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A Progressive Critique of Reparations Advocacy

Support for reparations for American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) has become widespread among progressives, and some have made advocating and organizing for reparation policies the core of their activism. However laudable the motives of reparations’ promoters, their cause is misguided. From a progressive standpoint the politics of reparations are neither strategically smart, nor sufficiently radical, nor socially just. This does not imply that the multi-dimensional unjust inequalities that burden so many African Americans isn’t an urgent problem requiring redress. It simply means that reparations are not the right redress for progressives to promote.

The Case for Reparations

On the surface the case for reparations is compelling. America’s treatment of the kidnapped Africans and their descendants was horrific: unremittingly brutal, sadistically cruel, monstrously callous, and flagrantly hypocritical. The injuries inflicted were severe and pervasive: torturing individual Black bodies, ripping apart Black families, and doing all it could to deny Black humanity and oppress Black communities. While the explicit legal discrimination may be gone, anti-Black racism’s harms are ongoing, and there is little doubt that the history and remaining vein of American racism accounts for the disproportionate number of African Americans in under-performing schools, deficient housing, ill-served neighborhoods, crushing poverty, and inhumane prisons. Meanwhile, this pervasive, centuries-long violation of Black’s civil and human rights enriched America. The surplus produced from stolen Black labor under slavery, serfdom, Jim Crow wage regimes, and racist imprisonment, not only profited planters and merchants, financiers and factory owners; it also was vital to creating the capital investment from which all non-enslaved Americans benefit.

It is a straight-forward ethical principle that ill-gotten gains be returned, wrongly injured parties compensated by the wrongdoers, and repairs made by those who cause harm. Moreover, reparations for historical wrongs have modern precedent, notably Federal German Republic reparations to Holocaust survivors and the United States reparations to Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II.

Could the case for American reparations to the descendants of Africans enslaved in and by the United States be any stronger? No --- but only if we accept the capitalist norms on which the case tacitly rests, norms that progressives who envision a truly egalitarian society ought to challenge, not embrace. Of course, many different proposals march under the banner of reparations, and some of them might serve progressive ends. I am not arguing against every policy that might call itself “reparation.” But, insofar as a public policy proposal is aimed at all and only those who can connect their bloodline to a person enslaved in America, the proposal is an obstacle to truly progressive politics.

The Ideology Presumed by the Case for Reparations

What is fundamentally at issue is the conception of property rights. Capitalist ideology posits a natural right to property that confers near total control to individual property owners, including the right to grant or withhold access to the property. The right includes owners’ unfettered power to trade, gift, or bequeath their property with and to whomever they pleased. There is no principled limit to the amount, scope, or use of the property. An individual acquires property when an owner voluntarily transfers it to them, or when unowned raw materials are made into useful products through that individual’s labor. This is so because an individual’s labor is conceived of as their property, the sole property that comes to one naturally. Your labor is like the monopoly money given to players at the outset of the game, wisely employed it can increase your wealth, but it is also liable to be unprofitably squandered or negligently left fallow.

John Locke, the classical source for this conception, hedged it with various caveats and provisos, as do modern capitalist legal regimes, to avoid the most blatant absurdities of unconstrained individual property rights. But the heart of the idea remains untouched—the justice of who has and gets things depends on who deserves to have and get them, and you deserve it if the legitimate property owner chose to give it to you, or you made it yourself.

This conception underlies the argument for reparations. Enslaved Africans were the legitimate owners of their labor and hence of the products of their labor. Their property was stolen from them. Had the theft not occurred, it is reasonable to assume they would have bequeathed their property to their descendants. Hence, their descendants are the legitimate owners, and the largely non-Black Americans who are the current possessors of this wealth ought to return the stolen goods to their rightful owners.

The Socialist Conception of Distributive Justice

Socialist norms arise from alternative conceptions of property, products, wealth, and their proper distribution. Wealth is a social product, and inherited wealth is understood to be a social creation built from foundations fashioned by the labors of our collective ancestry. Therefore, a just, rational distribution of this socially produced wealth would respond to current and future social needs and treat all equivalent needs as worthy of equivalent responses.

