Patrick Paul Garlinger

February 1, 2021

Many writers have advanced cogent, powerful arguments for reparations, chief among them Ta-Nehisi Coates and William “Sandy” Darity. At the risk of oversimplifying their arguments, they argue that the primary and fundamental measure of the devastating harm inflicted by slavery is the wealth gap between Black and white Americans.

Coates, in his seminal piece in The Atlantic, used housing policies as an example of how discrimination against Black Americans persisted and led to the extraction of wealth by white-run institutions from Black families. Similarly, in his comprehensive work, From Here to Equality, Darity puts forth numerous ways that wealth was taken from Black Americans, and drawing on the work of many in this area, offers differing calculations of the amount owed. As Coates summarizes, “Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families…. When financial calamity strikes … the fall is precipitous.”

In sum, reparations begin with the idea of a monetary debt — in legal terms, damages — that is owed to Black Americans. That debt stems from the impact of slavery itself, the subsequent failure of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and into the present day with systemic racism that continues to maintain this wealth gap.

Hence, as Dwyer Gunn points out in her summary of the arguments made by Coates, Darity, and others, while monetary relief may be the central component, reparations are not limited to money. They also include programs that are designed to protect African Americans from present-day discrimination. This can include job training, education, and other measures to protect against gaps in wealth due to race. It also includes the acknowledgment, by the federal government, of the harms inflicted by the United States against African Americans.

Coates, Darity, and many others (see, e.g., Antonio Moore’s “The Roadmap to Reparations”, and Marcus H. Johnson’s “What a Reparations Plan Could Look Like”) marshal a thorough historical record about Black Americans’ economic deprivation, legal precedent (such as the U.S. government’s willingness to pay reparations to Japanese Americans for the harms caused by internment during WWII), and various methods to make this kind of compensation a political reality (Darity, for example, suggests the creation of a government office devoted to overseeing the task).

Reparations are presented in a legal framework like a class action. The harm is presented as a claim for damages, with sophisticated means of calculating the amount. The authors must prove the harm, the damages to remedy that harm, and what members of the class should receive a portion of that remedy.

The objections, unsurprisingly, take the form that legal objections typically take: White people alive today did not cause the harm and thus are not liable; the debt cannot be calculated accurately; and, furthermore, the damages have already been repaid through other means such as anti-poverty measures and affirmative action. (On the reasons why affirmative action does not count as reparations, see Darity.)

Even the members of the class are sometimes the subject of debate. Who should get reparations — only American descendants of slaves or all Black Americans? Compelling arguments exist for each group, yet the Mitch McConnells of the world use this to say that reparations are impossible because it would be too difficult to identify who should receive the damages even if they were calculable.