The question of reparations for slavery in the United States is frequently debated. From Here to Equality, a recently released book, has argued for it and the city of San Francisco has moved towards implementing it. Whether it is practical or affordable is contentious. Certainly, reparations are not without precedent; Germany paid them for World Wars I and II, as well as to victims of the Holocaust; Japan paid them to Korean victims of World War II. Yet those nations lost wars of aggression and so are not a perfect parallel for the position of African Americans vis-à-vis the rest of the United States. Unsurprisingly then, since it would mean America casting itself in the same light as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, paying reparations is a politically divisive issue. A Christian, or anyone concerned with the Prophetic voices of the Old Testament, should consider one of Martin Luther King’s famous lines: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
In Why We Can’t Wait, King argued that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Historically, it is plain to see why African Americans 60 years ago or today have had deep unease with social justice. In 1865 slavery ended, but legal equality was not on the table and a hundred years rolled around until 1964-65 when the Civil Rights Movement made essential progress. Black Lives Matter and a concern for endemic racism may persuade many to wonder if the next milestones in racial justice won’t be seen until 2065! Are reparations, then, the remedy that will rectify this concern? There are two reasons we might be wary of reparations and should instead look to remedy the root causes of inequality.
The first thing to remember is that the capacity for human racism will not go away, but better belief must be inculcated and prejudicial thinking guarded against. As long as we remain human beings, however, we are vulnerable to imbibing radicalized thinking. All have a capacity to absorb prejudicial thinking, contrary to higher wisdom. Germany and Japan, two of the most educated and developed nations on Earth, exemplify all humanity’s propensity towards sin: Hitler and the Nazi party fed lies about Jews to the Germans while Japan carried out imperial racism in their colonization of Korea.
King thought racism was rooted in a “softmindedness” which pre-judged. Further, King argued in A Testament of Hope (edited by James M. Washington) that “bitterness has not the capacity to make the distinction between some and all. When some members of the dominant group, particularly those in power, are racist in attitude and practice, bitterness accuses the whole group.” Especially in times of extreme political challenge and division, even an educated populace becomes vulnerable to bitter myths of racism of superiority. By enacting reparations for slavery, America would have to formalize a registry which permanently categorized, however ambiguously, every American according to race (no self-identification) and doled out monies in response. People being explicitly rewarded by the government for their racial category is the kind of thinking we need to get away from, not encourage.
The second error reparations conjures is the idea that a one-time payment will rectify all the problems afflicting African Americans. A hurricane may do terrible damage and an insurance company may have to pay up, but this does not remove all dangers to the house, or the risk of future winds. Can the insurance adjuster then walk away and ignore the larger problem? Many of the problems that afflict black people in America are not exclusively of a material nature and so a simple cash transfer may not be a panacea. Without doubt, reparations should be paid sometimes as the Germans did with Holocaust victims and Japan for many Koreans. But should they be paid to African Americans?
Cornel West once argued in Race Matters, that a class-based affirmative action makes perhaps makes more sense and indeed paying attention to not strictly racial socio-economic matters is imperative. While free markets are better than fixed (socialist) markets, there are still great dangers associated with laissez-faire that fixating on one-time reparations cannot address.
Robert Reich, in his book Inequality for All, persuasively argues for a return to prosperity that characterized the American free market from the 1940s to 1970s. The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute has released a study arguing that wealth for the top 1 percent has grown by double digits while falling for the remaining 99 percent. The point that Reich makes reinforces the class-based perspective of Cornel West voices: there are grave economic inequalities at work, reinforced by a political indifference to them. The deception that we should be wary of is that one-time payment can comprehensively ameliorate the innumerable spiritual and material problems which afflict all Americans.
Adam Smith said famously in The Wealth of Nations that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” and it should be in the self-interest of Americans to restore our class system to a more balanced equilibrium. Returning to Reinhold Niebuhr, we must appreciate that both liberty and equality are cherished democratic values that must be held in balance. The voice of Jesus, and the Prophets, was to help the poor and needy, and it is a voice we must respond to today. It is a voice that is not socialistic, not opposed to a free market, but one which knows how humans, given freedom, can and do abuse wealth, power, and privilege. It is a voice directed by a very familiar American maxim, of seeking liberty and justice for all.