The most famous expression of this ideal, is Marx’s “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Admittedly, this ideal hardly constitutes a blueprint for social policy, nor is its full realization a realistic goal. We will probably always have to motivate much essential labor by tying it to differential compensation schemes. Markets will also remain necessary for allocating certain resources efficiently and with due respect for the diversity of values manifested by personal consumer choices. Moreover, the distinction between “needs” and “wants,” will forever remain a contested and changing border. Nonetheless, despite these compromises imposed by psychological and social realities, the ideal of needs-based distribution is the standard by which progressives should judge social policy. We should always be asking whether a policy is the best we can do in given circumstances to approach this ideal of social justice-- the ideal of meeting universal needs equally-- and we should always be asking whether our advocacy is reinforcing or undermining this vision.

This socialist inspired vision regards all people as entitled to good, equal health care. Whether, for example, a child’s parents can afford the cost of health care, or why they can or cannot afford the cost, ought to be irrelevant. Dad gambled away the family savings? Doesn’t matter, 10-year-old Jimmy still gets his insulin. Mom squandered her salary on cocaine? Irrelevant, 14-year-old Sally still gets the orthopedic surgery she needs. Grandpa’s crop was destroyed by a tornado, or Grandma was defrauded of her life’s savings? Besides the point, 19-year-old Brent still should receive the chemotherapy they require. No one’s health care should depend on their parents’ “deserts,” or their ancestors’ savings. The same is true of their education, housing, and nutritional needs. All these should be met equally from public funds.

Reparations privatize these needs—makes them a personal rather than a social problem-- and merely seeks a one-time reallocation of resources to align distribution with the theoretical principles of capitalist distribution. In effect reparations say, “your personal stolen property has been returned—now, like everybody else, your needs are your private concern.” The problem that advocates of reparations see is the massive historical deviation from capitalist principles, not the principles themselves. Hence, reparations are not radical, but rather a reinforcement of capitalist ideology.

Fairness is all to the good, but although executing more whites would make capital punishment racially fair, it is not a progressive approach. Abolishing the death penalty is. Abolishing the death penalty would also do more to end racist executions than would ensuring whites and Blacks were executed at proportionate rates. Analogously, the demand for reparations calls for the fair application of principles progressives should disavow. Instead of calling for reparations, progressives should fight for the implementation of genuinely progressive policies, which would accomplish what should be reparations’ goals – ending all inequalities between Black and non-Black Americans. Later I will sketch the policies that would be both progressive in principle and more effective than reparations in reducing racial disparities

The Anti-Egalitarianism of Reparations

In his influential 2014 Atlantic article advocating reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates dismissed the Obama example as highly exceptional, and therefore not relevant to his argument. Nonetheless, the Obamas’ example helps to illustrate concretely the anti-egalitarian idea of justice that reparations entail. Consider the following hypothetical: suppose Ann Dunham, Barack Obama’s mother, had given birth to identical twins, Barack and Richard Obama. Imagine that Richard marries Robin, a first-generation Nigerian immigrant to America. Suppose each twin, Barack and Richard, has two children (Barack and Michelle’s real Malia and Sasha, and Richard and Robin’s hypothetical Randy and Ruby). Although of varied complexions, suppose the four cousins would all have been perceived by others as “Black,” and been treated as such by American society: all grew up having to confront, to varying degrees, specifically anti-Black American racism. Malia and Sasha, of course, in many respects grew up under extraordinarily elite and secure circumstances with nearly limitless opportunities. By virtue of their maternal ancestors who suffered centuries of enslavement and relentless discrimination, Malia and Sasha would be eligible for compensation under most reparation proposals. But their two cousins, just as much African Americans, are entitled to nothing. Richard and Robin may work in minimum wage jobs, and Randy and Ruby brought up under conditions of serious deprivation. Still, Randy and Ruby, none of whose ancestors were enslaved, do not benefit from reparations, even as their affluent cousins do. Reparations don’t redress Randy and Ruby’s experience of racism nor their social needs, because reparations neither directly addresses racism nor inequality.

