The case for reparations is clear; the means are not

The case for reparations is obvious.  What is not obvious is what form those reparations should take.  The problem with cash payments is the idea that they would somehow settle the matter when racial inequality would still remain pervasive.

The question of reparations for black Americans has been raised recently among Democratic presidential candidates, and conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in favor of them a few weeks ago.

The case for reparations goes far beyond slavery, but it does begin there. Millions of lives were bought, sold, brutalized and murdered under government watch for the free labor that created the economic foundations of this country. Without these lives and this labor, the history of the United States would be drastically different. In slavery, the stigma of dark skin is seared into the consciousness of white Americans, and our country sold its soul at its birth.


The case continues with a century of terror and lawlessness after the Civil War, during which the black person is often abused and rarely protected by the rule of law. When black people are not defeated by lawlessness, the legal system is used to exploit and undermine successful black Americans.

For at least three decades, as the suburbs grew beginning in the 1940s, a system of housing apartheid was established. The single greatest wealth and opportunity generating social change in the history of the country — suburbia — was built for white Americans and denied to black Americans.

At the same time, a government-established system of redlining drained the housing equity from black homes. When a white home can be sold with a government insured 30-year mortgage, but a black home cannot, black homes lose their value and white homes grow in value. Maps of redlined neighborhoods often correspond closely to neighborhoods that have high concentrations of black poverty and black crime today.

Black Americans are overwhelmingly denied educational opportunity by the governments that run public schools. The problem includes funding disparities but is far more rooted in the despair and disorder that radiates from neighborhoods into classrooms, preventing necessary education from ever happening. It is not that black minds cannot learn as well as other minds; it is that too many are not being allowed to learn what they need to thrive economically and socially.

For more than 40 years, the so-called “war on drugs” has created a pretense for government-enforced policies that clearly target black Americans. To be sure, many white Americans and others have been caught up in this war, but the statistical proof that that black Americans have been disproportionately targeted at every level — arrests, convictions, and sentencing — is clear. As a drug-use prevention strategy, the war has been a complete failure. But as a governmental mechanism to destroy black lives, black families, black neighborhoods and black economic opportunity, it continues to succeed.

There are countless other examples of government-sponsored actions that have granted benefits to white people and denied them to black people. These include G.I. Bill benefits for housing and education, land giveaways and land-grant universities, and they extend to government-supported structures to which white people have far greater access, such as schools and stock-markets, precisely because of a history of government investment in white people and governmental denial of opportunity to black people.

The case for reparations is obvious. What is not obvious is what form those reparations should take. The problem with cash payments is not determining to whom they should be paid. Every black person in the United States today has been impacted by the history of government actions that entrench racial inequality and generate the astonishing belief that black people, rather than U.S. governments, are somehow to blame for that inequality. The problem with cash payments is the idea that they would somehow settle the matter when racial inequality would still remain pervasive.

Other policies could include low or no-interest loans for education and housing, expungement of criminal records, and Marshall Plan levels of investment in schools and businesses in black communities. However, black America will not be made whole and will not be repaired, nor will the United States be made whole and for the first time become a democracy, until the governments of the United States at the federal, state and local levels all commit to the elimination of racial inequality and act accordingly.

Joe Pettit is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University. His email is