Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Case for Individual Reparations: The Privileged Need to Do More than “Stand in Solidarity”

What should those of us who are privileged do about the unfairnesses of the world?

At a minimum, we can and should offer political support to those who are trying through political means to improve things; we can do that through voting, and we can ourselves devote time and donate money to political causes. We can write letters to the editor, we can join demonstrations, we can speak up on social media.

But political action may or may not ever bring results. (Some of us have been arguing for a guaranteed annual income--aka basic annual income, universal income--for fifty years, and there’s no end in sight.) Time and money can also be spent in ways that don’t depend for their success on one’s cause being taken on by a party in power, or coming out on top in a referendum. Can and should we act in other ways to help bring about change?

Yes, is the short answer. We can give both our time and our money. Perhaps we can volunteer as a primary school teacher in a remote Indigenous community, for example, as one friend of mine did for several years. Or volunteer many hours in order to help a disadvantaged youth through difficult times--as my son Dominic did for a number of years. Or volunteer as a nurse in an out-of-the-way sub-Saharan community, in a hospital where there are so few beds that the patients often have to sleep outside, as my daughter Naomi did for several months not long ago. I did something of the sort myself for three years when I was young (volunteering through an aid agency to teach at a high school in rural Zimbabwe), but at this point in my life doing anything of that sort again probably isn’t realistic. To volunteer for a few hours a week as I start to approach retirement, on the other hand (whether at a nearby farm sanctuary, at our local food bank, at a local homeless shelter, at our local literacy center--there are so many good candidates!) certainly is realistic—and certainly it’s realistic for someone in my position (with an income of over $70,000 a year, and no mortgage or other debt load) to commit to donating somewhere between 5% and 10% of my annual income to appropriate charities.

I want as well to suggest one other form of giving that seems to me to be appropriate—wealth-related individual reparations payments.

What is the case for making reparations payments? For going beyond ordinary charitable giving? To understand that case, we privileged folk need to understand the ways in which North America’s legacy of racism and oppression has conferred benefits on us. It behooves us to learn the broad strokes of history—and it behooves us as well to ask questions about the histories of our own families. If the stories my mother told me are correct, one ancestral connection of ours acquired the beginnings of his fortune by acquiring “unowned” land on the Canadian prairie—land that he knew would be in the path of a trans-continental railroad. When he sold that land to the railroad he profited immensely and directly, in other words, by taking land that had been occupied by the Indigenous peoples of the plains. His wife was an aunt of my mother’s, and eventually my grandmother benefitted considerably from the largesse of his son. Further back in time, that side of the family also benefitted directly from slavery; some of my ancestors are recorded as having been owners of enslaved people in New York State in the early nineteenth century (slavery was not abolished in the state until 1827). On my father’s side, my great grandfather, emigrating from Ireland, is said to have spent the 1840s in New Orleans before he moved to Canada; though he may not have himself been an enslaver, it is unimaginable that a white person in that city at that time would not have benefitted directly during that decade from the labor of enslaved people.

None of this resulted in my family becoming fabulously rich—but there can be no question that the degree to which I’m now modestly well-off results at least in part from a direct legacy of oppression. And, quite aside from the degree to which I’m able to trace direct personal connections of this sort, of course, I have inevitably benefitted substantially from our society’s collective theft of the continent’s land from its Indigenous peoples, as well as from numerous other forms of collective oppression (oppression of Black people; oppression of Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian people; for many generations oppression of Quebecois and other French Canadians—the list goes on). We privileged whites whose families came generations ago from Europe have all benefitted from such collective theft and oppression—and many who have arrived more recently to join the privileged classes (not all white, by any means) have also benefitted from it to a considerable extent.

The disadvantaged are disadvantaged in many ways, but disparities in wealth are perhaps the most egregious. Whereas privileged white North Americans (and others of privilege) have more often than not been able to pass wealth on to their children, generation after generation, Black people, Indigenous people and others who have been disadvantaged have been particularly heavily disadvantaged in terms of wealth. For the most part shut out from the sorts of well-paid employment opportunities that help to build savings, they have too often also been prevented from acquiring real estate wealth; even where redlining and other discriminatory laws have not been in effect, racist covenants and unspoken understandings have often been just as effective in keeping wealth out of the hands of the disadvantaged. Privileged whites such as myself, then, who have benefitted from differential treatment through the educational system and through the law enforcement and judicial systems, have also benefitted from favorable economic treatment— higher pay, on average, but also much greater opportunities for building wealth.

That’s why it’s not enough for us to say we “stand together” with demonstrators protesting against the treatment meted out to George Floyd, or Neil Stonechild, or so many others. We have an obligation to act in tangible ways to level the playing field, and to make amends.

Until I read Ta Nahesi Coates’ now-classic 2014 article “The Case for Reparations,” I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that beneficiaries of slavery and other forms of exploitation should pay reparations to the victims and their descendants. When I read Coates’ essay I was immediately persuaded of the merits of reparations paid through governments.

Government-funded reparations seem for the moment to be politically impossible in the United States. In Britain too—where Amandla Thomas Johnson has made a persuasive case for reparations in the Guardian—government sponsored reparations are clearly for the moment politically impossible. In Canada, the government has paid several billion dollars in reparation payments to the survivors of the residential school system, but there has been little or no thought given to the possibility of paying reparations to Indigenous people in consideration of the larger history of oppression. Nor has thought been given to government-paid reparations for slavery—yes, it existed here as well. Government-funded reparations, then, seem unlikely to happen anywhere anytime soon.

But does that mean that nothing can happen right now to move reparations forward? Not at all. We can act as individuals to make a contribution. As Michael Eric Dyson and others have pointed out, individuals can keep their own “individual reparations” accounts by making appropriate donations—over and above whatever charitable donations we make ordinarily.

Given the importance of wealth-related disparities, it is perhaps especially appropriate to think of individual reparations payments in the context of wealth. Moments when we are fortunate enough to see our wealth increase are, it seems to me, appropriate moments to give particular thought to sharing that wealth.

I first put this idea into practice in 2018. Ten years earlier I had bought a small house in New Orleans, thinking I’d one day live in the little back unit for at least part of the year. I rented both units out, and the years went by. By 2017 my partner and I had become quite happy on Vancouver Island—a very long way from New Orleans. When I finally sold the New Orleans house, it had appreciated a fair bit in value. On reflection it seemed to me that about a quarter of the capital gain was an amount I felt comfortable paying in reparations; I sent that sum to a non-profit dedicated to increasing educational opportunities for African Americans.

Over the past year my investments on the stock market resulted in a substantial gain. Last Friday I sold the stocks I owned—and decided to devote roughly a quarter of the gain to a charity that focuses on improving the lives of Indigenous schoolchildren.

Is one quarter of any increase in wealth the most appropriate amount? Some might plausibly argue that a higher percentage would be more appropriate--and in the other direction some might well feel that even a quarter of such amounts would be more than they could afford to give. But regardless of the precise amount, it seems to me difficult to argue in principle against making such contributions. I certainly expect to make more payments of this sort in the future; I hope others who are similarly privileged will consider doing the same.

I should emphasize that arguments about making voluntary reparations should apply only to those with the means to do so (many people have of course never been privileged recipients of a capital gain from any source). And individual reparations shouldn't preclude reparations payments by corporations and other organizations—let alone a more general plan of reparations through government action. Far from it. But for the moment, individual reparations are much better than nothing—and privileged 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.
NB Parts of the above first appeared in an earlier blogpost on this topic: "The Case for Individual Reparations," January 12, 2019 (

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