Egregious inequities have been imposed on African Americans over the past four centuries in virtually all areas of civic life, resulting in massive damages to those in both the past and the present. These harms range from the most obvious (i.e. slavery and lynching) to the less noticeable (i.e. advertising the most addictive cigarettes — menthol — to Black people). Having to deal with layer upon layer of injustice since the 1600s, African Americans (and to a certain extent other minorities) have been systematically denied the ability to share in many benefits of living in the United States.
In the housing arena, African Americans for years were not able to get mortgages due to a process known as redlining, which led to concentrations of African Americans in less desirable neighborhoods. This concentration of African Americans in discrete areas led to a lack of investments in those areas — from fewer dollars going to schools, to poorly-stocked libraries, to the locating of hazardous waste dumps and highways in Black communities.
The legal system is also terribly unjust. The damage inflicted by the so-called “War on Drugs,” has actually been a war on people of color, where the consequences of this conflict are grossly disproportionately borne by African Americans. Black, white and Hispanic people use drugs at about the same rate. But drug usage is far more heavily criminalized among African Americans, leading to a variety of tactics, such as overpolicing of neighborhoods and causing the “school to prison pipeline” and mass incarceration of African Americans. Another injustice is that crimes perpetrated against Black people are rarely investigated as intensively as those against white people, leading to distrust and trauma from this lack of taking crime against Black people seriously.
Inequities also have taken a significant toll on the health of the African American population. The trauma from years of racism has led to greater rates of chronic disease and higher levels of maternal and infant deaths, adding up to Black Americans living about six years less than white Americans.
All of these actions, and many more, raise the question of what can be done about the inequities African Americans living today face as a result of generations of injustice. The fairest way to address these egregious damages is through reparations, which are some form of compensation — whether through returning lost land, providing free schooling or providing restitution in cash. I had not been in favor of reparations before. However, as I did research for the course I teach on social equity at Johns Hopkins, I came to a different conclusion. African Americans have lost their lives, homes, freedoms, finances, education, enfranchisement and innumerable opportunities due to the damage inflicted upon them, both in the past and continuing to the present, through malign intent, primarily of white people. Indeed, the only way to address these wrongs is through reparations.
Actions for egregious damage done to groups have been successfully implemented before. Japanese Americans incarcerated in internment camps during World War II received a formal apology from President Ronald Reagan and $20,000 for each survivor of the camps, via the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Likewise, Germany, in admitting its complicity in the Holocaust, made restitution payments to Israel, and directly to tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors and their heirs in multiple countries, totaling more than $86 billion as of 2018, according to the U.S. Department of State. And, in May, California’s Reparations Task Force recommended billions of dollars in restitution to some Black residents for centuries of damage.
Those who are of privilege — largely white privilege — have benefited the most from the damage imposed on African Americans. Concrete actions took place that resulted in specific harms to African Americans. So concrete actions need to take place to reverse those harms. Logically, the largest share of reparations should come from those of greatest wealth.
The best way to transfer some of these resources is through a tax based on wealth. For each dollar above a certain level of wealth, a certain substantial amount should go to a national Reparations Fund, for disbursement similar in fashion to class action lawsuits. This accomplishes two major things: It reimburses African Americans for a plethora of harms, and it goes a long way toward leveling the playing field upon which we all live — Black people, white people, Hispanic people, Native Americans and Asian people alike. This is also a cause that the young people of America can get behind, as implementing reparations may be the only way we can actually measurably change the system of white privilege and move to a significantly more egalitarian society.
Peter Beilenson (email@example.com) is a physician and former Baltimore City health commissioner.