Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Case for Individual Reparations

Until I read Ta Nahesi Coates’ now-classic article “The Case for Reparations” (published in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic), I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that the beneficiaries of slavery—and of the decades of Jim Crow exploitation as well—should pay reparations to the victims and their descendants. It was tucked it away on that top shelf of the mental closet we reserve for ideas we class as unrealistic, impractical. We acknowledge they might have something to be said for them as a matter of moral principle, but we feel instinctively that, realistically, practically, nothing could possibly be done for the foreseeable future.

Ending slavery was once an idea like that. So was giving women the vote.

When I read Coates’ article I was immediately persuaded that reparations were justified. But as I discovered, raising the topic of government-sponsored reparations tends to be a conversation-stopper. Many prefer to discuss not whether or not reparations are justified, but whether or not people should be forced to pay reparations; that second question is one they feel confident answering no to. And there the matter rests.

Plainly, government-funded reparations will not be politically possible for the foreseeable future. One might as well imagine the American government ending all its subsidies to the factory-farming of animals and encouraging us all to go vegan. Perhaps it should happen, but we all know it’s not going to happen any time soon.

Does that mean that, as individuals, we’re helpless? Far from it. Why wait for governmental action when we can act now, as individuals, to make reparations?

I’m not the only one to have had this idea. Michael Eric Dyson, for one, in Tears We Cannot Stop, suggests that individual white Americans keep their own “individual reparations” accounts by making appropriate donations.

This past year I put the idea into practice. In the spring of 2008 I had bought a small house in the Bywater area of New Orleans, with the thought of one day being able to live in the little back unit, at least for part of the year. I rented both units out, and the years went by. By 2017 it was clear my idea of living there for much of the year would never happen. My partner and I were quite happy in a different little house—on Vancouver Island, a very long way from New Orleans. I sold the property last December. I’d owned it for nearly ten years, and the house had of course appreciated. On reflection it seemed to me that about one quarter of the capital gain was an amount I felt comfortable in paying in reparations, and I sent a check for $7,500 to a worthy non-profit dedicated to increasing opportunities for African Americans. Is a quarter of the capital gain in fact the most appropriate amount? Probably a higher percentage would be more appropriate. But at least it’s a start—and I’m absolutely persuaded that this sort of contribution is the right thing to do.

It’s the right sort of thing to do in terms of my own past history. I’m Canadian, but my great grandfather lived in New Orleans from 1838-1849; it’s impossible to imagine that, as a white person living in New Orleans at that time, he did not benefit significantly from slavery.

It’s also the right thing to do in the context of a large transaction involving a transfer of assets. Even more striking than how disadvantaged African Americans have been in terms of wage levels are the disparities in wealth. Whereas white North Americans have typically been able to pass on wealth generation after generation, and thereby start small businesses and buy houses, African Americans have been heavily and consistently disadvantaged in terms of wealth. For that reason I think it’s particularly appropriate to think of reparations at times when those of us who have been privileged are receiving the proceeds of a capital gain. (I should emphasize here that, much as whites as a whole have been advantaged in North America, there are of course some whites who have never been and will never be privileged recipients of a capital gain, from a real estate transaction or from any other source; the argument I am making here about making voluntary reparations should apply only to those with the means to consider that course of action.)

Again, individual reparations shouldn't preclude a more general plan of reparations through government action--far from it. But unless and until governments can be persuaded to act, individual reparations (and reparations payments made voluntarily by companies and other organizations) are a lot better than nothing--and white folks like me who have the means to take such action shouldn't hesitate. If you're in any doubt as to why, I urge you to read Coates’ extraordinary article.

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