The Hamiltonian Approach To Reparations

Reparations are now a consensus position within the 2020 Democratic primary.

Let that sink in. From the central plank of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential platform in 1984 and 1988, to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blockbuster Atlantic essay in 2014 — reparations for the descendants of slavery have gone from fringe to mainstream in roughly a generation. What Bernie Sanders called “divisive” only a few short years ago now even finds support among thoughtful conservatives like David Brooks and Michael Brendan Dougherty.
Yet behind the moral clarity of reparations is immense disagreement about what form it ought to take. Should reparations be direct cash payments or land grants? Does a race-neutral “Baby Bond” or refundable tax credit count if white families also benefit? Most Democratic primary candidates have kicked the can to an independent commission. “I support that we should study it,” in the words of Kamala Harris. While that may be smart politics, a backlash is already brewing among activists who insist reparations should be, by definition, directed to American descendants of slavery only.

Before going down that path, we should think carefully about what a program of direct cash payments to the descendants of slavery would signify. After all, an act of reparation is distinct from an act of restitutionor compensation. Reparations fall into the category of transitional justice — one part economic, one part symbolic redress for human rights violations that kicks-off a “reparative” process of truth and reconciliation. They are therefore as much about publicly confronting an injustice as repairing some discrete, calculable harm. A direct payment, in contrast, risks trivializing slavery as merely an issue of “unjust transfer and acquisition,” as if the stolen fruits of African American labor neatly correspond to an accounts payable hidden deep within the U.S. Treasury. 

Slavery was an act of theft, to be sure. But even moreso, it was an act of colonization — one that retarded the development of a population and entire region for generations after emancipation. To truly address that intergenerational legacy, struggling African American communities need investments in infrastructure and a strategy for developing a high-wage workforce. In other words, they need industrial policy.

Read the rest at NiskanenCenter.org.