What if reparations were based solely on one’s perceived or self-identified racial classification, so as to include Randy and Ruby, in spite of their not being ADOS. This would do little to make reparations more just from a progressive perspective. To see why, let us give Ann Dunham additional hypothetical grandchildren, call them Jesse and Jaime, who descend from a relationship Ann might have had with someone of Polish origins. Assume Jesse and Jaime, although never personally discriminated against because of race, at an early age ended up in the foster care system where they bounced around their entire childhood, and suffered greatly from America’s threadbare, porous social safety net. Because none of Jesse and Jaime’s ancestors were enslaved, Jim-Crowed, or suffered legalized racist discrimination, and, although victimized throughout their childhood, since that victimization was never because of their racial classification, these cousins of Malia and Sasha are not beneficiaries of reparations. But in their case, their “whiteness” afforded them no protections from the callous and often cruel foster care system, a system in part motivated by racism. Jesse and Jaime are dramatic examples of what many whites are—victims of a racist system – rather than its beneficiaries. But Jesse and Jaime’s racist-caused harms, let alone their common human needs, are unaddressed by reparations –whether directed to ADOS only, or to Blacks more generally. Whatever purely anti-racist justice reparations provides would be severely limited and compromised.

From a socialist perspective real justice demands that Malia, Sasha, Randi, Ruby, Jesse, and Jaime should all equally be entitled to whatever they need to have a good life. How much and by whose hand their ancestors unjustly did or didn’t suffer has no standing. Inheritance of back-wages denied ancestors, without regard to need, is no more justifiable by socialist norms than inheritance of wealth. And inheritance of wealth is the main driver of both general inequality and racial inequality. Once we endorse a right to inherit ancestral earnings, we foreclose the possibility of pursuing policies seeking to undo ingrained class inequality.

The capitalist idea of property was an historical advance when introduced: instead of one’s wealth coming from one’s placement in the divinely ordained social order, it came, at least in theory, from individual merit, whether merit of your personal talent, ingenuity, or effort-- or the merits of your ancestors’ productivity. Your fortune was not because God ennobled your bloodline and made you lords of the land in perpetuity, but because your smart, industrious, great grandfather freely chose to give a chunk of his fortune to you, and you are good at cashing dividend checks. Or maybe you yourself are the smart ingenious one whose better mousetrap has endowed you with the personal resources of a modest-sized nation. Either way, it is somehow human merit, not supernatural fiat that, in theory, made for power and wealth. Moreover, the original “merit” in the theoretical capitalist meritocracy is productive labor, which is indeed the source of wealth. Recognizing that productive labor is the source of wealth, even in the distorted guise of personal private labor rather than social labor, is an advance on the conception of wealth as a divine bestowal. Finally, often the justifications for capitalist meritocracy rely on the premise that rewarding personal merit serves the general good, thereby at least giving lip service to the idea that the general good should be the ultimate standard for judging social arrangements. Hence, capitalist meritocracy is an advance on caste-plutocracy.

However, meritocracy is reactionary when democratic equality is your goal.

It is true that by capitalist norms (official if not de facto norms) ADOS are owed a huge debt, and those are the norms that actually rule our current legal and economic lives. But progressive politics needs to be about changing those values, not about getting them applied honestly. This is especially so when the sincere application of the norms will not really be particularly effective at undoing the harmful consequences of the injustices.

Reparations are a Less Effective Tool

In addition to relying on the unjust principle of inheritance, reparations would also be less effective in undoing the sundry disparities between African Americans and Americans of European ancestry than would general egalitarian policies. Universal health care would do more to close the racial health care gap than would heath care vouchers distributed solely to ADOS, free public pre-schools and public colleges do more to close educational disparities than educational vouchers distributed solely to ADOS, massive investments in high quality affordable public housing do more to achieve equitable housing than housing vouchers distributed solely to ADOS, and universal guaranteed minimum incomes, legally mandated livable wages, and near confiscatory estate taxes, more to eliminate the financial disparity between Black and non-Black Americans than a one-time cash payment to the descendants of those enslaved. And that is true even if those one-time vouchers and cash payment amounted to trillions of dollars.

