. American Economic Review 93 (2): 326–329.
- Dawson, Michael, and Rovana Popoff. 2004. Justice and Greed: Black and White Support for Reparations. Du Bois Review 1 (1).
- Horowitz, David. 2001. Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Is a Bad Idea for Blacks—and Racist Too. Front Page Magazine (January 3). http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp? ID=1153.
- Thurow, Lester. 1969. Poverty and Discrimination. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
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