THE idea of paying reparations to black people has moved up the political agenda in America in recent weeks. The White House has confirmed that President Biden supports HR 40, a Bill to set up a ‘Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans’.
This is yet another example of the political demagoguery we have come to expect from the Democrats since Biden’s inauguration; even its instigation can be viewed as inflammatory, hugely divisive and wasteful. It is an assumption of collective white guilt for the actions of previous generations and is historically absurd.
Slavery ended officially in the US in 1865 and since then millions of people of all races and all colours have made their way there. Generations of black people have lived free and equal in the US longer than millions of other people. Who, then, owes whom?
Equally, the move ignores the fact that slavery is not unique to African blacks. The word slave itself comes from ‘Slavs’ – Europeans – who found themselves traded for centuries, long before African chiefs began offloading their tribal opponents to white men.
Despite this, the notion of paying reparations for the wrongs of black slavery has been around for years, since the Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman promised ‘40 acres and a mule to 4million freed slaves’ in 1865. (A promise never kept.)
William Darity, professor of public policy at Duke University and co-author of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, has studied the ‘rationale and design’ of reparations. Indeed, he is an expert. He says: ‘The present moment seems to afford more of an opportunity to move forward than any moment I’ve experienced in my lifetime.’
The professor estimates that the US could eliminate the ‘Black-White’ wealth gap for between $10trillion and $12trillion, or $800,000 for each ‘eligible’ black household.
Clearly a bargain. But as with all such forward-looking social innovations, there are some small, annoying questions that persist. American citizens ask: Why now? Who is to benefit? And who gets to decide how this novel largesse will be divvied up?
Some stuffy economist types have poured scorn on the idea. One such, Michael Tanner, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, says: ‘Our national debt is already now up to around $26-27trillion given the money we’re spending on Covid . . . This hardly seems the time to burden the economy with more debt, more taxes.’
Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown University, also opposes reparations, saying: ‘If you redistribute, you may have a short-term impact, but in the long run, unless the differences in these populations, in their capacity to generate wealth, to start a business, to effectively take risks, to save and accumulate within their families, [change] the underlying structure will push you back into a situation of inequality again.’
Such clearly negative and bigoted considerations do not deter the councillors of the fine city of Evanston, Illinois (population 73,000) who on Monday decided by eight votes to one to offer reparations to black residents to compensate for past discrimination. Around 16 per cent of the city’s residents are black and, on average, they earn $46,000 a year less than white residents.
The council intend in the first phase to provide $25,000 each to 16 black households for ‘home repairs, down payments or mortgage payments’. A further $10million is pledged over the next decade. The money will come from community donations and revenue from a 3 per cent tax on recreational marijuana.
Cicely Fleming, who is black, cast the sole vote against the plan. She said it is ‘paternalistic and assumes that black people are unable to support themselves financially’.
There are reports that other American communities, including California, Iowa City, San Diego, Portland and Providence, Rhode Island, are intent on setting up their own schemes of reparation. This despite a Reuters/Ipsos survey last year finding that just 20 per cent of respondents backed using ‘taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States’.