Reparations advocates might argue that they are not against any of these universal policies, not posing reparations as an alternative to them. Instead, they view reparations as a separate issue, not so much about eradicating current disparities, but simply about compensating for past harms. This claim, however, returns the issue to the question of justice, not the question of the relative effectiveness of undoing current racial inequalities. And the idea of justice it rests on is a pillar of capitalist class ideology.

Given the long, pervasive history of anti-Black racism in American society, deeply effective anti-racist policies must restructure society in fundamental ways. Reparations will not do that, for they make no structural changes. But systemic, non-racist universalist policies can radically change the rules of how we distribute our collective wealth. Like reparations, universalist policies won’t undo past injustices, but in contrast to reparations they can undo the ongoing consequences of those injustices.

One might agree that non-racist policies of universal scope would be both more just and more effective at ending racial disparities than reparations to ADOS, but object that universalist policies are utopian goals, and therefore no reason to forgo the modicum of good that reparations could realistically achieve now. However, this objection incorrectly assumes that the political possibilities of meaningful reparations are more promising than those for universalist policies.

Politically Unwise

The strategic wisdom of reparations advocacy is even more doubtful than reparations’ justice or effectiveness. Reparations’ political message to the large majority of non-ADOS citizens will inevitably be understood as “their ancestors were robbed, you benefited from the theft, so it is only right that you pay up.” Most Americans—whether white, Latino, Native, Asian, or non-ADOS African-- do not feel responsible for the theft, and it will be a massive undertaking to make them feel responsible. Nor do they consider themselves beneficiaries of the theft, and convincing them that they are will be another high political hurdle.

But as unlikely as it is, even if reparation advocates convince a majority of Americans that they in fact possess stolen goods which they are obliged to return, this educational success would be politically sterile. The case for reparations would be entirely moral. Moral appeals against self-interest sometimes move individuals to action, but politically, purely moral appeals are non-starters. In politics moral appeals must be combined with appeals to interests --“This is the right thing to do AND it will benefit you.” Few non-ADOS citizens, and certainly not a democratic majority, will see any interests of theirs that would be served by reparations. Most, even if persuaded of reparations justice, will see it in conflict with their interests. It is hard to sell a tax for spending to a voter that is specifically and forever excluded from its benefits on the basis of their inherited social categorization, or lack thereof.

The reparations advocate can counter that it would indeed benefit non-ADOS Americans because doing the right thing makes them better persons living in a more just country. But that is not the kind of benefit people seek from public policy---they go to church and psychotherapists for the personal benefits of being a good person. Which brings us to the essence of reparations: it mistakenly brings legitimate spiritual, psychological, and personal moral concerns into the political arena. That is why its language is replete with religious and psycho-therapeutic terminology. “What I’m talking about” Coates wrote “is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual [emphasis added] renewal.” In the summer of 2022, someone being interviewed on NPR about the Biden administration’ s politically forced abandonment of a program explicitly aimed at helping Black farmers, and replacement of it with one aimed at “distressed farmers,” acknowledged that the new program might very well help all of the Black farmers that the abandoned program would have, and to the same extent. Nonetheless, the interviewee believed the new program was faulty because it didn’t express the “atonement” element of the abandoned program.

Coates defined reparations as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” “Acceptance,” is a psychological, not a political act, and it certainly is not a specifiable policy. To a large degree reparations are less about getting rid of disparities caused by historical injustices, than it is about acknowledging sin, expressing repentance, asking for forgiveness, and making amends. These acts may have a salubrious role in one’s personal relations, and private institutions, such as universities, may have a legitimate moral interest in making gestures of repentance for their role in slavery, but such acts of contrition make a hash of effective progressive politics, whose aim is to show that humans’ broadest and enduring interests consist in building an egalitarian commonwealth. Turning us into a holy community of saints washed free of sin is not a proper political goal.

