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It Is Time for Reparations

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2020

In a piece for the NY Times called What Is Owed, Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that because of its sanction of slavery and subsequent legalized racial segregation and discrimination, it is time for the United States government to pay its debt to Black Americans in form of reparations.

To summarize, none of the actions we are told black people must take if they want to “lift themselves” out of poverty and gain financial stability — not marrying, not getting educated, not saving more, not owning a home — can mitigate 400 years of racialized plundering. Wealth begets wealth, and white Americans have had centuries of government assistance to accumulate wealth, while the government has for the vast history of this country worked against black Americans doing the same.

“The cause of the gap must be found in the structural characteristics of the American economy, heavily infused at every point with both an inheritance of racism and the ongoing authority of white supremacy,” the authors of the Duke study write. “There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the wealth gap. For the gap to be closed, America must undergo a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies.”

This piece is one of the best things I’ve read this year. It is clear, focused, powerful, and persuasive. There is no amount of money that anyone could ever pay to make up for the 400+ years of absolute shit rained down on Black people by the United States of America and its precursors, but nevertheless, reparations are the only just and moral way forward for the United States.

P.S. Here’s the Duke study mentioned in the excerpt above: What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap. And the book containing a detailed plan for reparations mentioned by Hannah-Jones is From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (ebook).

Update: Terry Gross interviewed Hannah-Jones on Fresh Air about reparations.

I think that reparations can’t just be any one thing. I think that you have to have targeted investment in Black communities and Black schools that have been generationally under-resourced. You certainly need to have a commitment to strong enforcement of existing civil rights laws, because reparations don’t do any good if you’re still facing rampant employment and housing and educational discrimination. But the center of any reparations program has to be cash payments. The only thing that closes a wealth gap is money.