Do Reparations for Black People Make Sense?

In 1965, essayist and novelist, James Baldwin debated William F. Buckley--the prominent American conservative and founder of National Review--at Cambridge Union in the United Kingdom. The subject of the debate was whether ‘the American dream’ came at the expense “of the American negro.” Baldwin handed Buckley an embarrassing defeat and one of the most dramatic moments came when Baldwin established the essence of his argument against Buckley by claiming: “I picked the cotton, I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing.”

Baldwin’s claim is startling because he did no such thing. He never picked cotton or the rest of it, though he was only two generations removed from slavery on his father’s side. All the same, he was never enslaved. So why did Baldwin insinuate himself into slavery?

The answer can be found in the two-fold meaning of “for nothing.” Despite Baldwin’s two-generation distance from slavery, Black material inequality in comparison to whites was tragically lopsided. Yet, Blacks lived in the wealthiest nation in the world – a nation they had built, so where was their cut? But there is another meaning of “for nothing” – Baldwin knew, as all Black people knew, that America had built the American dream at tremendous cost to the American negro and aside from money, they never were and never would be shown the slightest bit of gratitude.

Baldwin indicted whites for being the most abusive and ungracious of people because Blacks were raped, pillaged, murdered and in the end, for what? For nothing. How does a nation repair that kind of theft and exploitation and disrespect?

This exchange from Baldwin’s debate has returned to my mind with force because prominent 2020 presidential hopefuls have surprisingly stepped in with both feet to make the case for Black reparations. More than half a decade after #BlackLivesMatter and two years after the inauguration of the most overtly white supremacist president in recent American history, some liberals have grown a conscience and decided it might be time for Black Americans to get something for their troubles. Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren have led the way. Warren was in conversation with Baldwin when she publicly stated, “America was founded on principles of liberty and freedom and on the backs of slave labor,” while Castro nobly emphasized an obvious hypocrisy in America’s thinking about law and property when he noted, “If, under the Constitution, we compensate people because we take their property, why wouldn’t you compensate people who actually were property?”

Castro and Warren’s initial commitment to the idea of historical repair (which is what reparations signifies) has, once again, rekindled a national conversation on what it is America owes Black people--a group second only to Native Americans in the degree to which they have experienced the exploitation of the capitalist’s rapacious greed and the horror of the white supremacist’s noose, baton, gun, or badge.

The question is, do reparations in the 21st century make sense? I am skeptical despite thinking America owes its entire existence to Black Americans.

There are two distinct questions that often get conflated. The first question has to do with a straightforward view of reparations which often revolves around straightforward remuneration. It picks up the economic claim embedded in Baldwin’s “for nothing” and asks in return – “Ok, then how much do we owe you?” A recent estimate published in Newsweek places the bill into the trillions. In its crudest form, reparations stipulates that all Black folks get a share of that money. The obvious draw here has to do with a very basic fact – a great many Black folks, experiencing poverty as a remainder of racial capitalism and exploitation, could use that money. Comfort and robust possibilities for turbocharging one’s life chances would readily follow. This is a desirable outcome for a practical problem.

Aside from real questions such as - who would be ‘Black enough’ to count as getting a cut? – or - what if a beneficiary is in an interracial marriage; is it proper for the white partner to benefit from this payday?- there are two more substantial worries. The first I mention but will not pursue and that is: what good is a paycheck if the underlying system of racism is left in place and eventually replicates itself? The second, and closely related concern is what makes me most anxious: what does it mean to get money in return for being treated like less than a human being? Is there a price tag for that? This is Baldwin’s second meaning of “for nothing” and this is a thread that too easily gets subsumed into the crude conversation over dollars and cents.

Consider maybe the most well-regarded public intellectual statement in favor of reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s now-famous article in The Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations.” He begins his compelling essay by powerfully tracing the story of one family’s misfortunes as sharecroppers and how their move to the North as part of the second wave of the Great Migration simply relocated their economic vulnerabilities. As clearly important as Black poverty and exploitation are, Coates’s piece brings out something much more morally damning, and it is that America has proven time and again to be a place that outright devalues Black existence.

It is true that that devaluation is often easily apparent in various forms of economic theft and asset chicanery, but underlying it all is plain disdain and disregard for Black life. When one puts it this way, the case for reparations now seems to turn on a different question: what is a decent Black existence worth?

I don’t think that question has an answer that can be honestly addressed by mainstream politicians. Moreover, I worry that the case for reparations implicates Black folks in the very commodity system which is, in large part, the mechanism for their economic woes – if they can’t get respect today then they’ll at least take the money. I admit, in America, where cash is king, I can’t fault anyone for that attitude, especially poor Black folks. All the same, America’s biggest challenge toward Black Americans is not in fact giving them their economic due, but giving them their human due.

Absent of that, if you ask me what is owed to Black folks for four centuries of racial terrorism and inequality, I would respond: the nation; the whole thing. Without slavery there would be no America. Every American, from the farmer to the wealthy parent cheating their kids into elite universities, owes Black Americans for the very terms of their privileged existence. If we cannot deal with that reality then we’re missing the point of repairing this nation’s historical wrongs.

About the Author

Chris Lebron is the associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a senior writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).