Actually, Reparations Do Not Go Far Enough

The government should invest in Black survival, not a one-time payment just to call things even

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Republicans are so predictable. When presented with measures to improve the lives of the marginalized, the anti-progress party can be counted on to oppose them using pretzel logic. God and the Constitution are the GOP’s favorite standbys, trotted out to back up objections to everything from marriage equality to the recent U.S. Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump to, apparently, reparations.

Former NFL star Herschel Walker cited God last week in explaining his opposition to paying reparations for slavery to Black Americans. Speaking during a February 17 virtual congressional hearing on House Resolution 40, legislation to create a committee to evaluate reparations proposals, Walker mixed denial (slavery ended “over 130 years ago,” he reminded those watching, so surely ongoing systemic racism must be a Black myth) with theology. “My approach is biblical,” he said. “How can I ask my Heavenly Father to forgive me if I can’t forgive my brother?”

In other words, God thinks it’s time for Blacks to move on. The United States doesn’t have to trouble itself with correcting hundreds of years of racial injustice, conservatives like Walker believe. The republic was already absolved of its sins when it ended slavery; any further grievances by Black Americans are just barriers to national harmony.

Walker also spouted some nonsense about how reparations “teach separation,” which echoes the familiar “reverse racism” charge white people often offer when they’re desperate to change the subject. It’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t see color, so neither should you.”

How can I not see color when it’s been a factor in so many aspects of my life? When we watch a viral video of a white cop kneeling into the neck of a handcuffed Black man for eight minutes, we are supposed to blame it on anything but racism, because to whites who think it’s a nonissue, acknowledging America’s racist reality endangers unity and healing. Structural racism works in ways that might be barely perceptible to the naked eye of casual White observers. It permeates myriad aspects of Black life, including housing, employment, and health care. Denying it, however, won’t change facts: Slavery shaped the Black American experience and continues to do so.

I disagree with every one of Walker’s weak arguments against reparations, especially his assessment that “we use Black power to create White guilt.” Frankly, how White people feel is irrelevant. This country has coddled them for too long. We need to focus solely on Black people and how the legacy of slavery continues to affect and limit us.

Racism can’t be remedied with a quick payoff. That would be like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.

Reparations are in order, but I don’t believe they should be in the form of cash payments like the $20,000 checks the U.S. government granted to Japanese Americans who were held in internment camps during World War II. (That model has been the crux of the debate over slavery reparations.) Such cash payments would ultimately solve nothing. Cutting a check for every Black American to make up for the degradation of our ancestors would put a price on something that cannot be quantified. Racism can’t be remedied with a quick payoff. That would be like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.

America owes its Black citizens sustained and committed compensation, which should begin with boosting Black morale (through monuments celebrating Black patriots instead of Confederate traitors, through school curricula that value Black history, through making lynching a federal crime 120 years too late) and investing in Black survival rather than relying on a one-time payment to call things even. This can be done by financially supporting Black businesses, Black educational institutions, Black students, and Black entrepreneurial talent. The approach could also cover improvements to the infrastructure of Black neighborhoods, so that when disasters strike — like the recent blackouts in snowstorm-ravaged Texas and even the current global pandemic — Black people aren’t always hardest hit.

Reparations should be about creating opportunities and dismantling systemic racism. It should be about giving young Black people a fair shot at being most likely to succeed, even if they don’t have sports or musical talent. The U.S. government must acknowledge the intelligence and work ethic of Black Americans with a reparations program that highlights positive qualities (creativity, ingenuity, persistence) over neediness and victimhood.

Black people built this country for free and have fought in every major war. Our accomplishments as Americans are celebrated every Black History Month. We’re not afraid of hard work. We’ve been conditioned to expect it. We aren’t looking for handouts or easy payoffs. We’re looking to level a playing field that has always been tilted against us and to reverse a power balance.

That should be the focus of reparations, not another round of stimulus checks that the legislative branch can spend months, or years, haggling over as they try to put a price tag on human suffering. It’s not a religious issue, as Herschel Walker suggested. It’s not about white guilt or contrition, either. No amount of money can make up for the unspeakable horror of slavery, and no apology will ever be enough. The debt this country owes Black people can’t possibly be paid in full, but investing in us will help bring us closer to the elusive equality our ancestors never got to experience.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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