National reparations for slavery is a touchy topic whose time may be coming. About a quarter of Americans support direct reparations to descendants of slaves — not enough to adopt a policy, but enough to expand the conversation.
Last week, the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held its first hearing on H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act that would authorize $12 million for a 13-member commission to study the effects of slavery and make recommendations to Congress.
The goals of the bill are “to address the injustice of slavery in the U.S. and the 13 colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery.”
That is rather clear, but the goals go on to ask the commission to examine “its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”
This second set of goals is too ambitious and more complex than the first.
Using the term “African-American” rather than “descendant of slavery” potentially expands the focus of the commission up to the present day. I prefer a narrow focus on descendants of slavery. There were about 4 million slaves and estimates are that there are 30-40 million descendants in the United States today.
The simplest reason for studying and amending the legacy of slavery is that black wealth in the United States is less than 20 percent of white wealth. There is no level playing field in education, social services, medical care or elections. Efforts to promote equal opportunity have been blocked or overturned by charges of “reverse discrimination.”
Our founders, including Thomas Jefferson, did not adequately deal with citizenship and slavery. They failed. Reconstruction after the Civil War was not completed because of white opposition. It was also a failure.
Efforts to promote equal opportunity through piecemeal policies in education, employment, and consumer and home finance have had some impact but have been largely insufficient. They have been national failures.
Reparations are not new. In the United States in 1988, after a congressional study, descendants of Japanese internment camps during World War II received $20,000 and a formal apology. In Germany, reparations to compensate victims of the Holocaust are still in effect.
Two economists estimate that a reasonable program of reparations would be about $80,000 per descendant. They start with the “40 acres” promised to slaves at the end of the Civil War and estimate that a family of four would be entitled to 10 acres per person, or about $100 for each of the four million former slaves.
Accounting for compounding interest and inflation, they estimate the present value at $2.6 trillion or about $80,000 for each of 30 million descendants.
A National Study Commission on Reparations could bring together the best minds in the land to deliver some practical proposals. Their agenda should include at least the following topics:
1. Require institutions of higher education, corporations, churches, to double check their history for slavery injustices. A recent example of institutional reparations is Georgetown University’s compensating descendants of 272 slaves it sold in 1838 to pay off campus debt.
2. Define “descendants of slaves” eligible for direct compensation. Using a narrow definition Obama, the son of a white mother and African father who came to the United States as a student in the 1950s, would not qualify, for example.
3. Require a review at all levels of government history land acquisitions once owned or share-cropped by slaves and compensate the rightful owners.
4. Consider non-monetary compensation, including general programs like establishing federal education parks, proposed by Martin Luther King, in areas of historically segregated schools with high concentrations of slave descendants.
5. Specify how a reparations program should be funded and assure that related social, education and health programs are not simultaneously reduced.
My ancestors, mostly Irish who came to U.S. during the 1840s potato famine, were never slave owners, but we have benefited, even thrived, due to America’s resources, stable political system, social services and public support.
My ancestors often had jobs considered off-limits to African Americans. Despite being only of modest means, my parents were able to migrate freely, received benefits of the GI bill in the 1950s, were able to have consumer credit and had eight children who received good K-12 schooling, good health care and higher education through grants and low-interest loans.
Most of my siblings are nearing retirement with adequate — several even extraordinary — pensions and investments. Our children will likely inherit a good deal of assets.
America has been very good to us. There are millions, an estimated 30-40 million, of citizens not so blessed or lucky due the legacy of slavery.
I hope current opponents of reparations reflect on their lives and their blessings, asking how American public policies benefited them.
Further, I hope proponents of some form of reparations avoid rhetorical overkill and keep the conversation civil and productive until a political feasible proposal for slavery reparation takes shape.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.