Gradually, it is dawning on mainstream America that the issue of reparations for slavery is not going away. Just recently, there was the Bush Administration's struggle to dissuade the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism–scheduled to begin on August 31 in Durban, South Africa–from putting reparations on the agenda. But there was more, much more.
In August, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference–the renowned civil rights organization once headed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and now headed by his son–called for reparations. In July, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)–both predominantly white, and representing more than 2 million people between them–jointly passed resolutions calling on their members to "join in active study and education on issues dealing with reparations for slavery." In June, the chairman of the New York state Assembly's black and Hispanic caucus introduced a bill that would create a commission to "quantify the debt owed" to the descendants of nearly 22,000 slaves who were denied "life, liberty, [and] compensation for their work" by the state. In May, in a two-part editorial, no less an establishment bastion than The Philadelphia Inquirer called for reparations, which the paper called "a long-delayed moral task."
Until lately, mainstream opinion has mostly dismissed the reparations movement with a wave of the hand. "It's a terrible idea and it's not going to happen, so let's talk about something else," has been the attitude. After all, reparations for slavery would be counterproductive, deepening and further entrenching the racial divisions that America should seek to erase. Reparations would be a blank check, because no amount would be enough and the door would be opened to compensation for every historical injustice right back to the Egyptians' enslavement of the Jews.
Above all, reparations would be fundamentally illiberal, and therefore unjust. People who have enslaved no one (and most of whose ancestors enslaved no one) would be forced to pay damages to people who were never slaves. In the dubious name of justice for groups, injustice would be done to millions of individuals.
All of those arguments are compelling. But waving aside the reparations idea is not going to work. Nor, really, should it. The wrongs were too grievous, the harms too persistent to be shrugged aside with answers such as, "We've already fixed the problem, so just be happy you're here." Opponents of reparations for slavery need to stop changing the subject and instead shift the debate onto ground that squares with liberal principles.
Can a reparations movement that is currently about collective guilt and racial accountability be refocused on the accountability of real wrongdoers to actual sufferers? The answer is yes. And it has been since at least 1973.
In that year, a Yale University law professor named Boris I. Bittker (now retired) published a lucid and carefully crafted little book called The Case for Black Reparations. He believed that reparations, not only for slavery but also for the century of Jim Crow that followed, were compelled as a matter of justice. But he also considered a variety of broad compensation schemes and conceded that all were "fraught with dangers," including the sorts of problems I mentioned above. The result, Bittker concluded, was an abiding "American dilemma."
On the way to this bleak conclusion, however, he touched upon a much different and narrower concept of reparations: reparations not for slavery but for officially segregated schools. "A program to compensate children who were required to go to segregated schools…would not raise any conceptual difficulties in identifying the beneficiaries," he wrote. "Entitlement would depend exclusively on the fact that the student was assigned to a black school, regardless of his actual racial origin."
Bittker himself expressed ambivalence about this idea. He seemed to think that, for all its administrative elegance, it offered blacks too limited a portion of redress. Officially segregated schools, after all, were just a part of the picture. No doubt partly for that reason, Bittker's suggestion found no constituency.
Well, the time has come to give Bittker's idea the serious consideration it has deserved all along. For, on the merits, the case for these narrower reparations is as strong as the case for broader slavery reparations is weak.
To begin with, the people who would be compensated are the people who suffered the harm. They are easy to identify. Many of them are very much alive. It cannot be seriously disputed that they were wronged, not only educationally but morally, by being forced into separate and hardly equal schools. Moreover, the perpetrator of the injustice is not a race, a "society," or slave owners who are all long dead. The perpetrator, like the victims, is identifiable and very much alive: government.
During World War II, the U.S. government herded more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans into "internment" (concentration) camps. The internees lost an estimated $400 million in assets, of which only about 10 percent was returned. In 1988, when the government's conscience finally caught up with its past, Congress authorized a presidential apology and $20,000 in reparations to most living internees. This, of course, was just and honorable. It would be equally just and honorable–if equally belated–to do something similar for the many living Americans who were herded not into segregated housing but into segregated schools.
The practical questions are pretty easy to address. How much to pay? Enough to show genuine contrition for an outrageous injustice, but not so much as to impose an unfair burden on today's taxpayers, not many of whom ever did or would vote for segregation. Deciding in practice what would be a fair figure is what politics and legislatures were invented for.
Who should pay? The checks should be drawn on the treasuries of the states that committed the wrong, to symbolize their institutional culpability and contrition. But the costs should be covered by Congress, because most of today's Mississippians played no part in the policies of the 1950s and '60s, and because the whole country tolerated, and even conspired in, the Jim Crow system until at least 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Recompense for the evil of official segregation should be a national deed.
Proponents of broader reparations will scoff. Half a loaf, they will say, is worse than none. What about unofficial segregation? Housing and job discrimination? Separate water fountains? Slavery itself? The answer is that, in an ideal world, none of those things would ever have happened; but identifying perpetrators and victims now is impossible, even in principle, so a reparations program would inevitably pile new injustices on top of old ones. On the whole, having attended an officially segregated school is a pretty good proxy for having borne the brunt of Jim Crow. Repaying the living victims with money and an apology is both reasonable and just. That should be the focus of the reparations campaign in America.
Opponents of reparations, on the other hand, will wonder why it is necessary to dig up the rotting corpse of school segregation. Wouldn't it be better to leave history in the past? Aren't four decades of legal reforms and social progress and white guilt enough? Wouldn't a narrow reparations program just whet activists' appetite for more, more, more?
Those objections are not frivolous, but neither do they carry the day. A wrongdoer's formal apology and restitution matter, and segregation victims have never had either. Nor have they had the right to sue the states for damages. Paying the victims a decent settlement and formally saying "sorry" seems the least that government can do. Moreover, doing so would sharpen rather than blur the boundaries of accountability, by underscoring the principle that reparations should flow from actual perpetrators to identifiable victims. The effect might thus be to cap, rather than uncork, the genie's bottle of open-ended reparations for every historical wrong.
To be resolute and credible in resisting unjust reparations, Americans need to be willing to support just ones. Supplementing that moral reality is a tactical one: The surest way to expose a crummy idea is to counter it with a good idea. Paying reparations to the living victims of school segregation may or may not be something that Americans will agree to do, but it is unquestionably fair and practical should they choose to do it. And putting a fair and practical proposal on the table could, at long last, shift the whole misbegotten reparations debate onto the right track.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to REASON. This article was published by National Journal on September 1, 2001.