The attempt to unravel (as opposed to simply bring to light) historical injustices is most often politically baneful; despite there being much to admire in all peoples’ past, as is frequently remarked, history is largely a record of atrocity, crime, aggression, conquests and exploitation. Understanding and teaching history gives us insight into ourselves and how we came to be who we are. Good history lays out the fullest possible account and helps us reflect on our values. It allows us to create a (not the) true narrative that enables communal celebrations and solidarities. But revanchist moralism in politics only leads to endless conflict (witness the last 100 years of East European history) and contentious attempts at doling out punishments and rewards in a futile effort to undo the woeful past, a past that reveals that practically no one’s property has a pedigree unblemished by crime and inhumanity. Proclaiming villains, heroes and innocents is a misuse of history and leads to bad politics. Of course, we should stop honoring confederate generals and more widely celebrate civil rights activists, teach more about Andrew Jackson’s ethnic cleansing of Cherokees than his military feats against the British, and commemorate the Tulsa racist pogroms at least as much as we do 9/11. And policies that call for public holidays, monuments, and education that reinforce anti-racist values ought to have full progressive support. But these public uses of historical knowledge are very different from policies that treat history as a legal brief in a grand civil lawsuit which will reach a finding and assign damages. To again channel Marx, our political task is to change the course of history, not to settle accounts between its victims and victimizers. Progressive politics is about a just future that is good for all, not the unjust past that was bad for most.

Justifiable Race Specific and Restorative Policies

None of this means that there is no progressive place for racially specific public policies. An argument against reparations is not an argument against policies meant to stop and prevent racist practices. In a town with a substantial Black population and an all-white fire department, policies requiring that Blacks be hired as firefighters are justified. A bank that does not give loans to Black applicants must be enjoined to include a certain percentage of Black people among its borrowers. A government agency that has failed to give contracts to Black businesses must be instructed to do so. Where ongoing anti-Black racial discrimination is at play, whether conscious, unconscious, or built into systems, it must be addressed by specific policies outlawing anti-Black discrimination and undoing its consequences. Affirmative Action policies are justified, but not because Black people have been historically discriminated against and it is now non-Blacks’ turn to suffer discrimination. Rather, Affirmative Action programs are justified because they counter continuing racism that is generating racist results now, because the stigma created by a history of caste contempt must still be countered, and because a healthy democracy requires meaningful representation of different social group perspectives and interests in its significant institutions.

Moreover, some kinds of restorative justice have a role to play in sound public policy. Any individual who suffers a wrong, should be restored, as far as possible, to their condition before the wrong occurred. Insofar, as the wrong has led to an injury that society ought to undo or lessen, regardless of the cause of the injury, the restoration and harm reduction are social responsibilities. To the extent that we need to deter that kind of wrongful action in the future, the wrongdoer should be sanctioned, and certainly not allowed to continue to profit from their wrongful action. Society is responsible for taking care of victims of medical malpractice, as it is of any health care need, but the negligent or incompetent physician should nonetheless be sanctioned. Regardless of who is responsible for meeting the need created by a wrong, there is reason to deter potential malefactors.

Finally, wrongdoers should also be personally responsible for restoring the goods that their unjust action denied their victims where those goods are not social entitlements. Society is not on the hook for the valuable baseball card collection that an arsonist destroyed; the arsonist is. Nor is society obliged to upgrade the already decent housing of a Black person who was cheated out of owning an even better home, so the racist bank that did the cheating has to make the upgrade possible.

In sum, the argument against reparations leaves many anti-racist public policies, as well as substantial personal responsibility of wrongdoers, untouched. But, unlike reparations, neither undoing contemporary racism nor holding racists responsible for their racist actions are attempts to right collective historical injustices, nor do they imply that society is not responsible for meeting all social needs.

Insofar as German reparations to Jews and American reparations to Japanese-Americans were just, they were directed toward the particular living victims of the Holocaust and internment. Descendants should not have inherited an entitlement to reparations. There were payments to Israel from Germany, but insofar as these payments were not channeled to the benefit of survivors their justice was questionable. The great grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and the great grandchildren of the murderous criminal SS officers are entitled to be treated as equals.

A Broad Coalition

The inequalities that African Americans as a group suffer are unjust and policies to eliminate them should be among progressives’ highest priorities. Historians can and should explain the origins of those inequalities, but political activists must build a movement to do away with them. Movements are built by bringing together people with common interests and mobilizing them for sustained political action. It is in the vast majority of Americans’ interest to establish publicly funded universal institutions that will guarantee truly equal opportunities for all, and effectively reverse the effects of America’s racist history. That is the movement progressives can and should be building.

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