Peripheries: The Relevance of Reparations

In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ incisive piece in the Atlantic entitled “The Case for Reparations triggered a national conversation. He noted that the income gap between black and white households has been roughly unchanged since 1970, and that roughly 4% of whites compared to 62% of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. Due to ongoing discriminatory policies on top of the obvious historical consequences of slavery, black Americans continue to face unspeakable levels of spatial segregation and economic oppression.

Reparations are being increasingly discussed in the 2020 Democratic field. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro have endorsed the concept; in contrast, Bernie Sanders has called them “divisive.” Although it would certainly be divisive to seize the assets of white families, particularly in the South, it is important to at least revisit the concept of reparations and seriously consider the lack of redistributive justice in American society. Atoning for the past is a resurgent theme outside of American politics as well. Mexico has demanded an apology from Spain, India from England, the Congo from Belgium. However, apologies without material change have symbolic value, but are insufficient.

There may be several issues with the implementation of reparations, such as proving one’s ancestry or the moral duty to offer subsequent reparations to other marginalized groups including indigenous peoples. However, we have not even gotten there yet; our politicians have stifled the discussion from beginning in the first place. John Conyers’ bill, H.R. 40 (the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act) has never even made it to the House floor. It is becoming increasingly important to address the issue head-on. We cannot pretend that poverty in America is not racialized. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “To pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying.” We cannot continue to throw around the word “intersectionality” while simultaneously discussing “the poor” as a monolithic group.

This conversation should not occur at the federal level alone. Even if perfect national legislation is passed, that will not suffice to shift local social fabric and consciousness. Advocacy within communities is critical in raising awareness and cultivating an understanding of how past atrocities specifically relate to current social groups. Georgetown University students just voted in favor of establishing a fund at their university to pay reparations to slave descendants given the founders’ history of selling slaves. Similar initiatives should be raised on other campuses and in other cities as well.

Regardless of the specific reparations policy in question, we should encourage this conversation openly on national and local stages. Coates concisely writes, “Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage … Wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced.”