To get ‘reparations,’ should we call it something else?


The moral justice of the reparations proposition is unassailable.  

African nations and economies were perverted and destroyed. Millions were murdered, and survivors driven to the coast for transport across oceans. They were worked to death, they were starved raped and abused. Their labor and loved ones and children were stolen from them and their descendants have been selectively disadvantaged to this very day. They deserve to be made whole. It’s only justice, and it’s only right to try to correct an historic wrong.

Nothing new

The reparations demand is not new. It was first answered by some Union generals during in the Civil War who ordered redistribution of land confiscated from slave masters. That’s where the slogan “40 acres and a mule” comes from.

President Andrew Johnson vetoed legislation to give the freed slaves the land they had worked on, and quickly reversed the policy almost every place it had been enacted. In the 1890s, the demand surfaced again with proposals to grant pensions and land to surviving former slaves  and their families. But there was powerful opposition from the planter class, who held most of African-Americans as deeply indebted sharecroppers, tenants and domestic workers. All the pension bills died in committee.

The modern reparations current – and I call it a “current” to distinguish it from a “movement,” which everything claims to be these days – that current begins with James Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose 1969 “Black Manifesto  ” demanded $500 million from White churches and synagogues to be handed over to philanthropic trusts, a Southern land bank, printing, publishing and other projects, including the National Welfare Rights Organization.

In 1980 and 1987, the federal government awarded reparations to a small group of Native Americans – a tiny fraction of First Nations people slaughtered and dispossessed; and to 60,000 survivors and descendants of Japanese-Americans stripped of their property and interned during WW2.

Bill never moved

In 1987, NCOBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, was founded. And in 1989, Detroit congressman John Conyers introduced a reparations study bill in Congress.

Conyers re-submitted that reparations bill each and every congressional session till 2007, when he finally became chair of the House Judiciary Committee. The bill sat in his desk drawer during the next four years while he had the power to pass it out of committee. Once Congressman Conyers was safely out of power in 2011, he resumed the submission of his reparations study bill to each successive Congress until his forced retirement last year.

Again, the moral correctness of the reparations proposition is unarguable. People were wronged, their descendants were wronged, and they deserve to be made whole. Only a fool can argue with that.  

But something has changed here. Reparations agitation in the 19th Century arose directly from former slaves, from the Black working class. They were all about the practical politics of assembling political coalitions which might do the heavy political lifting needed to carry out reparations for African-Americans. Although they failed, they were seriously about the politics and the implementation.

The reparations current of the 20th and 21st century is something altogether different.

Not from grassroots

To begin with, the modern reparations current did not originate with the Black poor, the Black working class. No disrespect to the late brother Forman, but the modern reparations current originates from the class of what Adolph Reed calls “professional race managers,” the cohort of relatively educated and affluent African-Americans who assume the roles of “SpokesNegroes” purportedly representing the rest of us.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, some of us fought for the inclusion of the histories, the writings and the scholarship of people who looked like us in the academic canon. One outcome of those struggles has been the careers of a class of Black academics who have adopted the morally just reparations arguments, and extended them into the realms of psychology and spiritual well-being.

Hence, there is now a truly vast amount of academic and popular writing from dozens, perhaps hundreds of Black academics and professionals who insist that the pursuit of reparations and the attainment of apologies for slavery and Jim Crow are crucial to the spiritual and psychological well-being of African-Americans. You can find their views exhaustively examined in  Psychology Today, in the journal of the American Psychological Association, and many other places.

Some would have us believe that the current reparations demand arises from the most politically advanced sectors of Black American thought and political action. I’m not buying that. I can’t really prove it, but I suspect a lot of the young people currently flying the “reparations now” flag learned to consider reparations as a moral and rhetorical proposition from Black academics, not from the broad masses of our people.

Moral vs. practical

The trouble is that all a moral proposition needs to justify itself is to be right, while a political proposition must be made to happen in the real world, a world frequently indifferent or hostile to moral propositions. In the political world, a 21st-Century appeal for reparations is pathetically easy to twist into “something for those undeserving people and nothing for you real Americans White people.” The worldwide political reality is that special policies aimed at special constituencies make for easy targets.

Medicaid, for instance, has proved trivially easy to shrink and shred and even deny eligibility to most of those who should qualify for it because Medicaid is aimed exclusively at poor people – popularly but incorrectly assumed to be mostly Black. France has universal daycare from infancy to about age 4 for everybody, whether you’re a working mom, disabled, or a billionaire. That’s what makes it politically bulletproof ‒ the fact that everybody is in and nobody is out. The same inclusive model protects the free-at-the-point-of-service medical care systems of Britain, Canada and other places.

The only two times Black people in this country made significant material advances were during the Civil War and early Reconstruction, and the brief heyday of the Freedom Movement when Jim Crow was largely dismantled from about 1960 to 1975. In both cases, the forward progress only lasted as long as a large plurality of White support backed Black aspirations. When that plurality of White support eroded, the period of progress ended.

Our modern ‘reparistas’ focus on the spiritual and psychological “only-this-and many apologies-will-make-us-whole” facets of reparations, but hey take no responsibility whatsoever for even identifying even the vaguest of roadmaps. They can’t even be bothered to name the constituencies we’d have to persuade to our side to make the political heavy lifting of reparations possible. Even worse, the politics most of our reparistas do espouse pretend that there ARE no class distinctions inside Black communities ‒ even though the gaps between the richest and poorest American Blacks are larger than those between corresponding American Whites.

Some true believers

Obviously all of today’s reparistas are not opportunists. Some clearly do believe that the psychological dimensions of the problem for which reparations is their preferred solution really ARE more important than achieving practical political results. Fifty years ago, there were some activists who sincerely believed African-Americans would achieve liberation by adopting African-like culture, religions and such.

But straight-up opportunists are easy to find among the reparistas. Look at Ta-Nehisi Coates, who deploys “reparations now” rhetoric as an explicit counter to socialism. There’s a reason why many of Chicago’s most prominent reparistas supported Rahm Emanuel in the last mayoral election. The Conyers reparations bill and others like it are great things for opportunists to hide behind, with no thought of ever achieving results. So the notion that the “reparations now” demand arises from the most politically advanced sectors of the Black community is highly questionable.

The fact is that Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, legalized unions with the unrestricted right to strike, and the forgiveness of student debt would all disproportionately benefit African-Americans. Which demographic segment has the highest per capita student debt? It’s Black women. Black people are disproportionate victims of predatory student, medical and consumer debt too. We were represented far higher than our share among the home foreclosures of 20062009. Black women are the most likely demographic segment to form and join a fighting union.

Consider the politics

Again, the reparations proposition is entirely morally justified. But the political atmosphere is not a neutral place where arguments prevail because they are righteous.

We live in the place where 60 million people voted for Trump, and where we cannot even marshal a plurality of White support for affirmative action ‒ a far lower hurdle than reparations. A sober assessment of current political reality seems to indicate that a dogged insistence on calling the policies of fairness, equity and justice by that name, may be a big impediment to the heavy lifting it takes to enact them.

It’s not rocket science. People are clever enough to talk and to listen in code all the time. And though large majorities of Black people DO support reparations when pollsters ask the question, they’re likely far more attached to results than they are to the label.

So what if we just did the work to make the stuff happen, but we didn’t call it reparations?

Bruce Dixon is managing editor of Contact him at bruce.dixon@ Click on this commentary at to write your own response.


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